SDM’s One-ON-One with Professional Swimmer and Founder of “Our Group” Andrew Lagenfeld

An International Gay Youth Summit recently took place in Tel Aviv, while checking it out online I came across a video blog posted by an American native, now Israeli named Andrew Langenfeld. I googled Andrew and what I found made me think that bringing to you his video blog posts and an interview with Andrew would be interesting. So here it goes…

Who is Andrew Langenfeld and what would you want people to know about him?

This is a difficult question because there are so many sides to Andrew Langenfeld. There is the small-town Midwestern boy who moved across the world to Tel Aviv, Israel to follow his dreams; there is the former college swimmer who founded an outreach and support organization for LGBTQ student-athletes and allies; and finally this passionate guy who fully commits himself to knowing as much about his interests (e.g. musical theatre, foreign languages, religion, swimming, etc.)

Were you always an activist?

I suppose that I always have been an activist, at least in one-way or another. I constantly stood up for the underdog in middle school, but it wasn’t until college that I began to voice my thoughts and become involved in bigger issues. Whether it was advocating for Israel on campus or raising awareness of LGBT athlete issues with the Student Athlete Advisory Committee (SAAC) I became much more involved in my last two-three years of university.

When did you decide to move to Israel?

The first time that I came to Israel was in the summer of 2009 when I swam in the World Maccabiah Games. I never had the opportunity to go on Taglit (Birthright) in college because I was swimming year round and couldn’t take a week off of training, but the Maccabiah Games was an amazing opportunity for me to see Israel. I fell in love immediately and considered making aliyah right after the Games were over BUT, I went back to the US and started working for a sports recruiting firm. From the moment I returned to the US from Israel I constantly thought about all of the amazing places I’d visited, the people I met, and I decided then to look for a way to return. I found a MASA program (Oranim’s Masters in Israel, which is a 1-year masters program in management from NYU-POLY). After 5-months in the program I decided to make aliyah and stay indefinitely.

Tell us more about your organization you founded (Our Group) and is there an Israeli equivalent.

So Our Group is an outreach and support network for LGBT student-athletes and allies. I started building the foundation for the organization in 2007/2008 after I transferred from West Virginia University to Purdue University. I realized in my experience as an out athlete that I was extremely fortunate to have accepting teammates (an also two other out teammates) and that this was something special and unique. I knew that there were other LGBT athletes who did not have a person to open up to about their gender or sexual identities. I wanted to great the structure for other campuses to start support groups and also a way for out athletes to share their stories with other people. Unfortunately, outside of the US there is no other organization similar to Our Group, since organized intercollegiate sports is something quite unique to the US. But, we have worked with the Federation of Gay Games and other LGBTQ sports organizations on different panel discussions and other activism platforms.

How was your experience in the sports world being gay?

I had a very interesting experience. I was closeted until my sophomore year of college (even though I came out to my mom and some friends in high school) but during my freshman year of college I dated a teammate. It was a very difficult experience for me because as a student-athlete, you spend anywhere between 8-10 hours a day with most of your teammates, and hiding something so huge that was right in front of their faces was difficult. Things became even harder after my boyfriend/teammate and I broke up during the NCAA Championship meet my freshman year and we had to be around each other all of the time. After the breakup I came out, but it was a very difficult time in my life. My teammates were supportive and great for the most part, but it was difficult in many ways for me to be out on my team at West Virginia University. I decided to transfer to Purdue University to start my junior year of college and to start with a fresh slate. At Purdue I was completely accepted and never faced any issues being gay on the swim team or within the sports community at school. I feel very blessed to have had such a positive experience, because I know many other athletes who did not have the same positive experience.

You recently took part in the World LGBTQ Youth Leaders Summit in Tel Aviv, how was your experience.

The Summit was quite remarkable in many ways, from the group of participants that were hand picked by the organizing committee, to the workshops/lectures we participated in, to the experiences that we were able to enjoy (e.g. visiting Jerusalem, East Jerusalem, the Knesset, etc.) throughout the weeklong conference. I know that each and every one of us left the summit feeling more empowered and with new skills that we can take back to our home organizations. All of the participants decided at the end of the summit to create a network, which we have named RCAN (Rainbow Coalition and Activists Network) so that we can stay connected and continue the dialogue that we began in Tel Aviv from anywhere around the world.

As an American, what would you say is the state of LGBTQ rights in Israel?

Well, this is a tricky question. Israel is quite a unique country as it is THE Jewish state and several civil functions of society are executed by the Rabbinate. While there is no same-sex marriage (or civil marriage for that matter) in Israel, marriages performed outside of Israel are recognized and receive most of the benefits of marriages performed within Israel (and this includes same-sex marriages.) As I live in Tel Aviv, which is considered by many to be the Gay capital of the Middle East, I do feel that the secular society is supportive of LGBTQ rights and there have been several rights won recently such as the right to adopt and surrogacy for example in different situations. All in all, I see Israel as any other country that is constantly growing and changing in terms of accepted social norms and civil/human rights. I think that secular Israelis are generally progressive and that for a country that is just over 60 years old, there has been a massive amount of progressive legislation that protects its citizens.

And of course, does size matter (in relation to Israel of course)

As the saying goes “it’s not the size that matters, but the way that you use it.” I think that Israel has a LONG history of being pretty good at using it, but we’re currently in a rut. We have a lot of internal issues happening in Israel at the moment whether it be from women being allowed to sing in the army, segregated bus seating in Jerusalem between men and women, cost of living/housing in Israel, and aside from all of that we have external issues with the countries surrounding us. One cannot deny, however, the strength of our army, the scientific and technological developments coming out of our laboratories and from our engineers/scientists—-even with the domestic and international issues that Israel is facing at the moment, we still continue to shine around the world, and that I think is a miracle.

VLOG posts about LGBTQ Youth Summit in Tel Aviv