By following her female identity, transgender artist Roey Heifetz found herself facing new problems, including alienation from the gay community that had once been her home. Through big sketch portraits she is currently presenting on exhibit in Jerusalem, she is dealing with conservative responses to her and her fear of aging.
The text on the wall at Roey Heifetz’s “Victoria” exhibition at Ticho House in Jerusalem, curator Timna Seligman refers to Heifetz as a man and writes about her in male pronouns. Since the text was written, a few months ago, Heifetz had already started talking about herself as a woman. Sometimes even she still gets confused. The sex change in speaking is a new stage in the process Heifetz has gone through in recent years. Two years ago, she began to adopt what is called “feminine visibility”, and since then she has dressed as a woman almost everywhere – except for her work as a lecturer in Jewish history and queer history in Berlin. In front of her students she still dresses and acts like a man. This too, says Heifetz, will soon change.
The 13 major portraits that Heifetz displays in the exhibition (that will continue through the end of March) all describe women whose external appearance doesn’t provoke aesthetic pleasure in the classic sense of the word. The women of Heifetz appear troublesome, fearful and threatening. They are bony, their faces etched with wrinkles and their skin saturated with beauty spots. Heifetz walks around between them in an elegant red dress and with her hair dyed bright red as well. She enjoys being more beautiful than the characters she draws, but as it’s quickly revealed – the relationship between the painter and her paintings is very close.
Roy was born in Jerusalem 38 years ago, as a middle child of a family of three children. Her father is an engineer and her mother is a teacher. When she was a baby her parents moved to Rehovot. “My childhood in Rehovot was supposedly normal, but it was not normal. I was an outsider to all the square Rehovot experience. The great crisis was in seventh grade. I experienced violence and abuse by children. In ninth grade, I went to boarding school in Sdeh Boker, but that was a disaster too, so after a year I went back to high school in Rehovot. During my teenage years I had a good friend, and together we decided to advocate asexually. Then, at age 18, I got familiar with Tel Aviv’s Independence Park, which was then at its peak. I hung around there a lot, but my parents did not know anything. This is where you discover your sexuality at the most hardcore. On the other hand, this was where I met my first boyfriend. Since then the place has changed a lot, unfortunately.”
In 2012, after completing her masters degree in art, she took on a project called “natural blowout”. She spent one day a week at a hairdresser’s in Neve Eliezer in Tel Aviv and drew portraits of customers who came for a haircut, color or blowdry. Heifetz says today that this project was an important milestone on the way to the personal change that took place in her gender identity: “It was basically a performance. It created a dialogue between me and the neighborhood’s women who came to the hairdresser, and I gradually exposed a lot of things about them. There began my first signs of womanhood. Then came Purim and and the place’s employees dressed me as a woman and did my make up too. They created a whole new magical world for me “.
Then Heifetz moved to Berlin. The choice resulted from the great attraction she has to history, and to a specific character: Dr. Magnus Hirschfeld – German-Jewish doctor and sexologist who developed a theory on the existence of a third gender, besides male and female. In 1930 he performed the first documented sex reassignment surgery and in 1919 he had established the “Institute for sexology” in Berlin, the world’s first Institute for the study of gender. “He was the first who gave place to cross-dressers, transgender people, transvestites and transsexuals, and he himself was a cross-dresser. He was also the first who advocated forcing people out of the closet and he outed German parliament members. On the night of book burning in 1933, the Nazis burned his Institute; He was then in France and then didn’t return to Germany. Hirschfeld argued that gay men’s testicular structure is different than in so-called straight men.”
In Berlin, says Heifetz, her preoccupation with the question of gender escalated. “Until the age of five I wore my mother’s dresses, but after that for many years it was repressed. The alienation and the distance in Berlin, from my parents and perhaps even from myself, loosened me up. Suddenly, I went to a pub and people didn’t know who I was and what I had been before. I went down the street a complete foreigner. I started going out at nights with dresses and defining myself as a woman. And it’s easy in Berlin because people have more numbness, they don’t look into your soul, you can become any character you want.”
This choice of a female identity presented Heifetz with new difficulties, ones she had not predicted, including the alienation of the gay community, which had been her home. “As transgender, and not a young one, you become transparent. You don’t have a value, especially in the homosexual meat market. The gay world has undergone a process of realization of a fantasy. They all look amazing, and they’re all busy all the time looking for the next thing. It’s very difficult to reach a state of intimacy. You can spend a whole night on a dating app and the boys feel that there may be someone better, so they always move on. There’s a lot of loneliness, this is a very alienated community. ”
Heifetz also felt the impact of the change not only on an intimate level, but also on the professional level. “From the moment I started the external processes of change, suddenly gay curators didn’t see me, I wasn’t in the game. I came from the gay world and I knew how to play and flirt. Suddenly I was becoming a woman, and I lost all those tools I had. I’m learning now again how to flirt, as a woman. One of my biggest fears is the transparency that older women experience. I have an insane fear of that. ”
How did you voluntarily choose to join this complex game?
“That’s the question, was it really my choice? I think that being transgender is not exactly here and not exactly there. I feel like a transgender woman and not like a straight woman. The transformation is appealing to me. I’ll probably never be completely a woman. The process that a transgender woman goes through is against the world . It’s theater. People watch, see and react all the time. I still look like a man walking around in women’s clothes. ”
Another fear reflected in Heifetz’ paintings is the fear of aging. She admits that she found in herself a withdrawal and a misogynistic attitude toward aging women, and therefore it is precisely those she paints. “I get stressed by the fact that I was going through an accelerated process of growing up. Frankly, I didn’t have youth as a woman. I started my womanhood at the age of 38. It’s pretty crazy. I’m afraid of the character of the older woman you see in the movies, which is over-sexual, over-feminine. On the other hand, these women have the most grace. I’m afraid of being pathetic and I’m conscious of the price that I will pay, because the women in the art world are at the bottom. In contrast, gay men don’t suffer discrimination there. ”
According to Heifetz, the next step in the change process will include the addition of the name Victoria to the name Roy. She previously opposed the change, she says, but was convinced that the name Roy by itself is too confusing. “There’re a lot of transgender people who erase the past, burn photos, get away from old friends, and I’m very nostalgic. On the other hand, I also understand the need for a separate identity. At the moment I’m at this phase of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. It’s okay to me that I currently have this split, and my work mirrors it. After all, this split is why we all gathered for today.”