Israel's trans community increases visibility
by Heather Cassell
San Francisco LGBT activists had an opportunity to hear directly from a member of Israel's transgender community for the first time ever during a recent screening of The Man I Am and a discussion about issues in the Middle East country.
About 30 people crowded into a small room at Congregation Shar'ar Zahav July 14 to learn about Israel's transgender community, which has become more vocal in recent years.
Elisha "Shuki" Alexander, a 38-year-old self-identified gay trans boy, and his partner and fellow activist Avi Soffer, a 63-year-old gay man, were on tour of the U.S. as guests of A Wider Bridge, a Bay Area-based organization that connects the U.S. LGBT Jewish and queer Israeli communities.
For many years Israel's transgender community has lived in the shadows and off the radar of the mainstream gay and lesbian community. The transgender community began to slowly become visible in 2008 when it participated in Tel Aviv's LGBT Pride Parade for the first time, said Alexander.
Soffer added that, in recent years, transgender individuals began appearing at organizational meetings and in movies, such as The Man I Am, in which Alexander was one of the five trans men featured.
Alexander, who has been a transgender activist for eight years, heads Ma'avarim (translated means Passageways), a grassroots trans organization. After a yearlong sabbatical and becoming romantically involved with Soffer, Alexander has returned to his work with a vision to push for a government identity card and health care for transgender people.
While there are many other issues that need to be tackled, Alexander identified these two as being relatively less complicated and easier to work on, he said during a 45-minute discussion with the audience after viewing the hourlong film. One of the subjects in the movie flew to Canada to get the medical treatment that he needed for his transition.
Alexander wants to change the laws to eliminate confusion by changing the gender on IDs so that genderqueer individuals aren't placed in an awkward position when applying for an apartment, a job or anything else that requires showing an ID. He also wants to make health care more accessible. While the Israeli government subsidizes hormones and some surgery, accessibility remains an issue for transgender individuals who don't have money or a privileged background, said Alexander.
As the transgender community continues to come out, Israel's gay and lesbian community has been going through a learning curve that was often painful. Alexander and Soffer experienced difficulties themselves and that affected the larger community, they said.
"We were the craziest enemies," said Soffer as Alexander shook his head in agreement, smiling at Soffer. "I don't think that I ever said worst things about anybody and vice versa. I learned a lesson. It is based on not knowing."
"Our personal story, we forced this community to come together," he continued. "And they all come together. It's funny."
"There's a lot of lack of knowledge on both sides," he said, adding there were presumptions on both sides that both communities continue to work on.
Slowly the transgender community is gaining acceptance in the broader Israeli gay and lesbian community, both men said, but in order for transgender individuals to gain wide acceptance laws need to be changed.
One of Alexander's goals on the trip was to identify potential donors, as there isn't an official transgender organization in Israel, he said. Establishing an official non-governmental organization would help him with his political work lobbying for transgender rights in Israel's Knesset, the country's parliament.
Soffer, a 35-year veteran LGBT activist, added that it will also take educating politicians about transgender issues.
"Without the change in politics it's not going to happen," said Soffer. "The politicians have to be involved."
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