A Transgender Agenda

As the representative of the most rejected minority group of all - transgenders - Nora Greenberg is busy lobbying the Interior Ministry to permit `sex changes' on identity cards.

Nora Greenberg, a transsexual who underwent a sex-change operation two years ago, stops the car at the hitchhiking stop by the North Tel Aviv train station, to pick up Lior Mencher, the director-general of the Association of Gays, Lesbians, Bisexuals and Transgendered in Israel (known as the "Agudah"), and Shaul Ganon, the Agudah's coordinator of minority affairs. The group is heading to Jerusalem for a first meeting with Guy Ben-Gal, the new interior minister's deputy in the population registry department. On the agenda: the problem of Palestinian gays who flee the Palestinian Authority seeking refuge in Israel because their lives are in danger. Seemingly unrelated to transgenders, but Greenberg says the struggle is the same: Transgenders (people whose identity includes a component of the other gender, that is, whose internal gender identity differs from their physiological gender, but who do not want to change their sex).

"Transgenders are people who do not feel good with the gender identity with which they were born. Some undergo a process of transition or change, and then all they want to do is disappear and live their life quietly," Greenberg explains.

Wearing two hats - as representative of transgenders on the Agudah's national board, and as coordinator of the political lobby representing all of the organizations affiliated with her community - she makes sure that the other parties present at the meeting give her at least 15 minutes to speak of the unique problems faced by her own small population. When the other speakers exceed the amount of time allotted to them, at her expense, she lets them know that it is her turn.

Greenberg begins her remarks at the meeting with a complaint that the Interior Ministry is not providing access to information on the number of persons who have had sex-change operations in Israel, thereby making it impossible to assess the scope of the phenomenon. She then moves on to more acute problems.

"The biggest problem of transsexuals [who want to change their gender and to live permanently in the new gender role] in Israel is their personal status," she says. "Most transsexuals who live in the identity of the gender with which they identify do not undergo sex-change operations. About 80 percent of transsexuals from man to woman, and over 95 percent from woman to man, do not undergo sex-change operations. Nevertheless, the Interior Ministry only permits individuals to alter the sex listed on their identity card after presentation of a certificate that confirms that they have had the operation. Fundamental rights of people who have not had the operation are violated day after day, hour after hour. Every time they have to present an official document, their secret is bared."

After she presented the problem, she offered a solution: "In order to change his or her sex on the identity card, a person would have to declare in court that he permanently lives in the identity of his or her preferred gender, associates with this gender identification, and is known in his or her surroundings as such."

The deputy to the interior minister promised that the matter would be looked into, whereupon Greenberg hastened to raise another issue, a derivative of the previous one: recording names on the identity card. The Interior Ministry refuses to change the name of a transsexual who has not undergone an operation, claiming this would constitute deception of the public.

"There are quite a few transsexuals," says Greenberg, "whose requests to have their names changed have been rebuffed by the Interior Ministry. They have asked us to help in this matter, and after recurrent requests, we managed to help them. But what happens to those that do not ask?"

The minister's aide agreed that the regulations should indeed be updated, shook hands and ended the meeting. Greenberg was satisfied: "First of all, this person did his homework. He quickly grasped what I was saying, and I saw that he had real intentions to help."

Transgenders as `whores'

Ever since changing her sex three years ago, at age 50 - at which time she was married, the parent of two children, and employed at a good job at a large high-tech firm - Greenberg has waged a public political struggle for the transgender rights in Israel. Knowing that there was no other way - "It's either live under awful repression or fight against it" she says - she began her struggle at home, within the gay-lesbian community. She was appointed to the Agudah's national board as a representative of transgenders, and began efforts to have them recognized as an inseparable part of the community.

The connection was far from obvious. "Transgenders are the exceptions to the exceptions," says Mencher. "Gays and lesbians thought of them as whores, and felt threatened by them, so they made things hard for Nora, and were suspicious of her motives: Who is this strange bird? But since Nora is such a nudnik, for good or for bad, she succeeded in educating the community and linking the gay-lesbian struggle to the transgender struggle.

"Through her extreme obstinacy, taking pains at every opportunity to say the full name of the Agudah, she made it so that when the word `community' is said, the intention is to transgenders as well, and anyone who says otherwise is being political incorrect. Now, if anyone dares to say only `the Agudah of Gays and Lesbians,' Nora's face will immediately appear in his mind's eye, adding the words `Bisexuals and Transgenders.' But no one would dare to give an interview now without saying the full name of the association, and we even have an inside joke, and when anyone forgets to say it, heaven forbid, people quip: `We are reporting you to Nora.'"

"The upheaval that Nora generated within the community is related to changes in the discourse," adds Ganon. "She arranged an open academic event about gender identity, in which transgenders first got up on stage and spoke about their lives in a dignified manner. Therein is the revolution: The discourse about transgenders was transformed from focusing on whores, poor wretches and drag queens to talking about people who belong to the population."

Michal Eden, a member of the Tel Aviv city council, says that Greenberg, "has raised the transsexual agenda not only within the community, but also within professional and political forums, such as the Knesset."

Along with dealing with domestic problems, Greenberg has found the time to help with individual problems and the political troubles of the entire transgender community. Her phone line is open 24 hours a day. She aims to offer responses to personal problems; meets with parents of young transgenders; and, along with Dr. Ilana Berger, a social worker who specializes in sexuality and gender identity, and Alon Shafir, a therapist, facilitates support groups for transgenders. Greenberg also belongs to numerous transgender and transsexual organizations around the world, and publishes articles in various transgender forums on the Internet. She is currently setting up a local Website that provides information on transsexuality, gender theories and transgender culture. What's more, and this is an important part of her activity, she has attracted media exposure, and lectures to a variety of population groups - schoolchildren, hospital staffs and lawyers - in an effort to alter attitudes and approaches to the issue.

One lecture she will not soon forget took place last October, in front of a group with which she is especially angry - psychiatrists. She stood alone on the stage as dozens of people in the hall waited for her to speak. "They expected it would be an ordinary encounter with a transsexual: She would stand on the stage and speak about herself, and they would put her under a microscope and scrutinize her like some object," she recalls. Instead, they got an opinionated, educated woman without any feelings of guilt or inferiority, who is not ashamed to say what she thinks about their profession. "You have caused us a great deal of suffering and damage," she hurled at her listeners.

"Most psychologists and psychiatrists are completely ignorant about transsexuality," she said, explaining the source of her anger. "The average psychologist receives no training on the subject. Psychiatry is generally unaware of the cultural and social forces acting on transsexuality, but this doesn't stop it from considering itself a field of knowledge that has an elevated status, bearing an eternal and everlasting truth. Its conversion of transsexuality into a psychiatric-medical problem is one means society uses to protect conservative gender molds, and the psychiatric establishment is the phalanx of this social supervision - which is directed against people like me, even though I personally have never been in therapy and never seen a psychiatrist. But I am the exception."

The unseen public

Essentially, Greenberg could have continued living her life quietly, in the anonymity that characterized her prior to the sex change. At work, they accepted the change she underwent "in the most beautiful way you could ever expect," her former wife held her hand during the operation, and her children, who still call her "Father," accepted her exactly as she had hoped. She claims she does not suffer from gender identity-related discrimination of any sort, and is not herself in need of any of the struggles she is waging. In that respect, her life is a success story.

"But there is a fire burning inside of me," she says. "Although it is terribly frustrating to do what I do - at times it is truly a Sisyphean labor - it is important for me to do it, because I view my work as part of the struggle for human rights."

"No matter how you look at it, the transgender issue is political. Transgenders are one of the most repressed publics of all, and once this fact is accepted, the decision to take action is a personal one, although I consider it unavoidable. Especially if you have the tools. Regretfully, many transgenders still live in situations that do not permit them to take action and alter the state of affairs. This is part of the repression with which they live, and not only because many of them are living in the closet.

"One of the foul evils from which transgenders suffer is their lack of visibility," she says. "You don't see transgenders. It is therefore difficult to counter all sorts of stereotypes and prejudices, which in turn permits the medical community to control us. This way, they can claim that transsexuality is a matter for the doctors, even if they don't understand a thing about it. That's why I say that it is the obligation of every transgender, not only those who are university graduates, to try to influence things."

Ten years behind the U.S. and Europe, and about 20 years after the gay-lesbian revolution in Israel, the transgender revolution has broken out here, as well.

"It's hard to speak of a revolution; it's still marginal," says Greenberg. "The term transgender was coined in the 1980s, and picked up momentum in the `90s in the wake of radical shifts in Western culture, such as the sexual revolution and changes in the employment structure; all of that arrived here later. Israel is a unique country because of its unique social structure, so I can say that there is an awakening and even a certain responsiveness to the transgender culture. But it still isn't at a satisfactory level."

Greenberg confesses that leading the transgender community in Israel is pretty frustrating, especially due to the "great difficulty of drawing in this public behind you": "Their [personal] distress is so great that it is hard for it to be transformed into a communal, public power. Transgenders experience a lot of loneliness, and the community is supposed to provide a response to these things, but I see it being built differently, with a more political, more cultural aspect. I'm not good at arranging parties."

Pretext for dismissal

As part of her public activities, Greenberg is leading several large-scale public struggles. One is against discrimination based on gender identity.

"Employers may not discriminate against a person for sexual reasons," explains Greenberg, "but they can refuse to give a job to a person who has changed his or her sex, or a person who announces a sex change or seems too feminine, and we've already had such a case: a transsexual - from man to woman - who completed her high-school matriculation exams and with her parents' support began hormonal treatment. She applied for a job at a fast-food chain. After passing the tests and filling out the relevant forms, they set a date for beginning work. Three days before she was supposed to begin work, the shift manager discovered that she was in the process of changing her sex, and that same day informed her that there was no need for her to show up for work."

The community is weighing the most appropriate solution to the issue. On the face of it, the best path is through effecting changes in legislation, although it is not certain lawmakers will be willing to extend the law to include them. Appealing to the judicial branch is another option, on the assumption that if such cases reached the courts, judges would broaden the interpretation of the prohibition of discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation to include gender identity as well.

"The problem is that in a trial, it is very hard to prove discrimination on the basis of gender identity," says Greenberg.

Another subject important to her is health: "Transgenders have health problems that are unique to them," she explains. "On the one hand, transgenderism is considered an emotional disturbance, a disease; on the other hand, its treatment is not part of the health basket. A person who wants to receive hormones can only get them with the authorization of a psychologist or a psychiatrist, who doesn't always understand the need for it. So a lot of transsexuals take hormones without prescriptions or medical supervision, which can negatively affect their health and in the end, costs the state much more. There is need for supervision of treatment, and not on the person's decision to take the hormones."

Greenberg is convinced that the state must share in paying for the cosmetic treatments that transsexuals undergo. "It isn't a luxury," she insists. "It's part of an individual's emotional needs, a means of survival. When a transgender does an operation for flattening the chest (in the sex-change process from woman to man), he isn't doing it for aesthetic reasons. It's an existential need, not a question of health."

Why did it have to take so many years for a Nora Greenberg to show up? "Because Nora Greenberg is filled with fears, through and through, from a very young age," she says of herself. "When I was growing up in the 1950s, transexuality was a very frightening and much disdained issue that was out of bounds for legitimate society, and this lack of legitimacy was constantly broadcast to me between the lines. People ask why transsexual girls end up as prostitutes. It's because of this exact reason. It's the only area left to them. So shaking off this way of thinking is extremely difficult. But in the end, my agony was so great, I couldn't help but do something about it."

Asked how long will it take until many more transsexuals will be be willing to be exposed, she answers: "It's hard to say, because this community is so firmly in the closet. The threat to society of non-normative gender identity is much greater than the threat of non-normative sexuality, and people are simply unable to cope with society's reactions to this threat."