'They Ask What We Have Between Our Legs': A Third of Transgender Israelis Are Unemployed

As men, they had no problem getting jobs. But once they began wearing dresses and makeup, they were fired

Lalila Baliliat, Or-Hen Elizarov and Koren Rosenfeld at the gay center in Tel Aviv.
Moti Milrod

One was fired when she started dressing as a woman, another was told by her employer that he could not employ a “crossbreed creature.” Transgender woman may suffer from workplace discrimination more than any other group in Israeli society. They go to interviews, present experience and references, but when employers see “male” under gender in their I.D., they're shown the door.

This phenomenon is not a few isolated cases. 32 percent of transgender men and women in Israel are unemployed according to the statistics of the Labor Ministry department in charge of equal opportunity in the workplace – and experts say the number is actually much greater. In comparison, 90 percent of gay men and 86 percent of gay women are employed.

Transgender Israelis are still fighting for their right to equality in the workplace and against violence, while some members of the LGBT community are fighting for the right to marry and become parents by surrogacy – a “struggle for privileges,” as they call it.

>>Read more: 'I thought Tel Aviv was open, but nothing prepared me for this'

Or-Hen Elizarov, 22, of Tirat Hacarmel near Haifa, has done more than 50 interviews and has been turned down repeatedly. Before transitioning, she says “I had experience as a server and host. But since then I’ve been sent away with a different excuse every time. There’s a coffee shop near my mother’s house with a 'help wanted' sign. I went for an interview and they said they didn’t need anybody. But the sign is still there. Every time the employees stare at me. It’s a painful reminder every time that I come home that I’m not accepted for who I am."

Elizarov finally found work through her mother’s company. But Lalila Baliliat, 26, has no one to help her. She moved to Tel Aviv from a Bedouin town of Rahat in the Negev.

Or-Hen Elizarov who had more than 50 failed job interviews.
Moti Milrod

“I had to leave and go where I could be who I am, not live in an image that is not me,” she says. “At that time I decided it was my time to make the change, started dressing as a woman. I was the best salesperson in that shop, in Dizengoff Center and I brought a lot of money in. But the moment I changed my way of dressing, they called me for a hearing and started reducing my shifts to once or twice a week. My boss didn’t tell me that she was giving me a hearing because I’m trans – she found all kinds of excuses - but it was clear.”

Baliliat resigned and has not been able to find another job. When her savings were gone, she said: “I didn’t have anything to eat. I ate bread and sour cream and held on not to go work in prostitution because I knew how bad that is. In the end, I didn’t have a choice. The first 200-shekel bill I got I tore up and I survived another week without eating. But after that I went back to prostitution and worked at it for a long time.”

Baliliat said she was sharing her story to explain to people that “society’s attitude toward me led me to this place. You get used to a world where no one understands you and no one sees you, they look at you as a thing, as a means for sex.”

About a month ago, Baliliat left prostitution and is now studying at Tel Aviv University and helping children and teens in the Arab LGBT community. “I had already written a suicide note. I wanted to take pills and go to a better world,” she says. "I understand trans women who work as prostitutes and don’t judge them, because that’s the solution they found in a society that doesn’t accept them. In Arab society the situation is worse. Nobody there understands what trans is and there’s nobody to turn to. They think you’re deviant, an abomination.”

To help women like Baliliat and Elizarov, a new employment center opened recently for the trans community at the Tel Aviv Municipal LGBT Community Center. The center helps the women find employment opportunities, prepare for interviews and help them with transphobic employers. About 20 transgender women have been helped in the three months since the center opened and five of them have been able to find jobs. The center also holds explanatory conversations with employers.

"It’s hard for me even to get phone work because they say customers will be confused as to whether they’re talking to a man or a woman," Koren Rosenfeld says
Moti Milrod

Israeli identity cards are a major obstacle on the road to finding a job, especially the gender clause. In contrast to the international trend of gender self-definition and recognition of trans identity, in Israel, change of gender in the Population Registry is still based on a medical recommendation. One doesn’t have to undergo gender reassignment surgery to register a gender change, but that’s the quickest way to do it.

People who don’t want gender reassignment surgery (or can’t afford it) have to wait at least two years for a certificate from a Heath Ministry committee that will allow them to change the gender clause on their identity card. In that time, a committee of “experts” examines their gender identity. According to attorney Ido Katri, the legal adviser to the Gila Project for Trans Empowerment, “the recognition process of gender identity in Israel is not enshrined in law, but only procedures of the health and interior ministries and given to the whims of ministers and clerks. That is the case despite the fact that even according to medical models, gender identity is discerned through the declarations of the applicant based on his or her internal feelings.”

Katri says recognition of gender change in identity documents can be a matter of life and death. Research in Canada has shown a clear correlation between access to means of appropriate identification and a decline in suicide rates in the trans community. The reasons for this is simple, he says. “When your identity card marks you as a man but you look like a woman, it exposes you as trans. Such an identity card is ‘license’ for discrimination because when an employer sees that the state doesn’t respect a person’s identity as that person sees it, employers feels no obligation to respect the identity of the person standing before them.”

Koren Rosenfeld, 28, from Rosh Ha’ayin, says that when she signs an employment application, and her identity card says male, “then problems come up. It’s hard for me even to get phone work because they say customers will be confused as to whether they’re talking to a man or a woman. One time I went for a job interview in a shoe store in Rosh Ha’ayin, where I grew up. The boss said they didn’t take me because they found someone else. When I went by there I saw they had taken a 16-year-old girl instead of me, when I came with years of experience, from before my transition, of course,” Rosenfeld says.

According to Rosenfeld, “you go to an interview and you know that everything is against you. Some people even ask what you have between your legs.” Rosenfeld’s story has a happy ending: She found a job with the shoe store chain Aldo and manages six shops. However, she notes, “I’m the exception and I know it.”

Rosenfeld has been in a relationship for four years now with a straight man, Yuval, with whom she lives with in Rosh Ha’ayin. His attitude toward their relationship is what trans women seek from society as a whole. “Gender is simply not a factor in our relationship,” he says. “When we first met, Koren talked all the time about the difficulties and the exclusion and I didn’t understand what she was talking about. Only after I asked her she told me she was trans. I answered: ‘So what, I once wore a hat with a feather.’ I met an amazing woman I’m in love with and I didn’t get what all the fuss was about.”

Yuval adds: “Koren warned me that society’s attitude wouldn’t be like mine and I didn’t get it. Today I do. People treat me like I’ve lost my mind. A good male friend of mine cut ties with me. A woman friend said she wouldn’t let Koren in the house until she had an AIDS test. My ex-wife got an anonymous email with a picture of me and Koren that said: ‘Watch out, he’s with a coccinelle,’” pejorative slang for a trans woman in Hebrew.

"You get used to a world where no one understands you and no one sees you," Lalila Baliliat tells Haaretz.
Moti Milrod

Rosenfeld, Elizarov and Baliliat all concur that trans women face greater exclusion than trans men. “We live in a society where masculinity it very strong.” As they speak, they finish each other’s sentences. People look at us as men who have castrated themselves and turned themselves into that humiliating thing called women.”

The head of the unit for consultation and therapy at the Tel Aviv Municipal LGBT Community Center, Dafna Greener, says: “When a girl plays soccer it’s cute, but when a boy plays with dolls, there’s a good chance they’ll turn to a psychologist. There’s a problem even with primary acceptance, because parents and the environment tag a feminine boy as a problem to be straightened out. We have to remember that trans men have an easier time transitioning: They cut their hair short, put on an undershirt that flattens their chest and there are treated consistent with their [chosen] gender, while trans women even after they’ve gone through the whole change, are still referred to a men.”

The director of the LGBT community center, Avihu Meizan points out that trans women were pioneers, leading the 1969 Stonewall Riots in Greenwich Village, New York City against a police raid, seen as the most significant event in the establishment of the gay liberation movement. They led the gay revolution in Israel too, he says. “When gay men were still in the closet, trans women were paving the way for an entire community in Tel Aviv and throughout the country. But it seems that while everyone else is galloping ahead, trans women are dealing with the most basic right – to a life without violence, harassment and discrimination.”

A third of the LGBT center’s budget is now invested in the trans community. Yet according to Meizan, it’s not enough, and the center has decided to invest more in trans women. A mentoring project will soon open where trans women can seek advice from other trans women about medical issues, bureaucracy, employment and housing.

The most recent Labor Ministry statistics, which dates to 2016, shows that not only are 32 percent of trans women unemployed, but 10 percent have been unemployed between two to five years. Among working transgender women, only 45 percent work full time. Among these, 84 percent reported their salary as far below the average wage and 75 percent said they had encountered discrimination in seeking work and being hired – up from 68 percent according to the previous figures from 2014.

Trans-friendly

FILE Photo: The Miss Trans Israel Competition, 2016.
Michal Fattal

Difficulty in finding a job is only one aspect of exclusion and rejection of trans people, especially trans women. Violence is a regular occurrence: in the 2016 Labor Ministry study, 94 percent of trans women reported experiencing violence or harassment. The suicide rate among transgender women is 40 percent, as opposed to 1 percent in the general population.

According to Jan Schuka, a social worker at the Tel Aviv LGBT center, “trans women are not more vulnerable because they’re trans and that’s not why they are hurt sexually. She simply grew up as a boy who felt different from a very young age. They’ve been vulnerable from a young age, and they feel worthless because they have to hide their identity.” This is in addition to all the bureaucracy they face, Schuka says, adding: “Our goal is to build a big reserve of trans-friendly employers who will be a safe address for them.”

Etai Pinkas, who holds the portfolio on gay issues in the Tel Aviv municipality said: “Personal security begins with economic security and economic security begins with employment. As long as society doesn’t join the effort to prevent discrimination, we perpetuate the situation. It’s impossible to deal with the many challenges that every man and woman in the tans community faces if they don’t have the basic ability to support themselves. The center for trans women is revolutionary both because it’s part of the municipal system and also because of the broad response it gives to every aspect of life.”

After Maya Hadad, a trans woman, was stabbed last summer and almost died, the feeling was that that violence in the public sphere and on line was growing and there was an awakening in the trans community. That resulted in recent months in a new movement, “Trans Women Israel.” Elizarov says: “We can give a lot to the Israeli economy and society. We will fight for our rights. The days are over for our community to suffer this attitude,” she says.