The midnight cowboys of Tel Aviv

They come to Tel Aviv from all over the country − teens and young men who were thrown out of their homes because they’re gay; in the area around the old central bus station, they turn to prostitution to survive.


By Vered Lee


Call me Ruru, he says as the nighttime blackness deepens. “I belong to these streets,” he declares as he interrupts his circular ramblings through the maze of streets surrounding the old Tel Aviv central bus station. He takes off his small backpack and places it on the sidewalk. “These are my worldly possessions,” he says. “And I also have more things hidden in all kinds of places around here.”


His exhaustion is evident. At 23, he’s considered an old-timer among the workers here.


“I started when I was 12,” he says. “I grew up in an Arab village in the center of the country. From the time I was young, I knew I was gay, but I was afraid to talk about it.” His parents suspected. “They asked me and I confessed that that’s who I was and who I love. They threw me out of the house the same day.”


He came to Tel Aviv and wandered around the area near the old central bus station. “I was a kid,” he says. “I thought I’d find a regular job here and I’d manage.” Here he met a Palestinian from a refugee camp who was afraid to return home after having been tagged as a collaborator. “I asked him for help,” he relates. “I told him I had nothing to eat and had been thrown out on the street. He said: ‘Come with me tonight and I’ll show you where to get work.’ He took me to Gan Hahashmal.


“I saw him get in a car and I didn’t understand what he was doing. When he got out of the car he came over to me and told me: ‘Take a good look − This is the money that you can eat with and live off of.’ That’s how I started with this, and I’m still doing it.”


Cars pass by and the drivers signal to Ruru insistently, but he lets them keep driving around and ignores them. “I sleep in the street, and now in Gan Hahashmal,” he says.


“With the money I buy food, cigarettes, vodka.” At 14, he began experimenting with hard drugs, but then he stopped. “Now I smoke hashish and drink all day. Is it possible to sleep without drinking when you’re out on the street? It soothes the mind and the crying.”


At 18, he was put in Ofek Prison. “I was in a club, I was speaking Arabic and I was stoned. Somebody pushed me and called me a ‘stinking Arab’ and I couldn’t control my anger. I had a knife so I stabbed him 26 times.” While in prison, he hurt another inmate and his sentence was extended. He got out four months ago and immediately returned “home” to the area by the old bus station.


“It’s either stab or be stabbed,” he says, explaining the laws of the street as he gazes scornfully upon the clients cruising around in their cars. “Everyone I knew since I started to work in prostitution either killed themselves, went insane, went to prison or became a drug addict,” he says. “I’ve yet to see anyone manage to live well from this and become a rich and happy man.”


Like Ruru, the names of the other men who work in prostitution and were interviewed for this article have been changed. Suddenly, Ruru gets angry. “From the time I was 12 I’ve been wandering the streets among you, and no one really helps. I asked people for money and no one gave me anything. I would go into restaurants and ask for food and they’d chase me out. It’ll be the same with you. You’ll leave here and go home and you’ll forget about me. I guarantee you. You’ll go to bed and you won’t remember me anymore.”


He puts his pack back on and turns to go. “Whoever sleeps in a bed at home forgets about the people who are in the street,” he says and walks away.


Around the corner


For years, Gan Hahashmal, located between Hahashmal, Barzilai and Levontin streets in south Tel Aviv, was a hub for addicts and male prostitutes, especially minors, but it has changed in the last few years. Once the authorities got fed up with the situation there, the police began making a concerted effort to combat criminal activity and the municipality spruced up the park and added lots of new lighting. Before long, clubs and designer boutiques sprang up and the area was marketed as a Tel Aviv Soho.


But the male prostitution didn’t disappear. It just shifted to a new location − the old central bus station and the surrounding streets: Hasharon, Hagalil and Hanegev, which form a horseshoe. Lately, the activity has also begun to slip over to Har Zion Street where it intersects with Salma Street. In the past half-year, one could also find minors working in prostitution around the Diamond Exchange in Ramat Gan, and for years the Tel Baruch beach has been the place for transgendered individuals.


Walking around the old bus station area, on Hagalil Street one comes across gay saunas and gay clubs that rent out rooms. The male prostitutes stand outside, making eye contact with prospective clients and then, after what looks like a bit of negotiation, going inside with them. For the last six months, the inner parking lot on Hagalil Street has been illuminated, and the activity there has stopped. But the scene on the street is still lively. Outside the bars frequented by refugees, men can be seen standing on the sidewalks.


Transgendered prostitutes stand at the corner of Hagalil and Hasharon. They have a fierce reputation here. “They’re aggressive and violent and they fight for their spot on the street,” explains a man who works in the area. But it’s also apparent that they stick together in a group as a means of protection. More than any other sex workers, they are exposed to verbal violence and provocations from passersby. They are cursed by passing drivers, and groups of drunks harass them.


The corner of Hasharon and Hanegev streets is usually where the Arabs stand, most of them illegal residents. This corner gives them a sense of safety; if necessary, they can quickly escape from the police cars and Border Police vehicles that patrol the area.


The male prostitutes are less overt than their female counterparts. The women are scantily clad and heavily made up, while the men are dressed simply, in a way that doesn’t immediately give away what they’re up to.


“There’s a lot of concealment on the part of men who work in prostitution,” says Uri Eick, coordinator of the LGBT ‏(lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender‏) division at the Health Ministry’s Levinsky Clinic by the new central bus station, which focuses on the diagnosis and treatment of sexual diseases. “Male prostitution is not out in the open. You have to look carefully to identify them.”


The shame attached to prostitution is greater among men. “Female prostitution is assimilated in the culture. Unfortunately, it’s given legitimacy by many and doesn’t undermine the woman’s identity,” says Eick. “Male prostitution, however, puts those who engage in it at the bottom of the social hierarchy, even lower than a woman who engages in prostitution, and undermines their identity as men.”


The subject has not been studied in depth in Israel, so it’s hard to come by precise numbers about how many men are involved in it. “It’s not that easy to find them. Some work from home and some find an older sponsor to pay them for sex and sometimes also provide a roof over their head.”


What is the profile of those who engage in male prostitution?


Eick: “You find minors and youths from every part of society who’ve been thrown out of their homes because of their sexual orientation, found refuge in Tel Aviv and turned to prostitution as a way to survive. Often you also see men who are 30 and older working as prostitutes, but the street prefers younger men. Some come into it because of poverty, financial hardship and homelessness − it’s the only way they find to survive and get by. Most came from a dysfunctional home − poverty, abuse, physical and emotional neglect. Many also have a history of being sexually abused, but it’s unspoken. They don’t admit to it, they’re ashamed and have trouble talking about it.


“Not all of them are homosexuals necessarily. Many of the addicts admit that this isn’t their natural orientation, but just a quick way to get money for the next fix. Among the illegals, you also find men who are only doing it for a livelihood.”


Yael Gur, director of the Levinsky Clinic, adds that in recent years refugees have also entered the circle of prostitution. “Up until two years ago, there was an attempt on their part to obscure this. But now they stand there on the street corner and it’s clear that they work in prostitution.”


What’s the profile of the average client?


Gur: “A lot of the clients are married men and men who are still in the closet, and just like the male prostitutes, they hide it and are ashamed of it.”


The level of violence male prostitutes experience is also hard to measure, says Gur. “It happens in the encounters with clients, but the male sex workers don’t report it or admit it. It’s hard for them as men to admit that a client attacked them; there’s shame in talking about it.”


hat kind of damage do you notice among transgender and male prostitutes?


Eick: “Some of the key things you see in them are difficulty trusting in others, drug and alcohol addiction, depression, and other health issues. The concealment exacts a heavy price too: social loneliness and disconnection from family, which for the transgendered people often begins as they start the process of sexual transformation.”


Gur and Eick say that transgender and male prostitutes also suffer from low public awareness of and concern with their plight. Women’s movements that come out against prostitution tend to fight more for women’s rights; they forget to fight for the rights of men and transgendered people involved in prostitution and to demand therapy that would help rehabilitate them too, they say. They add that those who want to escape prostitution don’t have anywhere to go − there are no halfway houses, employment solutions, psychotherapy or any rehabilitation programs available for them. All that exists is just a partial solution for a few transgendered individuals as part of the Selait project ‏(the name is a Hebrew acronym for Aid to Women in the Circle of Prostitution‏) and at the Beit Dror aid center.


“Unfortunately, we’re not hearing a voice coming out loud and clear from the LGBT community against male prostitution and fighting it, the way we see activist women who combat female prostitution and trafficking in women. Pressure also needs to be put on the government ministries to open all the services needed to get minors, young people and adults out of a life of prostitution, to see to their rehabilitation and their integration in society.”


(To read full article, visit this Haaretz link)

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