Tel Aviv’s streets and stores have been decorated with rainbow flags for days, heralding the city’s 17th annual Gay Pride Parade on Friday.
The parade is the highlight of the city’s Gay Pride week and is expected to be Tel Aviv’s largest-ever pride event, with 180,000 participants including 30,000 tourists. This year’s celebration features Eurovision winner and LGBT rights representative Conchita Wurst and focuses on supporting the transgender community.
Events like the parade are key to advancing the rights of transgender people, said Tel Aviv transgender activist Elisha Alexander.
“As the parade approaches, more and more trans people are calling up to get help, to get support, so that’s what visibility does,” said Alexander. “That’s the main goal of all these pride parades and things like that — it’s just to be visible, that we exist.
“I lived as a straight woman for 30 years,” Alexander added. “Most of the reason it took me so long was just because there was no visibility.”
Alexander is the director of Ma’avarim, a support group for the trans community in Tel Aviv. Ma’avarim, whose name means transitions, currently works with about 100 transgender people, but Alexander said there are many more. He estimates that one to three percent of Israelis are transgender.
While recognition of transgender people in Israel is improving, there are still problems, said Alexander. Some are social, others more institutional in nature.
A major issue for the community is gender markers on official documents, such as how someone’s gender is stated on their passport. Or a transgender woman may be identified as a man and forced to stay at a men’s homeless shelter.
“Any service that has to do with dividing the people that offer different services to women and men is problematic,” he said. “If you want to go pray at the Western Wall, if you want to go to the bathroom, it might be problematic.”
What has helped is more support and media attention for the transgender community in recent years, he said, both in Israel and internationally. Celebrities like Caitlyn Jenner, who was the former Olympic runner Bruce Jenner, and recently came out as transgender, help by providing visibility and positive role models for transgender youth.
In fact, the City of Tel Aviv-Jaffa invited Jenner to be its guest of honor at Friday’s parade.
But the transition to transgender is difficult for anyone.
Nora Grinberg, a gender counselor in Tel Aviv who is transgender, said employment is another problem. She said there is often a correlation between work discrimination and social power, and most transgender people have faced prejudice in the workplace.
“The more powerless you are, the more of a chance you will be discriminated against or victimized or marginalized,” said Grinberg.
She works with high school students and parents of transgender children, and young people are at the most risk, she said. Grinberg helped a 15-year-old last year who was kept out of school for three months after transitioning during her summer break, which added to the stress of an already difficult situation for her.
At the same time, transgender people are becoming more prominent in Tel Aviv’s LGBT community, said Grinberg, a community that was once overwhelmingly dominated by gay men.
A spokesperson for the municipality said that this year’s parade is an opportunity to embolden the transgender community.
“The focus is very much on gay marriage and promoting the rights of the lesbian and gay community but the transgender community, much of the time, gets left out of that,” she said. “We understand that they’re struggling and we are here to support them as a city.”
Despite the inherent problems, Israel is a relatively good country for transgender people, said Alexander. Healthcare is accessible and there is little violence against the community, although the situation in Tel Aviv is better than other Israeli towns and cities. He said many LGBT people in Israel end up moving to Tel Aviv because the conditions are better.
At the same time, transgender people live all over Israel, said Alexander, “from Jerusalem to Bnei Brak. Moving to a different city is not [always] a solution.”
Grinberg has worked in the community for about 15 years and has seen huge improvements, but said she won’t be satisfied until there is complete equality for all LGBT people.
“It’s like looking at a leopard skin — there are brighter spots and there are darker spots,” she said. “Transgender people are here to stay. We are part of the larger LGBT community and we can’t be ignored any longer.”