Celebrating the ‘T’ in LGBT

Tel Aviv’s popular annual Pride events this year are highlighting the often marginalized issues and contributions of the transgender community.

From left: Nora Grinberg, Tel Aviv's 2014 Pride Parade, Elisha Alexander (photo credit: ARSEN OSTROVSKY,LIAT MANDEL)
From left: Nora Grinberg, Tel Aviv's 2014 Pride Parade, Elisha Alexander
‘Even if someone says the term LGBT, no one really knows what the ‘T’ stands for,” remarks Elisha Alexander, one of Tel Aviv’s leading transgender community advocates.
While familiarity with the acronym for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender has increased in recent years, awareness of the daily realities that transgender and transsexual people face still remain largely in the shadows, and even overshadowed by the blanket LGBT banner.
Therefore, Tel Aviv is placing the spotlight on the often marginalized community during this year’s 17th Annual Pride Festival. Transgender issues are also due to be front and center in the LGBT Knesset lobby this month and in other pride events around the country.
Pride week will kick off on June 7, climaxing with the highly anticipated Pride Parade on June 12 under the slogan “Tel Aviv Loves All Genders.” This year’s focus on the diversity of variant gender identities has prompted the attendance of high-profile performers such as Conchita Wurst, Austria’s iconic gender-bending pop sensation, who won the 2014 Eurovision Song Contest.
During the parade, a float representing the Tel Aviv LGBT Center is also slated to feature transgender culture, with dancers and flags representing the community.
The city expects this year’s events to draw a record 180,000 participants from Israel and around the world, which will render it the largest LGBT Pride event in Asia.
Tel Aviv City Council member Yaniv Weitzman, who advises the mayor on the gay community, says the high number of likely attendees is largely due to the city’s Pride reputation, combined with the prospect of fun and the significant transgender focus.
“I hope people will come and connect with this agenda and be part of this message of support for the transgender community,” he told Metro at the municipality’s rooftop launch party for Pride Month.
While the White City customarily transforms into a jubilant haven of rainbow flags to symbolize the LGBT movement during Pride Month, this year’s official logo features the colors of the Transgender Pride flag, with a light blue mustache over a pink lower lip on a white background.
The transgender focus in the Holy Land comes as people who identify or express a gender different from the sex they were assigned at birth are gaining international fame. Shows like Transparent have made waves recently in the media and entertainment world, as have prominent figures like American actress Laverne Cox, Olympic gold medalist Caitlyn Jenner, formerly Bruce Jenner, and of course, Israel’s own singing superstar Dana International.
Placing gender identity at the forefront of this year’s Pride events creates a sense of visibility for people defying gender stereotypes in Israel.
“The more people who know the word ‘transgender,’ [the more people] will realize it’s relevant to them. People didn’t even know the word five years ago,” says Alexander, director of transgender outreach NGO Ma’avarim (Hebrew for ‘transitions’). “I think many times, transgender people kind of disappear. Even in the press, it’s the ‘gay parade’ or the ‘gay and lesbian parade,’ and there’s no mention of transgender.”
Alexander, who also serves as director of trans programing at Tel Aviv’s municipal LGBT center, notes that the awareness of visible backing also helps to combat discrimination, bullying and violence toward the community’s members.
“There’s been a lot of change lately in the world and in Israel regarding the transgender community,” he says. “It used to be that people viewed the community as something worth laughing about, but now they realize that we are people who have real problems.”
He mentions that on the positive side, “people are coming out as transgender at younger ages now.” He explains that while he came out 10 years ago at age 30, today children as young as nine “are realizing who they are, and it saves a lot of suffering and wasted years.”
Despite the many changes in Israel over the past decade or two and despite recognition of Tel Aviv as one of the world’s most gay-friendly cities, the transgender society and activists still face adversity when it comes to basic rights concerning gender-divided institutions, health care, employment, education and housing. The fight for widespread adherence to anti-discrimination legislation pertaining to gender identity remains at the forefront of the community’s needs.
Alexander underlines that while things are slowly progressing, basic health care is often fraught with difficulty, and the education system has tended to avoid the whole issue.
“It comes to a point that many of my friends prefer not to go to the doctor,” he says, explaining that some transgender individuals are apprehensive of facing judgment or disrespect from medical professionals, leading them to postpone seeking health care for a simple cold until they end up in the emergency room.
Separate facilities for males and females – for example, homeless shelters or battered women’s shelters – are frequently inaccessible to transgender people as well.
“If we want to pray at the Kotel [Western Wall], it’s problematic. If we want to go to the bathroom, it’s sometimes problematic,” laments Alexander.
Activists and experts have also noted harassment of LGBT students in the education system – by pupils, teachers and school administration officials. Recent legislative gains in the educational sphere include the Knesset’s passage of a law in March 2014 banning discrimination in schools based on gender identity and sexual orientation.
ALTHOUGH ISRAEL’S transgender movement faces a slew of issues regarding legitimacy and rights, the scene has vastly changed since the mid-to-late 1990s, when the first advocates began surfacing in the country.
Nora Grinberg, one of the nation’s first and leading transgender activists, recounts that around the time of her transition at the end of the ’90s, the world was vastly different than it is now.
“There was nothing in terms of a transgender community, organizations, awareness or activists,” she reflects, explaining that some 20 years ago, the global Pride Parade phenomenon was itself considered anti-establishment and revolutionary.
“But to talk about it being devoted and centered around the transgender community... there was no transgender community to talk about,” she says.
Dr. Ilana Berger, director of the Israeli Center for Human Sexuality and Gender Identity, mentions that when she first began her work in the country at the end of 1996, the visibility of transgender people was mainly limited to women in the sex industry. She notes that today there are transgender people in all echelons of society, including the academic world, the health sector, the legal system, the business realm, and entertainment and celebrity roles.
With Tel Aviv set to witness its first trans-centric Pride parade, Berger says the time has come to rearrange the order of the LGBT acronym: “I think it’s time for the ‘T’ to be first... so I say TLBG!” When Grinberg and Berger started on their paths, the country’s pioneer national LGBT taskforce, the Aguda, was the main organization serving the community. It was not until 1998 that Tel Aviv hosted its first Pride Parade, and in 2008 the city-funded LGBT community center in Meir Park opened its doors. Tel Aviv is notable, however, for its municipal financing and organization of the city’s multimillion-shekel Pride festivities.
According to Grinberg – who is also a provider of clinical gender counseling and support – the operation of the LGBT center as an official institution belonging to the city gave the movement increased public legitimacy and signified a shifting acceptance in the corridors of power. That, along with resources like the Internet and an ideological shift in the middle class to accept the gender-variant community, helped to create mainstream awareness of the population.
“So now we’re reaching the point somewhere near where gays and lesbians are, but there’s still a huge gap we need to overcome,” she says.
While there are no statistics on the country’s transgender population, it is thought to be in the thousands. International estimates suggest that transgender people make up approximately 0.5 percent to 3% of the total population.
The exact demographic is difficult to calculate due to a multitude of factors, including that the umbrella term “transgender” can refer to a person in the broad spectrum of “non-conforming” gender identities.
Gender identity – which is independent of sexual orientation – refers to one’s private sense of gender, and it does not necessarily align with society’s perceptions of the binary gender paradigm in which genders correlate respectively with male or female anatomy. In addition, unlike sexuality, gender expression is outwardly visible, and the acceptance of variations from preconceived notions can present a more difficult paradigm shift.
Statistics regarding sex confirmation surgeries, commonly known as sex reassignment surgery, could provide a minimal indication of the population’s scope.
According to past estimates, Israeli surgeons conducted five to eight sex reassignment surgeries per year, says Berger. The Health Ministry has on record 109 surgeries between 2005 and 2014, of which only 17 were classified as penile construction.
Nonetheless, there are no precise statistics available on the total number of surgeries conducted since 1986, presumably due to the lack of collected data.
WHILE THE transparency of transgender health care has posed a concern, there were notable advances in the sector under former health minister Yael German, who served from March 2013 to December 2014. Nevertheless, Grinberg expresses uncertainty regarding the policies of the new right-wing coalition sworn in in mid-May.
In 2014, German was instrumental in changing the country’s eligibility protocols for sex reassignment surgery to align more closely with the clinical standards of care guidelines that the World Professional Association for Transgender Health (W-Path) has articulated.
Although the state has subsidized sex reassignment surgery since 1986, there is an extensive process to gain approval for the procedure from a national committee of experts. Applicants have long complained about the humiliation and discrimination they have faced during the approval proceedings. However, recent revisions to the process have seemingly made it more accessible. For one thing, the panel, based in Sheba Medical Center at Tel Hashomer, now has a transgender representative, along with a plastic surgeon, urologist, gynecologist, psychologist, psychiatrist and endocrinologist.
In 2014, the Health Ministry changed the legal age for surgery approval from 21 to 18 and lowered the “real life experience” component – something a transitioning applicant must complete prior to the operation – from two years to one year.
Upon board approval, the ministry finances the procedure through an individual’s health insurance provider, within the scope of the condition gender dysphoria – a medical diagnosis formerly known as ‘gender identity disorder.’ Trans activists have also noted a fairly positive shift with Sheba’s Dr. Alon Liran, the only surgeon in the country who conducts the genital reconstruction surgery. Activists have found his approach to the work more welcoming and sincere than that of his predecessor, and that seems to be reducing patient apprehensions somewhat. As his expertise and resources are mostly inclined toward male-to-female vaginoplasties, Israelis seeking sex reassignment surgery often turn to experienced experts abroad in locations such as Thailand and Serbia.
However, the surgery is not considered as much of a defining factor for transgender people as is living according to one’s self-identified gender.
Grinberg is one of the lead lobbyists who has petitioned for a change in the Interior Ministry’s policy of making sex reassignment surgery a prerequisite for changing the gender marker on national identity cards.
“There is a big consensus among jurists, legal experts and human rights activists that it should be no business of the state to condition the recognition of a person’s gender identity based on that person undergoing medical treatment,” she explains.
Although the state responded earlier this year by officially ruling that no surgery was necessary to switch the gender designation, Grinberg asserts that the real test will be if the ministry adopts the ruling and changes its internal procedures to carry out requested changes.
She adds that flexibility in changing gender designations could lead to a decrease in problems such as employers and landlords turning people away because the gender on their ID does not match their expressed gender.
Interestingly the military is one state institution that is considered fairly welcoming to transgender people. Upon enlistment, the IDF determines the gender-specific regulations pertaining to transgender recruits, including length of service, housing placement and uniform assignments.
Alexander, Grinberg and Berger all dismiss the notion that in Israel, where religion is often a headlining subject, the Jewish faith has any particular influence on views and attitudes toward transgender people. Rather, they say, viewpoints vary on a situational basis.
One way to create better understanding, suggests Grinberg, is to meet people, not just talk about them.
Activists hope that the focal points of recognition, respect, inclusion and awareness in the 2015 Tel Aviv Pride Parade will set the stage for increasing understanding for the entire public.
Still, Grinberg says she is ambivalent about the short-lived hype of such events, since when the party is over, immediate changes are hard to perceive, and the community still has to deal with factors such as transphobia and disempowerment.
Nonetheless, she does acknowledge that the flashy events subtly effect changes in social awareness and discourse that take hold in the long term.
“It adds one brick to the building. Something is afoot, but it’s not enough,” she says. “The basic idea is to say it’s a public space. It doesn’t only belong to straight people with straight discourse – our discourse, our views, our sexual and gender identities are also legitimate and have a right to be seen and heard and celebrated.”
To contact the Ma’avarim welcoming service hotline: 052-4776707 or info@ maavarim.org.