It’s a Monday night, in the Holon industrial zone. “Trans, 100 shekels,” declares one of the transgender women there to a man who has slowed his car to eye her half-naked body. He nods, she gets in and they disappear, leaving behind a long line of competitors for the clients’ attention.
At around 10 P.M., the mobile clinic of the Levinsky Clinic, operated by the Health Ministry, parks on the busy street. A team — a physician, a social worker and volunteers — offer free condoms, counseling and testing for sexually transmitted diseases. Rotem (a pseudonym), 20, approaches the vehicle. She is tense, teary, hyperventilating and clearly upset. After calming down a little, she says she used drugs recently.
Rotem was 14 when she began exchanging sex for money. “I came to the Tel Aviv Central Bus Station for the first time in my life,” she recalls. “Someone came and offered me 500 shekels for sex, and that’s how I started. I wanted to pay for sex reassignment surgery, and I would run away from my boarding school to the bus station and work in prostitution.”
Rotem now works every night in the Holon industrial zone. “I experience a lot of depression and stress,” she says. “When I get into a client’s car, it’s not really me. It’s hard. You do something that’s not you just to pay for rent and surgeries. I don’t want to stay here, but it’s hard to leave prostitution.”
Over the years the situation just got more difficult. “When you’re not 14 anymore you’re less interesting, and when you’re in this world for six years you’re ancient for a client who likes variety,” she explains. “There are more and more transgender women working in prostitution now, and when there’s lots of competition the customer exploits that and the price drops. If once I could get 500 shekels, today the rate has dropped to 100 shekels, and there are those who try to get it for 50 shekels. Because of the supply, people get confused and can’t decide who to choose.”
Her observation that there’s been a sharp increase in transgender prostitution is shared by Yonatan Marton-Marom, a transgender man and a social worker by training, who coordinates service to the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community at the Levinsky Clinic. He notes that aside from the area of the Old Tel Aviv Central Bus Station, which was well-known in the past as an area of prostitution and where now the prostitutes are mainly transgender women, in the Holon industrial zone, the Ramat Gan Diamond Exchange area and the veteran prostitution site at Tel Baruch beach, most of the prostitutes are transgender women. Marton-Marom notes that the age at which transgender women enter prostitution is dropping, and now hovers at 13 to 14, parallel to an increased use of alcohol and kiosk drugs.
In recent years the internet prostitution scene has also been flourishing, and with one click one can set a time and price for a visit to the prostitute’s own apartment. Whoever thinks that the virtual scene would be safer or cleaner will be surprised to discover that the opposite in the case.
“They rate us as if we are a restaurant,” says Melanie (a psuedonym), 22, of an internet site for sex work. “The clients exploit the online forum to humiliate us, to lower prices, to degrade and mock us. In this way the abuse continues even after the sex act. The clients understand that transgender women are in prostitution to survive; they think that without their 100 shekels we’ll die of starvation, and they take advantage of that.”
A long row of cars trails after Melanie. Her mother was Jewish and her father is Arab; both were hooked on drugs when she was born. Her relationship with her father is tenuous and her mother, who suffered from depression and schizophrenia, died when she was 13. Two years later she became a prostitute. She ignores the cars honking at her as she recalls that she was sexually assaulted several times as a child; the first time was in preschool when she was four.
Working the street has its unexpected hazards, like passersby who harass them for being transgender. “A bunch of guys once drove by and threw a glass bottle at my back,” Melanie recalls. “Another time they tried to spill urine on me and threw eggs.”
Carol (a psuedonym) is another transgender woman sex workers. “Policemen, instead of protecting us, are nasty to us and make fun of us. When they see that we’re listed as male in our identity cards they mock us and deliberately speak to us using the masculine form. They shine flashlights on us and humiliate us. When a john punches a transgender prostitute in front of everyone, they stand aside and don’t intervene, which is not to be believed.”
In recent years Melanie has tried to find a regular job that would get her out of prostitution, but without success. “Every time I’d send a resume, they would call me enthusiastically to an interview,” she says. “But when I got to the interview and the employers discovered I was transgender they refused to hire me. I would like to stop working in prostitution but I have no alternative. My feeling is that I’m going to rot in it.”
Melanie’s feelings are borne out by statistics. “The workforce is closed to transgender women,” says Marton-Marom, who cites a survey from last year by the Equal Opportunity in Employment Institute, which showed that 32 percent of transgender women are unemployed, and 84 percent earn far less than the average wage.
The history of Nina Halevy, 58, a counselor at the Levinsky Clinic, is very different from that of the transgender women she helps. She was born male, to a family in the wealthy community of Kfar Shmaryahu and served as a combat medic in the Israel Defense Forces. She has a bachelor’s degree in art from the Bezalel Academy of Arts and Design and worked in alternative therapies before finding a job in high-tech.
Halevy and her wife had their daughter before she transitioned. They opened Lachmanina, a trendy mini-chain of cafe-bakeries in Tel Aviv. It was only after the couple sold the business, three years ago, that Halevy, then 55, had sex-reassignment surgery, in Thailand. They are still married, and Halevy is a prominent transgender activist.
“I went through a very long process with myself and I came to the surgery emotionally prepared, at an advanced age and at an economic status that permitted the move,” Halevy says. “That’s when I first met very young Israeli transgender women who to make their dream of surgery come true had to work in prostitution. As I was recovering from my surgery I started to help them by mediating the language barrier between them and the medical staff. When I came back I realized that this was the most meaningful thing I could do with my life.”
She began to volunteer on the night patrol of the Elem center for at-risk youth. “I met many transgender women in street prostitution and we forged very strong bonds,” Halevy says. “I’m a role model they’ve never seen — I’m trans, a lesbian married to a woman, the mother of a daughter and was never in prostitution.” Transgender women often seek out Halevy, who has helped several to transition.
Halevy says there are very few role models in Israel of transgender women who have never done sex work, and that the country’s health and welfare services “are blind to this complex reality of being forced into prostitution.” She notes that while the country’s health insurance companies will pay for sex-reassignment surgery, it must be approved by a panel, in a long and complicated process, and waiting times for surgery are long.
“The process can take five years,” she says. “That’s why anyone who can’t wait that long has expensive surgery abroad. But the high price of the procedures pushes them into prostitution. They think it will only be for a short time but they get stuck in it.”
In a response, the Social Affairs Ministry said it is making great effort to provide the most appropriate care to the transgender community. “Transgender women working in prostitution above the age of 26 are absorbed into existing programs for sex workers ... and the professional staff understands their unique needs.”
The Health Ministry noted that the period for which candidates for sexual reassignment surgery must live in their new gender identity before being approved was reduced from two years to one. “But we must remember that these are complex and irreversible medical procedures. It’s important that those seeking to do these operations be fit for them both physically and emotionally.
“Sex-change operations approved by the committee are included in the health basket for those eligible,” the ministry added. “We categorically reject the unfounded conclusion that links the work of the committee, which does its work faithfully, to prostitution.”
The police responded to Carol’s claims by saying “Unfortunately Haaretz chose not to give the Israel Police the relevant details, thus withholding our right to check the details and respond to the point. We emphasize that with no connection to any specific incident, the Israel Police works to enforce the law equitably paying close attention to the unique needs of all sectors and communities that make up society in the State of Israel.”