Over the Rainbow: Israeli Transgender Youth Find Acceptance in New National Service Program

Most transgender youths receive exemptions from the army on medical grounds, while those who do enlist often drop out soon thereafter because of difficulties and harassment.

Guy Tiram has been volunteering with the transgender division of IGY, an organization dedicated to LGBT youth in Israel.
Judy Maltz

Guy Tiram was 15 years old when he started feeling terribly trapped in a girl’s body. Raised in a traditional home in Ramle, he was naturally anxious about coming out to his parents.

It took a few years before he gathered up the courage, but even then, Tiram says he couldn’t bear to tell them face-to-face. So he wrote them a letter.

“A friend of mine delivered it to my mother,” he recounts, “and he told me that while she was reading it, she cried out, ‘Oh no!’”

His family eventually came around, but that wasn’t the end of Tiram’s battle for acceptance. Like many of his youth movement friends, he enlisted in the Israeli army’s mixed-gender combat unit, where he was instructed to sleep in a tent with other women. “At some point, it became very uncomfortable for all of us,” he says.

So after four months in basic training on Israel’s Egyptian border, he moved to a desk job closer to home. Neither did that work out, though, and Tiram ultimately exited the army.

Today, he belongs to the first group of transgender Israelis to volunteer for Sherut Leumi, an alternative national service program for young Israelis exempted from the army. The overwhelming majority of national service volunteers are religious women, but over the years, the program has also come to serve gay Israelis and Arabs interested in spending a year or two contributing to society before venturing into the job market or starting their university studies.

Since joining a little over a year ago, when the program was in its pilot stage, Tiram has been volunteering with the transgender division of IGY, an organization dedicated to LGBT youth in Israel.

“For transgender youth who want to serve their country, this is really the only alternative that addresses their special needs,” says Taly Wasserman, the Tel Aviv coordinator of Shlomit, a national service placement organization that is running the new program.

Aside from placing the volunteers in schools, hospitals and non-profit organizations, Shlomit also provides them with counseling and other assistance as they go through the process of gender transition. Because quite a few of the participants have been kicked out of their homes, the placement organization also rents out apartments for them.

“Until now, we hadn’t publicized this program, but people found out about it through word of mouth,” says Wasserman. “I was surprised by the incredible responses, and now we have quite a few participants completing their first year who want to volunteer for a second year.”

Tiram, now 22 years old, was one of eight transgender Israelis to serve in the first pilot year of the program. By the time it had its official launch in September, the number of participants had risen to 15. “Provided that I can raise enough funding, we could easily double or triple that figure next year,” says Wasserman.

Being able to live with other transgender youth has been a particularly helpful aspect of the program for Tiram. “When I began my hormonal treatments the first year,” he says, “I was living with other transgender individuals who had already been through the process and who were able to tell me what to expect, which I might not have known otherwise.”

According to Nir Wittenberg, director of community relations at Shlomit, which works mainly with non-religious national service volunteers, participants in the transgender program come from around the country. One of this year’s participants, he notes, came from a very religious home and had begun his sex transition while serving in the national service program with other women.

In recent years, the Israeli army has been encouraging transgender youth to enlist, but as Wasserman notes, “despite all its wonderful intentions, the IDF is still not as flexible as we are. Sleeping arrangements and bathrooms are a major problem, and many of these kids have no family support.”

Most transgender Israelis, she says, receive exemptions from the army on medical grounds, while those who do enlist often drop out soon thereafter – in many cases, on their first day. “They are often harassed, and it is very difficult for them,” she says.