At 16, when she began to internalize the fact that her body was foreign to her and that people around her marked her as “different,” LeeOz Levy (still known as Oz at the time) told her mother, without grasping the meaning of what she was saying, “I am bisexual.” Her mother, Metzada, was not surprised, and asked her: “So, should we start saving money for a sex-change operation?” Levy was shocked. The young man, who grew his hair long and excelled in his theater classes, was caught unprepared.
“My heart froze, missed a beat, and I said, ‘What are you talking about?’ – and after a few seconds I told her: yes. Later she said it had been clear to her for a long time. And I wondered: ‘So why did you make me go through all this hell until now?’” recalls Levy, who is today 34.
The hell began when she was three, she continues: “The inherent feeling I had was that the gender I was supposed to express was inappropriate for me, and the genitals that were down there – I couldn’t deal with. At 12 I had begun growing my hair out. In places where they didn’t know that my ID card listed me as male, people addressed me using female pronouns and it was very comfortable for me. I understood then that I really couldn’t live as a boy.”
Levy has experienced a lot of ups and downs in her life. She was born in Petah Tikvah; her father was a renovations contractor and her mother was a housewife. She is the oldest of three sons, but never felt she was a boy. Even as a child she felt she was in danger – and when her body showed no signs of maturing, there were those who singled her out for teasing and bullying.
“In seventh grade I realized that different-gendered behavior was not just ‘not okay’: It was also life-threatening. There was one boy who made a mission of it – ‘I hate LeeOz.’ It began with annoyances but did not end until one day he simply knocked me to the ground. I got a concussion. And I realized I was in danger and needed to survive it all.”
In response to the violent incident, her parents decided to switch her to a different school and get her life back on track: “We thought that if I make a show of being a boy, maybe they’ll bother me less. So I cut my hair. I remember that I stood in front of the mirror with short hair, trying to adopt the mannerisms of a boy, but my voice hadn’t changed – it still had a sort of high pitch. I tried as hard as I could to lower it, and asked my brothers about soccer. Needless to say, it didn’t work. Like every secret, it was like shit; in the end it floats to the top. The second week at [the new] school they understood that I am who I am and the harsh responses erupted again. So I adopted the approach of ‘screw them bitches,’ grew my hair long and learned how to use pepper spray. I chose to be me and learned to run really fast.”
The choice wasn’t easy for Levy. Her parents may have accepted her – her mother did pretty much from the beginning, her father only later – but her environment continued to resent her. She began working at odd jobs to save money to pay for her gender reassignment surgery.
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“I went out into the world as a woman and they didn’t really realize that I was trans,” she says. “I was hired for all sorts of minimum wage jobs, but every time I had to fill out the [income tax form] and they saw ‘male’ in the gender section – they let me go. They wouldn’t answer my phone calls. There was always this mumbling about, ‘We’ve reached the conclusion that you aren’t appropriate for the job.’ And I was, like, ‘What’s not appropriate? For work at Burger King? Seriously, bitch?’”
The series of odd jobs and rejections finally ended last year with an invitation to audition for the television series “Magpie” (“Hamedovev”), on the Yes satellite channel, about a police informant. Levy, who had worked as a drag queen, auditioned for the role of Shei, a transgender woman from the Krayot suburbs of Haifa, who works in a building supplies store. Shei is in a relationship with the main character of the show, Assa Katz, played by Or Ben-Melech – an ex-convict who is trying to make his way as a stool pigeon, working with prisoners.
The story of Shei constitutes the most progressive plot line ever created for Israeli television. At first, the directors looked for cisgender actresses but in the end they chose Levy, and she embarked on what she calls an intense “training camp” – a formative experience. Despite the captivating results and the impressive acting, however, she says is unable to watch herself: As of this writing, eight episodes into the first season, she has no idea how she looks on screen.
“I have really enjoyed the experience of the filming, the acting, but to see myself is a bit too much,” she admits. “I assume that it’s a remnant of my very low self-image, a sort of habit of self-hating. Self-hatred is something that is very hard to unload. When you grow up in a world that hints, from a very young age, that you aren’t alright – it has an effect. Even when better experiences or corrective ones come, it is still difficult.”
Acting is an experience of emotional exposure. How have you handled it?
“Acting is to take the entire soul and to put it on the table. You suddenly need to emit a sort of dirtying cry, and also show attraction to someone. It’s hard and requires a lot of concentration. It is also impossible to fake it because the camera captures everything. I left the days of filming that began at 6 A.M. and ended at midnight full of adrenalin. It’s not like working in a store and coming home, only wanting to climb into bed with Netflix and fall asleep.”
What responses have you gotten after being on the show?
“I have only gotten complimentary responses and I’m, like, what’s wrong here? Don’t you want to curse me out a little?” says Levy, laughing. “I grew into it. My family is the proudest of me. It’s still all on the scale of Israel, but it’s the first major role. My character has a name and I’m not there for the role of the trans or drag queen. I’m happy to bring positive visibility and be part of the change in the conversation. This is a period when the discussion is changing and many more women, cisgender and trans, turn to me and write that this role strengthens them. Men too, by the way. There is a sort of normalization here. There is a main character here that falls in love with a trans woman. So to a certain extent, it also answers the old, tired question: Who would want to be with trans women? Here it exists, thank you. In an ideal society, there would be more freedom of choice.”
In “Magpie,” you are in a relationship with a man who falls in love with you. How have your experiences from the world of dating men been?
“Because I have mostly preferred men, the world of dating is complicated. In this world, my life story defines me. I can take my entire heroic life story and summarize it or distill it and say: ‘I’m trans.’ I can’t hide it, because then people can accuse me of deceit. For me and other trans women, there will always be people who will be attracted to us, but the number of people who will be willing to be with us publicly in a relationship is relatively few. It is a badge of shame for society.
“There is so much ignorance about it. There is shame. After all, most of the offers trans women receive are for sex, so in fact there is an attraction here. So where’s the problem? The problem is to take it out publicly. A man tells himself: I’ll go and marry a woman, have children, but on the side I’ll go sleep with a trans [woman]. By the way, women don’t do anything like that. If they fall in love with a woman, they will take it all the way.”
How do you deal with this reality?
“It’s very hard. I don’t think that a relationship with a man is the only option for love. I think there are a lot of shades of love and many forms of it. It means that it is possible to receive love from all sorts of places; it doesn’t have to come from within the constellation of a relationship. A relationship is really nice but the difficulty is to realize that this option is less available for me. It’s tough. When I was 16 or 17, I saw what society’s attitude was toward trans women and even then, I understood that there was a possibility that I wouldn’t have an [intimate] relationship. It was something that was taken into account.”
While continuing to grapple with her problems, Levy’s career is taking off. She is working on a new show with two of her trans friends, Talleen Abu Hanna and Lia Bar-Lev, in which they take classic Israeli songs and pick them apart, exposing their misogynist and chauvinist sides. In addition, she is playing a supporting role in a new series for the Hot cable company that’s directed by Shlomi Elkabetz, and is about to star in a movie that is the final project of a film student named Bar Cohen, also a transgender woman.
Her success can be attributed to Levy’s ambition and impressive talent, but she is careful to give credit for it to her supportive family. She still lives with her mother in Petah Tikvah; saying Tel Aviv is too loud and noisy for her. Her father, with whom she was very close, collapsed and died suddenly at home three years ago; it was one of hardest crises she has ever experienced.
On sex work
When asked if her family helped her avoid working in prostitution, where a number of her friends have been trapped, Levy says: “I was curious to understand what it was, to a certain extent on an anthropological level. And also in some way it stemmed from the same unhappy experience with the exploitative job market in the capitalist economy that we live in. I was sick and tired of the principle of, ‘You give the maximum and we’ll give the minimum.’ With all due respect, for 30 shekels an hour I don’t need to say thank you; if anything, other people need to ask forgiveness. I wanted to be my own boss.
“It’s not that I recommend, or don’t recommend the experience, but I know to say today that providing sex services is almost as hard as any work. The problem that I experienced personally is that the amount of work you’ll have depends completely on how you look – how much you meet some ideal of beauty in pop culture. You are evaluated mostly in terms of physical characteristics and I didn’t want my value to be determined according to that. Also, in my experience with the desire for a female body, I had experienced impossible gender dysphoria. That’s, of course, my experience only.”
Levy says people feel a little too comfortable about raising intimate questions with her about her genitals, her sexual practices and the operations she underwent. Her very openness about these subjects does not mean, however, that asking women on the trans spectrum about their private parts or sexuality is legitimate, she adds.
What do you think about the desire to eradicate prostitution by law, as a number of female Knesset members are trying to do?
“I think that in a utopian world – without poverty, sexual repression, gender discrimination, discrimination against trans or queer women, wage gaps, and a harsh economy or problematic distribution of power between men and women – providing sexual services is legitimate work like all other work. It’s like all jobs that provide services. It’s not appropriate for everyone and that’s okay. It too has good days and bad days; great days and disgusting customers. And if someone, man or woman, wants to work in sex services, that’s their full right. As a society, we have to realize that we don’t need to look for solutions to eradicate prostitution. First, we must understand the problem isn’t prostitution: The problem is the socioeconomic gaps, the gender hierarchy and discrimination against a ‘certain type’ of people.
“We need to understand that in a proper society these problems don’t exist; a decent society is judged by how it treats the weak. In a decent society there are no weak, and so in such a situation maybe fewer people would turn in this direction. But if nonetheless, in this same utopian society they turned in this direction – then just don’t fucking interfere.”