Transgender IDF solider: coming out was a fairy tale

For most transgender people, coming out is a nightmare. For one lieutenant in the Israel Defense Forces, it was “a fairy tale.”

That’s how Shachar, 22, describes revealing his true gender identity to friends, family and fellow soldiers. “At first I was afraid,” he recalled of that day three years ago, “but when I saw I would be accepted, it was empowering. It gave me courage.”

Shachar

Shachar (his last name can’t be revealed per IDF regulations) was in the United States on a tour of Washington, D.C., Los Angeles, Chicago and the Bay Area sponsored by the Israeli foreign ministry.

The trip coincided with celebratory Pride Month activities around the country, but also began just after the June 12 massacre of 49 people at a gay nightclub in Orlando. That tragedy put a pall on Shachar’s visit, but allowed him to reflect on the challenges LGBT people face.

“For me it was a shock,” he said of the Orlando slaughter. “A week before, we had a shooting in Tel Aviv and I felt the exact same. People at a club, people out for coffee, and killed for being who they are.”

Shachar found acceptance when he joined the IDF five years ago. At the time he legally identified as female, but had been unofficially identifying as male since his childhood in a northern Israel kibbutz. At age 5, he demanded his mother throw out every skirt in the closet.

Upon being drafted at age 18, Shachar ran into military regulations, which required him to wear a woman’s uniform. However, a sympathetic commander came up with a work-around: wearing the IDF’s unisex work uniform.

“The IDF is open to every soldier,” Shachar said. “The IDF stands for respect for every person. This is the treatment I got from my commanders and peers.”

Since the 1960s, Israel’s military has been progressive by default: Excluding gays from service never made sense in a small country facing a perpetual threat. Transgender people are banned from the U.S. military, though Defense Secretary Ashton Carter last year enacted a moratorium on dismissals and created a working group to study the issue.

That doesn’t mean the IDF was always a bastion of openness. Gay troops faced harassment, and in some cases were denied sensitive security clearances. Partners were denied benefits. In the early 1990s, the Knesset passed laws giving gays full equality in the military and other sectors.

It wasn’t until he enrolled in officer training that Shachar mustered the courage to fully come out. While he was in the course, his commanders advised him to go public. “I realized this secret will be a problem if I want to have an open relationship with my soldiers,” Shachar said.

A week before graduating, he revealed himself to his fellow cadets. He was listed as a male on his certificate. Shachar said throughout his military career he has been judged solely on performance.

His job involves engineering large-scale infrastructure projects, but when time permits he does public speaking tours to educate his fellow Israelis about LGBT issues, especially relating to the trans community. “I want to be part of something big and influential in Israeli society,” he said.

Shachar has begun hormone therapy and will have transgender surgery, subsidized by the army — a function of Israel’s health system, which mandates insurance for gender change.

He has begun counseling other transgender soldiers and advises the IDF’s chief gender officer, Brig. Gen. Rachel Tevet-Wiesel, on transgender issues.

Among the changes he has recommended, and which have been implemented: In Hebrew, a language with greater gender-specificity than English, personnel now speak of soldiers according to their gender identification rather than their birth gender; and commanders take into account whether transgender soldiers would prefer to sleep on or off base.

Transgender males join religious males entitled to a beard exemption. For transgender men, “a beard is part of your personality,” Shachar said, stroking his own.

He said he noticed the contrast between attitudes in Israel and the United States, particularly the outcry following President Obama’s call to allow transgender people to use the public bathroom of their choice.

“It all comes back to awareness,” he said. “Everything in the world is genderfied, but if the military can deal with it, then all of us can.” — jta contributed to this story.

Dan Pine

Dan Pine is a contributing editor at J. He was a longtime staff writer at J. and retired as news editor in 2020.