TEL AVIV, Israel – Nearly 30 transgender women strutted down the catwalk in skinny jeans, crop tops and stiletto heels at a Tel Aviv club on Thursday, vying for a chance to enter the first "Miss Trans Israel" beauty pageant.
Tel Aviv has emerged as one of the world's most gay-friendly travel destinations, standing in sharp contrast to most of the rest of the Middle East, where gays can face persecution.
Israela Stephanie Lev, the pageant's organizer, said that in the past it was "terrible" living as a transgender woman in Israel. But today, people are more accepting, she said.
"Definitely we are achieving, enlightening the people to accept and empower transsexuals," she said.
Among the contestants was Talleen Abu Hanna, a 21-year-old from a Catholic Arab family in the northern city of Nazareth. She said she came to the audition because she wants to do something with her life.
"I have this something, I am a dancer, and I am a singer, I play the trumpet. I have something to give the people," she said. Although Israel's more conservative Arab society is often unaccepting of gays, Abu Hanna said her family accepts and supports her.
"We are normal people. This is normal," she said.
Elian Nesiel, a 20-year-old contestant, said she believes that being transgender is "gradually accepted more and more."
"Yes, it's a process, like everything," she said.
Israel is generally tolerant toward gays and transgender people. Gays openly serve in Israel's military, as does at least one openly transgender soldier. In 1998, a transgender singer, Dana International, won the popular Eurovision song contest.
But homosexuality is shunned in the ultra-Orthodox Jewish communities. Last year, an extremist ultra-Orthodox Jew stabbed a teenage girl to death at a Jerusalem Pride parade.
Finalists will compete at a pageant in May, and the winner will represent Israel at the Miss Trans Star International pageant to be held in Spain in August.