The mobile unit of the Health Ministry’s Levinsky Clinic parks at 9 P.M. at the prostitution hub at Tel Aviv’s old central bus station. It's a Sunday night, and sex workers and drug addicts, both men and women, slowly gather around.
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Yonatan Marton, a 32-year-old transgender man and coordinator of the clinic’s LGBT and HIV divisions, begins his work: finding transgender people working as prostitutes. Marton, a social worker who wrote his master’s thesis on hostility toward transgender people (transphobia), offers transgender prostitutes STD testing, psychosocial therapy and assistance “from filling out forms to getting out of prostitution,” he says.
Osnat (not her real name; all the names of transgender people in this article are pseudonyms), is 45. She hugs Marton and asks him whether she can come to the clinic for help filling out a National Insurance Institute form. Nodding, Marton offers her a drink and condoms.
“I hate working in prostitution,” Osnat says. “I live with my elderly parents. I try not to work in prostitution, but I really have no choice. I have a profession, but I haven’t found a job. Who would hire a transgender woman my age?”
Noor, 30, a transgender Arab woman from the north, asks to be tested. “My parents threw me out of the house when I was 16 because of my gender identity,” she says. “I fled to Independence Park, and that’s how I got into prostitution.”
She chats cheerfully, telling about the name she chose for her ID card, and imagines traveling to Thailand. The noise of the crowd at the clinic brings her back to reality.
“I need to buy pepper spray,” she says. “The clients are getting crazier and crazier. Some of them come in groups and beat us up.”
According to Marton, “I feel sad every time I see a transgender woman working in prostitution because I know she’s in that world only because she’s transgender.” He says that in this population group, the average age of entry into prostitution is 14 to 15.
“They’re thrown out of the house the moment they start showing signs of feminity. The rejection occurs in all segments of society; Arabs and Jews, religious and secular,” he says.
“When they’re thrown out of their homes, they contact other transgender women, see that they’re in prostitution and are drawn into that trap. They’re socially isolated, without family relationships. They can’t find jobs and have no other way to survive.”
Marton says there are no statistics on the number of transgender women working in prostitution, but these women are more likely to be victims of violence.
“This group, which is even weaker, suffers from stigmas and parodies, and this encourages abuse,” he says. “They have a high visibility in prostitution, and they suffer constant harassment and verbal, physical and sexual violence from clients and people on the street.”
But according to Marton, many of them say there’s no sense complaining to the police. Those brave enough to do so describe an atmosphere of humiliation when they’re filing a complaint — “The police treat them dismissively, guffaw at them and speak to them in the masculine even when they ask to be spoken to as women.”
A spy among human beings
Marton says many transgender women want to get out of prostitution, but there’s no safe house or halfway house for them as there are for other women prostitutes. Also, their integration with women prostitutes is a problem because the women respond as if they were men, which transgender women find offensive. Still, the transgender community’s treatment of transgender women prostitutes has improved in recent years.
“In the past, there was a different status and a clear separation, and even anger at the ones who worked in prostitution for giving them a bad name,” Marton says. “Now there’s more understanding as to why they work in prostitution.”
Marton was born a girl in Haifa. His mother worked as a sociology lecturer and his father worked for a gas company.
“The trouble began at puberty,” he says. “Until then, I was a slightly mischievous girl. I played hopscotch with the girls and was a tomboy who climbed trees with the boys. I knew I was a girl, but I saw no difference between boys and girls. At puberty, when my period started, I started growing a woman’s chest and felt I’d been tricked.”
At first, he says, “I cut my hair short and wore large-size shirts that hid my chest. I called myself by a boy’s name, Amir, and made my friends speak to me in the masculine.”
Then things got bad. “I was a rejected child. I had no friends in school. My school years were terrible,” he says. At 14, he decided to integrate with the girls, “and it worked, actually. I grew my hair long, wore earrings and used eyeliner. I had girlfriends and even a boyfriend. Things calmed down for me socially.”
At 16, he began feeling stifled. He cut school, drank alcohol and even attempted suicide. He was suspended from school, stayed home, studied with private tutors and underwent therapy in which gender identity was never discussed. The army rejected him.
“My parents divorced, my girlfriends joined the army, and I stayed home with depression and loneliness,” he says. “I felt I wasn’t a human being but rather a spy among human beings. I developed a fear of leaving the house.”
He tried to integrate into the workforce, resume relationships, complete his matriculation exams and enroll at university. “I had a strongly feminine appearance because I realized that a woman who tries to look like a man is ostracized,” he says. “I had a serious girlfriend. I was a lesbian with a strong feminine identity.”
Epiphany in a blog
At 25, Marton heard a lecture about gender identity. After that, he says, “I knew what I had to do. I found a blog by a man who was documenting, in great detail, the sex-change process, and I remember how it shook me up emotionally. I wanted that change very badly, but at first I thought it was too much for me. The social price seemed too high. I was sure I’d be a lonely person on the fringes of society.”
After therapy, he felt confident enough to start the process. Marton told his close friends and won their support.
“I told my mother and she responded wonderfully. My grandmother and my brother took it well. My relationship with my father is cut off today, but he accepted it and offered help,” Marton says.
“My friends responded well and I went through the process as I studied to become a social worker. I sent emails to everyone explaining what transgender was and asked them to address me in the masculine.”
At 27, Marton began taking hormones that gave him masculine features. He has to take them for the rest of his life, a fact he mentions with resignation.
“Twice a month I take an injection of hormones, and I accept it with love,” he says. “It reminds me that I’m a transgender man.”
About nine months after he began taking hormones, he had a sex-change operation. “I never felt at any stage of my life that I would become a transgender man with a male partner, a job at the Health Ministry and a degree,” he says.
Today he’s surrounded by transgender people who are successful, but at work he sees the ones who pay a heavy price for their choice. They’re on the street, in prostitution and suffering terribly.
“I knew all my life that men were treated differently than women, and now I’m experiencing that. The sexual harassment stopped. I can walk in the street,” he says.
“When I first started the process of changing, I passed by men and I remember how I’d flinch because it was obvious they were going to whistle and taunt me. But nobody looked at me because I looked like a man. Also, society treats me like I’m much more intelligent,” he laughs.
“It can be a repairman who comes to my home to fix an appliance. In the past, my entire role was to offer a glass of water, but now I feel the need to begin a conversation about the topic and share some of my own knowledge. Or it can be a car mechanic who treats me like a colleague who knows what’s going on, and I have no idea what he’s talking about.”
But masculinity has its rules, too, he says, “and there are social expectations of me as a man that I often don’t meet, and sometimes I don’t meet them intentionally. That’s one reason I define myself as a transgender man. I’m not just a man. I don’t want to adopt the hegemonic, coarse, chauvinistic type of masculinity. That’s not for me. I don’t need to prove my manhood.”