It all started a year ago. Vital was on her way back to Israel after having visited her boyfriend Jamal in London. She reported to the check-in counter three hours ahead of the flight, as instructed. There she was asked where she was coming from, which was followed by questions about her boyfriend's background. Vital responded that he was a Catholic Christian British citizen. Then, she was asked to undergo a second survey by an additional person.
"As soon as I handed them my Israeli passport, they asked me for an ID. My passport is overflowing with stamps, I fly all around the world. It was pretty ridiculous. The first question he asked me was 'why does (the passport) list you as female?' what kind of question is that? And what does that have to do with Israel's security?"
Vital then recalled how the security staff member took the passport, showed it to his co-workers and laughed. "When I saw him laugh, I was humiliated and angry. When he returned, he said I had to undergo a body search. And then the inappropriate questions started, such as 'what do I have down there,'" she continued.
The boarding time was rapidly approaching and Vital asked why she was still being detained, to which they responded that she might pose a security threat. Eventually, she boarded the plane without her suitcases.
But things didn't end there. Two months later, Vital was once again detained on her way back from London by the same security staffer. She endured another body search and her belongings were taken away from her and shipped separately.
"They decided to make things worse by chaperoning me to the plane," she said. "I couldn't go to the bathroom by myself. I have never had a criminal record, and they made me feel like a criminal."
Vital's baggage was only delivered to her 48 hours later by a cab driver hired through the company, who arrived unannounced after midnight, refused to address her in the feminine and cursed at her. When she opened her suitcase, she was aghast to find the presents she bought had been ripped open and damaged. Her personal laptop was also damaged. "Even the candies were opened. It sounds funny but I found the wrappings inside the bag. This is pure humiliation. There is no other word to describe it."
Vital decided to file a complaint to the company. El Al only took into account the late arrival of the suitcases, for which they tried to compensate by giving her a voucher for a free breakfast. The complaints about the harassment and discrimination did not receive any acknowledgment.
Why did you continue flying with them?
"It's an Israeli company, I have never had any problems and they have always respected me. I thought that maybe after my complaints, things would be resolved, but unfortunately they offered no further response. The free breakfast is an apathetic and humiliating response. I'm not interested in any meals, I only want to be respected just like anybody else."
Two more months had passed and Vital was again on her way back from London to Israel, this time accompanied by one of her friends. The security screener identified her and picked her out of the line. "They turned on my computer and accessed my personal photos and rummaged through everything they could," she recounted.
The next time she flew in from London, she had already prepared her friend Nofar Nave, who accompanied her. At first, everything seemed to go well; another security screener approached Vital and Nave, questioned them, returned their passports and wished them a pleasant flight.
They moved on feeling relieved, only to be stopped by one of the screeners who knew Vital from previous encounters. "He asked for our passports and whether he could do a search, to which we responded with a kind 'gladly.'"
Nave picks up the story. "And then the interesting questions commenced," she said. "Why am I registered as male and she, as female, and what do we have down there, all the while they were giggling." Eventually, Vital and Nave missed their flight.
It doesn't appear to be a one-time deal either. Other transgender women have claimed the same thing. Lynn Eizin, a 24-year-old transgender woman, said she encountered a transphobic, humiliating attitude by an El Al security employee last December upon her return from Thailand, where she had undergone sex reassignment surgery.
At first, Eizin was addressed kindly, in the feminine, but once the screener noticed the gender section on her documents, the attitude immediately changed.
"As soon as he noticed I was transgender, he started addressing me in the masculine, started asking why I went to Thailand, so I told him. And then he wanted to see all the medical papers, nothing that had to do with flight security. When I asked him why he was asking me all those questions, he said it was security protocol. All of it was done in front of everyone. It was humiliating."
And if Eizin thought the questions couldn't possibly get more audacious, she was in for a surprise.
"He said to me, 'I want us to think about this together, how your luggage could cause an explosion on the plane.' I was shocked and terrified. I immediately told him that I had packed by myself and I wasn't looking for trouble. I didn't know what to do, I only wanted to go home," she said.
Mor Vital is the chairperson of the Beyachad organization for the promotion of the Israeli transgender community. Vital and her friends have decided to sue El Al over the humiliating treatment and the gender discrimination they experienced at the hands of the company's employees.
Any attempts to explain away the behavior through security reasoning were completely shot down by Vital: "If I use any other airline, I am no longer a threat to Israeli security? The security personnel simply decided that a transgender is not appealing to them. We are no one's punching bag."