There was a guy who used to flirt with 22-year-old Val Mortensen in high school in the northern Israeli city of Migdal HaEmek. He told her he was attracted to her. His romantic overtures, however, were always covert - when it was just the two of them.
“He identified as straight and said he was attracted to me because I was a very effeminate boy, and that if I were to become a woman, I’d be a very beautiful one,” Moretensen recalls.
“He made it clear he was interested in me long before I came out as trans. We only interacted when we were alone, but at school he’d always keep it hidden. I thought he was really sweet, that he was a gentleman and that we could have something serious.
"He also treated me completely as a woman, but I was his secret. The whole thing was very painful. I wanted to invite him to graduation prom, but when I realized that I was no more than a secret, I moved on.”
Did you tell him that you found the concealment rather offensive?
“Yes, but he said that it was embarrassing for him, that it’s nothing to do with me, but that he couldn’t take it further because he didn’t want people to know. He said ‘When I’m with you, I feel I’m with a woman, but I can’t be with you.'"
Cisgender individuals (people whose sex and gender are the same), who are attracted to transgender people, but resist conducting relationships in public, are known in the trans community as “chasers”. And if you’re wondering why, it’s because they chase after people from a defined group of the population, but invest more energy in the chase than in forming relationships.
Val claims that attention from chasers soared when she started aligning her sex and gender. “When I was at a center for at-risk youth, a guy said to me ‘Listen, it really turns me on, but don’t talk to me when we’re with the others. It’s just that I’m straight and I can’t be seen with a trans woman.
“There was another guy who hit on me, and because I wasn’t interested, he denied it and told a friend of his ‘she’s trans. I’d never touch her’. It just shows what a fragile ego he had.” She laughs. “I didn’t want to be with any of them. Although I was attracted to some of them, if I was going to get involved, it was important for me that they display affection when we were with other people.
“It’s a real turn-off when someone’s ashamed of me. I could never be with a person like that.” Mortenson says. “An Arab guy once started showing an interest in me. He said he had no problem with my being trans, but after we were together, he told me not to talk to him when we were outside. I just don’t get how a person from a marginalized group can treat a person from another marginalized group in that way. It’s just so hypocritical.”
Natalie Eyal from Rishon LeZion had similar experiences of being “fetishized” as a trans woman. “They don’t even see what’s wrong with what they’re doing. When they see a trans woman, their state of mind won’t allow them to think that she might want a serious relationship. It’s like ‘Oh, you’re trans, let’s screw.’ It happens to me all the time.”
She says that men refrain from hitting on her in public, but that they’ll certainly find discreet ways of reaching her.
“I feel it the most when I’m out partying. When I go out, with my clothes and make-up, I feel I look ten times better than most of the girls in any given nightspot, but no one approaches me. Only in dark corners in clubs or by the toilets. Most guys will make contact only afterward. When I get home, I’ll get like five messages on Instagram saying they’d seen me at some place.
“I ask them how they found me - after all, we hadn’t even spoken. They generally say that they look through the venue’s tags to find me. This means they go to great lengths to find me, but they’d never start talking to me in front of other people."
Natalie says that the men who hit on her online, go straight into talking about sex, and that a trans woman can only dream of a regular date in a bar or at a restaurant.
“It’s always ‘let’s meet at your place, or mine, we’ll have some wine etc...’ It’s never about going out to a restaurant and being seen outside. I’d definitely fall for any guy who’d offer to take me to a restaurant – I’m just not used to it. Things that might seem trivial to non-trans people are a big deal for us.”
Do you think it makes trans people settle for less? For morsels of attention?
“Definitely. I’ve spent a long time working on myself, to believe in myself and in my chosen path, knowing what I’m worth. But I see other girls who are easily taken in by men who won’t even step out of the house with them.
"I’ll instantly write off any guy who doesn’t suggest going out. I don’t do dates at home. I won’t even entertain the idea. If the guy isn’t prepared to be seen with you in the street, what could the next step possibly be? There’s no point carrying on. He’s just unenlightened. You’ll never change him.”
Does everyone know you’re trans?
“I never lie. I always say who I am and what I am when I meet a person. I’m very proud of what I am. My psychologist said that I could definitely go out with men without telling them. I think that’s kind of crazy. It’s deceptive. I don’t know... maybe I should try it. One guy I met, who I told immediately, just said ‘I’m not so into it. Sorry.’ He was really nice. Most men are really just interested in something sexual.“
Have any of the men you’ve dated introduced you to their family and friends?
“Not their families. I have been introduced to friends. I‘ve dated men who’ve been willing to be seen with me in public, but these have been very specific men, whose circumstances allowed for it: I went out with a guy who wasn’t really in contact with his family. He had nothing to do with them anyway, so it was easy for him to go out with me. I also dated a gay man who had only dated men so, for him, bringing a girl home was a step up. “
Natalie believes that as a trans woman, relationships are easier with non-Israeli men. “I’m not saying that all men overseas are more comfortable with it, but Israeli culture is very macho. Also, we’re a small country and everyone knows everyone, especially if you keep going to the same places.
"Overseas, it’s different. A guy can live five hours away from his mother, so there’s more privacy. Israeli society isn’t really tolerant. Differences aren’t so readily accepted. We’re not genuinely a liberal society.”
Alin Megan from Yavne declares: “I’ve been trans for some time now, and I can say that 80% of Israeli men are attracted to trans women, so why the secrecy?”. She continues: “Why do I have to hear things like ‘If only you were a regular woman’? You’re with me because I am who I am, so why should I be someone else? You’re attracted to me because of what I have within me, so what’s actually going on here?
“Compared to other trans women in Israel, my relationships have been quite long-term. I’ve also been with quite a few famous people – a lot of footballers. When they had to take the relationship to the next level, however, they always stopped because they’re afraid of how their families and friends might react.
"They’ll order everything on the menu – to your apartment, but they won’t walk with you as far as the elevator. Heaven forbid a famous person such as himself might be seen with a transgender woman. I’ve had that a lot, even with today’s apparent openness.”
Natalie and Alin tell us that when the man in their lives does want to take the relationship to the next level, they nonetheless pay the price: Natalie recalls: “I was with a guy who dated trans women. He had no trouble telling his family and friends.
"But he’d say stuff like ‘you should appreciate my dating you. Most men aren’t like me.’ So, I do appreciate his honesty, but I don’t owe him anything. It’s absurd. I want to meet someone who’ll see me as a person, regardless of the trans thing.
“One man in a million will date a trans woman and completely see her as a woman,” Alin adds. “I was with a guy like that for three years. Although it wasn’t good, what kept me there was going out and spending time with his friends and family. But there were drugs and violence and stuff I wasn’t used to.
“I’m crying right now. I keep reminding myself that I’m 40, that I have a home and a car, I’m intelligent and I have a wonderful family, with parents who’ve been together for 44 years. If I didn’t have this as an example, along with their support, I’d have given up long ago. It’s heartache every time. I sometimes feel that I have everything but I have nothing.
“It might sound funny, but after achieving so much, I just want a man who’ll accept me and understand that I’m just a person wanting to break out. My friends tell me that I think about being in a relationship too much, but I’ve never had a relationship that I would call a blessing.”
Sexologist Dr. Ariel Cohen-Arkin, director of the Israeli Society for Sex Therapy and of the Center for Sexual Medicine at Sheba Medical Center explains that “a lot of cisgender people are attracted to transgender people. People open up in therapy and say what they really feel."
"Trans people tell us quite how many people hit on them. Normative men tell us that they fantasize about being with trans women, while dismissing the option of actually translating that fantasy into reality. Trans porn is also very popular, especially trans women who haven’t undergone surgery.”
He explains that many reasons lie behind attraction to trans people: “You can be attracted to a person for just being a person. You can be attracted to female masculinity, male femininity, or to 'double' organs such as female breasts and male genitalia. It’s sometimes an attraction to something that contravenes societal norms, as an act of challenging boundaries. But people are then afraid of being socially categorized.“
What do you mean?
“Men are afraid of being thought of as gay or as part of the LGBTQ community. It’s a real fear, so they separate the people to whom they are most attracted from the people with whom they want to have a family."
"They’re willing to spend their lives with someone who they’re not strongly attracted to (if at all) - but at least it fits in with social norms of what ‘a relationship should look like.’ It’s known as the ‘Madonna-whore complex.’ The Madonna is the pure and holy, culturally acceptable woman. This woman is revered and men want her as the mother of their children. But in bed they want the whore.
“Most people can sustain a relationship with someone to whom they are attracted both sexually and romantically. In the Madonna-whore complex, you can have a romantic relationship with one person and a sexual relationship with another - the two never overlapping.
"I think it’s very common with regard to trans women who are always the ‘whore,’ while the cisgender woman plays the part of the Madonna. When people come to the clinic, they won’t immediately confess their attraction to trans women. They’ll come in looking to address problems about sexual performance with their cisgender partners. We then find out they’re leading double lives.
I think it’s similar to men who are attracted to overweight women in that society creates a certain ideal for femininity or masculinity and men will invariably prefer dating women much slimmer than the women they’re really attracted to.“
Do you see differences between people who are attracted to transgender women and those attracted to transgender men?
“Yes, there’s an enormous difference. Both in my professional experience and in the categories of porn. There’s much more fetishizing and shame aimed at trans women than towards other trans categories. If you date a trans woman, you’ll be categorized by society as gay, feminine or weak in some way.
"Society is much more forgiving towards women with regard to gender fluidity. There’s less shame around gay men dating trans men. I assume that a lot of chasers come from socially conservative backgrounds, so it may seem at odds with how society expects men and women to behave."
What do you think needs to be done to enable cisgender and transgender people to have normative relationships?
“Society needs to change. As society becomes more open, and a broader range of trans people become more accepted, people will begin to understand that each trans person is a whole world, and they won’t look at them and just see something different.”
Natalie concludes: “It’s important for me to ask transgender people settle for no less than what they deserve, that they shouldn’t give in. Only when men are rejected over and over again will they understand that they have no choice but to change their ways."
"You have to respect yourselves, be proud of who you are. They shouldn’t make you their dirty little secret” Val adds: “Think about how you’d treat a cisgender woman and then put it into practice with transgender women. Just make a bit of an effort.”