Meet Israel's Transgender Youth: A Generation That Refuses to Apologize

Hilo Glazer
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Brian Ben David.Credit: David Bachar
Hilo Glazer

After identifying themselves by their first names, saying where they lived and naming the animal they loved most, the youths who came to the Trans Leadership conference in Tel Aviv were asked to say how they preferred to be spoken to: As male or female.

This last component is essential, since for many of the transgender youths who participated in the discussion, appearance is still not necessarily reality: Some are still in the closet and don’t dare completely adopt the outward signs of their new gender. Others, meanwhile, are in the midst of the process but looks may still be deceptive.

In that same large circle at the event held by IGY (the Israel Gay Youth organization), it was hard not to notice the numerical superiority of transgender youths who asked to be addressed as male. The very fact a conference on trans leadership – the first of its kind – was being held signals a positive change in direction within the community. If in the past the transgender discussion focused on exclusion and weakness, now you get the feeling that the community’s new generation is one that “does not apologize.”

Trans youths are showing increased activity in IGY groups all over the country, and in three special groups that operate in Tel Aviv. They are fighting from the inside against the inflexibility of the educational system, do significant national service, visit the Knesset and, in particular, come out of the closet everywhere and earlier than ever before.

Here, three people talk about their lives and experiences.

Eden Zel-Zion. Photo by David Bachar

Eden: “It was also my previous name. I considered changing it, because ‘Eden’ has a somewhat feminine connotation, but I didn’t find another name that I really connected with or responded to.”

Home: He grew up in Kiryat Ono. When he was in ninth grade, his father died of cancer. A short time after that, Eden moved with his mother, a jewelry designer, and his younger brother to Holon (“To a smaller apartment”). He is studying at Ort Holon in the cinema track.

Film: “I hope to work in it in the future, to study abroad or maybe even in Sam Spiegel [Film and Television School]. My final film [project] is in a sort of ‘Billy Elliot’-style, about a girl who excels in basketball but her mother tries to get her off it, and she finds herself joining a boys team.”

His room: Pictures of skateboarders and racing cars, posters of Led Zeppelin, “The Hunger Games” and the Arctic Monkeys. On the doorframe is a pull-up bar (“Outside, it’s a problem for me to do sport, because of the undershirt that flattens my chest and doesn’t let my lungs expand enough.”)

Father: “I didn’t have enough time to include him in the process, since when he was alive I still wasn’t really aware of it. When I was at the psychologist with my mother, she raised this [my missing father] as a possible explanation for my change. But the psychologist said that was not relevant to the matter and unreasonable that there would be a connection.”

Childhood: “As a child, I always had more interest in things that seemed to be related to boys, but there was no unusual event. Things started to connect at age 15, when I entered my first relationship with someone [female]. It was very good with her, but I felt something was wrong with the definition of a lesbian. It really bothered me. That same summer, I started going to IGY’s youth club to meet people, among them ‘trans’ kids, and I really connected to it. In 11th grade, I got the courage to tell my best friends, and after that also two friends from Holon. But I asked them from the beginning to speak to me as a male only outside of school.”

Mother: “She always knew I had a partner, that never bothered her, and we never talked about too much. But when I cut my hair short and started flattening my chest, she asked if that was it, if I’m transgender, and I immediately answered no, out of stress. At the same time, I started talking to her about other people who are like that, to expose her to it. At the beginning of 11th grade, she asked me again. This time I said yes. There was a lot of crying. The conversation ended strangely and I asked her to drive me to a friend in Tel Aviv. It stressed me out how it would be accepted in the outside world. In any case, after that I felt a great relief and went to the [high school] counselor, in preparation for coming out in front of the class. She was totally okay and accepted it, but my homeroom teacher completely refused to allow me to stand in front of the class and tell them. He said there were already problems in the class and there was no reason to add more tension. I had no choice, so I asked my friends to spread a supposed rumor – but not in an ugly fashion, simply to explain. Surprisingly, at least on the surface, it went pretty smoothly.”

The change: “In principle, in order to start the hormone [treatments] under age 18 you need parental permission, and my mother did not support it. A few months before my birthday, she saw I was starting to move things along. I made it clear to her that it would be happening soon anyway, and she sat with me and said the family accepts it, and that my grandmother was willing to pay for my treatment. I think I can already pass as a man. People on the street don’t make a mistake and speak to me in the feminine form. The problem is, they see me as a boy of 15, and I don’t feel that way. I am really waiting for the minute when I can go and collect my matriculation certificate with a small beard. A lot of transgender people think they will save money for the hormones and then the operation, and suddenly life will be perfect. But that’s not the reality. Suddenly, you discover that you need to save money for a college degree, to study, develop. I don’t place all my hopes on the change, it is not everything.”

Amit Hachmon. Photo by David Bachar

Amit: “I thought about changing it, but the minute I changed to Amit the boy and not Amit the girl, I was much more connected to it.”

Home: Born and raised in Modi’in, lives with his mother (a bookkeeper), father (“He does all sorts of things connected to sports – manages a pool, teaches basketball, trains a [pre-army fitness group]”) and big sisters. Studies at the High School for the Arts and Sciences, in the software engineering and chemistry track (the highest level of computer science, software engineering and chemistry), and comes home late every day. Also loves to play drums.

Room: Pink wallpaper (“From the period when I shared a room with my sister – I really need to get rid of it”). On the walls are hung the icons of all the houses in “Games of Thrones,” a poster of Jennifer Lawrence in “The Hunger Games” and also a small photograph of Amit aged five, on Tu Bishvat, wearing a checked dress with a wreath of flowers on her head (“It really doesn’t bother me that it’s here. The opposite, actually – my past is part of me and I don’t deny it”). On the desk is a team photo of the Maccabi Tel Aviv basketball side, and above it cups and prizes from the period when Amit played basketball (“Until the end of seventh grade – on a girls team, of course”).

Childhood: “I always was a tomboy, but I understood who I really am about two years ago. It started with sexual preference. I read a lot on the Internet, and from there I reached clips about transgender people on YouTube. When I watched them, I identified with what they said and the feelings about my body and the desire to change it.”

Binder (to flatten the chest): “I bought my first binder in ninth grade. I asked my sister to open an account for me that connects to PayPal, and I ordered from eBay. I would wear it mostly at home, dress more manly, look at myself like I want others to see me. The feeling was wonderful, but in general it was a very bad period – depression, I wasn’t functioning. My parents took me for a talk and asked what was happening. I took out my binder and explained to them that this was causing me to feel a little bit better about myself. I asked to talk to someone, in order to find out how I felt, to know if it was really that. My mother called the gay center and they connected me to Dr. Ilana Berger [a psychotherapist who specializes in working with transgender people.] The word transgender was not spoken. We used the word ‘it’ a lot, without defining what ‘it’ meant.”

Transgender: “The first time I heard the word transgender, understood it and could feel jealous about it was when I saw Stav Vaknin on ‘Big Brother.’ After six months of meetings with Ilana, we invited my mother for a talk and told her finally that I’m trans. At first she took it badly, cried a lot. It seemed to me that she and my father thought I would reach a different conclusion, that I would get over it. They said there was no way, that I’m not doing it. After a week, something changed in my mother’s thinking. What helped was that, at the same time, Tom Attias appeared on “The Voice.” My mother saw someone like me – little, cute, not threatening, who said that the change did him good – and understood that it appeared that I was in the same situation. After I drove her crazy, she also started going to a group at Tehila [a nonprofit that provides support for the families of LGBT people] and still continues attending.”

Father: “At the beginning he was distant, and all the communication between us was conducted through my mother. But from the minute he told the extended family and I started living as a male, our interaction really improved. Today he helps me a lot with all the stuff about hormones, comes with me to the [clinic], to Ichilov [Hospital]. I wouldn’t say it’s the classic father-son connection, but on the other hand we were never father and daughter. It was always father and child, and that’s still true.”

Hormones: “I started taking them about four months ago. My voice deepened a bit and I am hungry all the time. Except for that, though, there are no significant physical changes. It’s okay, that will come too. As for operations, the ‘upper’ one I will definitely do, but I’m not thinking about the lower one for now. I fantasize about the day when I can sunbathe at the beach without a shirt and feel good about myself.”

Friends: “During the summer between ninth and 10th grades, I disappeared from everyone. I didn’t meet with anyone – only home and work and math. I even avoided WhatsApp so as not to write in the feminine form. At first, I told my two best girlfriends. They were not so surprised, since for a year I kept telling them about gender and transgender people, and in fact I made a sort of preparation. You could say it was strange for them, but they very quickly got used to speaking to me in the masculine [Hebrew form]. A few days later, all our gang met in the park and I simply appeared as a boy – after a long time in which they hadn’t seen me. It’s impossible to say I’m one of the boys, and I’m certainly not one of the girls, but it is actually nice for me being in the middle.”

School: “In the summer vacation I changed my gender on Facebook, so that way most people discovered it for themselves. Before the beginning of the school year, my mother, Ilana [Berger] and I met with the educational staff to explain to them what was involved and talk about matters such as sports classes and bathrooms. At first, there was a lot of confusion over speaking to me, but today, 90 percent of the time the teachers speak to me in the masculine form. At the beginning of the year I stood in front of the class, explained myself, about the expected change for me, and mostly I let everyone ask questions. They prepared me for hell, but the truth is the school was amazing about it.”

Brian Ben David. Photo by David Bachar.

Brian: His name was inspired by the musician Brian Hugh Warner, better known as Marilyn Manson (“The artist I admire the most”).

Home: Lives with his mother, Avia Ben David, a screenwriter and the founder of Primadonna, a fashion, lifestyle and culture magazine; his 13-year-old sister, Dorian; and his older brother Nicholas, 16.5. They live in an apartment at the edge of the Florentin neighborhood in south Tel Aviv. He shares a room with Nicholas (“The wall facing my bed is white, maybe because I’m a fanatic about cleaning and have a crazy phobia about dirt. In any case, it is a classic boys’ room.”)

Nicholas: Was adopted by Ben David a year and a half ago, at Brian’s initiative. “We met at the [Gay] center. I saw a child in distress who everyone who had tried to help him gave up on. I come from a loving and accepting family that had room for another child. I introduced him to my mother and very quickly we started the legal procedures for adoption. It was a hard battle, but we won. Today he studies in the school for the arts, his entire report card is 100 percent, and he is doing a piercing and tattoo course. He is an intelligent and successful person, and I love him and am most proud of him in all the world.”

Father: “He’s not in the picture. I know who he is – he lives in Britain – but I have no desire for him to be part of my life.”

School: Brian studied first at the Democratic School in Jaffa and for high school went to Dov Hoz in central Tel Aviv. He is in 10th grade in the music track (“I play the french horn, study voice development and recently started learning drums and piano, too.”)

Daily routine: Wakes up, takes the number 25 bus to school, comes home for lunch and sometimes goes straight to grandma in north Tel Aviv (“An amazing woman. Of course, she completely accepts me and speaks to me as a male”). In the afternoon, meets friends at Dizengoff Center (“Simply because that’s the only place where you can meet without paying just for being there”).

Childhood: “At age 10 the thought occurred for the first time that I don’t know what I am, but for sure it’s not a woman. That I never was a woman and never will be a woman. At 13, I understood I’m a man. A few weeks later I came out to my mother, and her response was the most amazing and touching thing you could ask for: ‘I always wanted a son,’ she said, and I simply cried out of happiness. A short time later I told friends and they said, ‘Of course, we knew.’”

Body: “At the beginning I thought I wanted to change my body, but then I understood that it really wasn’t necessary. Gender comes from an internal feeling, not from the shell. There are always those who will jump up and say, ‘No, you are still a woman.’ Let them say it. If someone needs me to explain it to them seriously, I explain. But if they just attack and are not capable of understanding me, there’s no point. I know I am 100 percent a man; I have never had doubts about my opinion. Body change is simply too extreme for me, at least for now.”

Transphobia: “About a year ago I walked with a transgender [woman] friend on the boardwalk in Bat Yam, and a few lesbian friends of hers joined us. They said, ‘Show us your dick. You’re definitely not a man, you have no Adam’s apple.’ They were really aggressive, shouting. And to hear it from lesbians, who are supposed to be part of the community – it was the first, and last, time I cried because of transphobic comments.”

Margins: “Transgender young women suffer more, they are less accepted by people. A transgender young man can hide his chest and add [facial hair] – imagine what a transgender girl needs to do. And it’s not that I differentiate between suffering and suffering. Transgender boys fall into prostitution, too. Everyone whose family abandons them, what can they do? How can they make a living?”

Relationships: “I had two partners. The first, I don’t want to remember. The second was amazing and we are still in touch. As opposed to gender, which I was certain about from the beginning, I had a lot of doubts about sexual preference. At first I thought I was gay, but after that a bisexual and today I am convinced I am interested only in women.”

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