“When you feel accepted and happy as who you are, you want to do your best as a soldier — as a person.”
For army officer Shachar, serving in the IDF was the first time he felt like a real man.
The 21-year-old is the Israeli army’s first out transgender officer, after completing a training course last year that earned him the promotion.
“How can I explain it? For me, serving in the army and being recognized for who I really am by my fellow soldiers made me feel like a real man for the first time in my life. It made me feel like myself,” said Shachar, who asked to be quoted using his preferred pseudonym to protect his identity as an active member of the Israeli Defense Force (IDF).
At a time when most of the world’s militaries still officially ban gay and lesbian soldiers from serving, Shachar’s military service stands apart. Not only did he experience support from his unit and commanding officers, but his case prompted the Israeli military to fast-track new protocols now in place that range from tolerance training for senior officers to ensuring that the military would cover the cost of hormone treatments and sex reassignment surgery.
He is now speaking internationally, hoping his case can help transform the attitudes of militaries like the United States, which has embraced lesbian, gay, and bisexual soldiers but still will not allow trans soldiers to serve. While Shachar says he knows that Israel is accused of “pinkwashing” — or using its progressive stance toward the LGBT community to brush over human rights abuses toward Palestinians — for him and others interviewed by BuzzFeed News the positions taken by Israel’s military were an indication of a functional army, rather than a political talking point.
Shachar said the health insurance he has through the army paid for his hormone therapy and preapproved him for surgery whenever he was ready for that step.
“When you feel accepted and happy as who you are, you want to do your best as a soldier — as a person,” said Shachar. “I was so nervous to ask, and when I did the doctor told me he had already and asked and received approval for the surgery. Really, it was a shock to me as well that everyone was so supportive.”
While the U.K. last month accepted its first out transgender officer, the U.S. and many other countries continue to ban transgender people from serving in their militaries. Even as gay, lesbian, and bisexual Americans have been able to serve freely since the repeal of “don’t ask, don’t tell” in September 2011, a medical regulatory ban still prohibits transgender military service, forcing the estimated 15,000 transgender soldiers currently serving in the armed forces to remain closeted.
“It’s hard for me, hearing how it is in other countries,” said Shachar. “Luckily for me, it wasn’t like that. My family was supportive and then the army was supportive.”
He acknowledged, however, that he grew up in a secular, progressive community, and that during his army service he did not have any interactions with the haredi, a term for ultraorthodox religious Israelis, whose units of the IDF are known as being more conservative.
“I really didn’t come across anyone who was offended by me or against me,” he said. “I didn’t have to struggle with that.”
Shachar smiles when talking about his early days in basic training in 2012. He smiles more when recalling how, after filling out his enlistment paperwork as a woman, he decided to take male rather than female fatigues.
“I thought I was inventing the wheel, the whole issue was less discussed back then. I thought someone would notice, I thought they would care. But nobody said anything,” he said. While the IDF has long had out transgender soldiers, his was the first case of a transgender officer. “I had initially thought it would be easier to just serve as a woman, to not make a big deal or talk about it. But in the end I felt comfortable and safe to slowly begin to talk to those around me.”
He recalled how an officer gave him extra uniforms so that he wouldn’t have to do the laundry as often or change clothes in front of his fellow soldiers. Another officer arranged for him to get private shower hours. And then, one afternoon, while his unit was gathered for a briefing, he stood up and told his fellow soldiers that he was transgender.
“They were curious, they had questions, but mostly they were very happy for me,” said Shachar. “Now, as an officer, I am identified as male. When I leave the army my paperwork will be stamped as a male. I think that’s an amazing thing, to have those two papers to see that progression.”
Shachar said that he’s seen a huge change in the IDF since he enlisted, and he has since counseled young transgender soldiers who reach out to him for advice.
“Today you don’t ask anyone about their sexual needs or behavior. According to Israeli law, men and women have to join the army and during their physical exams in enlistment no one asks them or probes about their private sexual habits,” said Brig. Gen. Rachel Tevet-Weisel, an advisor for LGBT and women’s issues in the IDF. She said the shift toward accepting the LGBT community in the IDF began in the 1980s and has evolved in the decades since. Tevet-Weisel’s office only intervenes when sexuality becomes a problem for the soldiers, such as when they make requests for separate showers or changing stations.
Israeli law stipulates that nationals can only begin the sex reassignment process after the age of 18, the same age that all Israeli men and women are required to join the armed services.
“Some of them come with documents and say they are starting the process. In those cases we think how we can help them whether it’s with uniforms or a special permit to have long hair,” said Tevet-Weisel. “If there is a soldier who enlists as a man, but along his service wants to be addressed using female terms, then we do that.”
And while Tevet-Weisel said the army focuses on educating all of its soldiers and officers on tolerance and respect, there are always cases, she said, that fall through the cracks.
Ayelet, an IDF soldier in the third and final year of service, told BuzzFeed News that fellow soldiers called her “lesbian” and “ugly” when she decided to cut her hair short. Ayelet was still unsure whether she wants to be referred to by male or female terms, and asked to be identified by only her first name as she was in active service.
“Some people were tolerant, and others were terrible,” said Ayelet, who spoke to BuzzFeed News by phone from her base in southern Israel. “The officers were very good about stepping in and stopping the harassment once it started, and giving me space to figure things out for myself.”
It’s not easy, she said, to be in the army while also trying to figure out something as personal as sexuality.
“For some people who know who they are what they are it might be more straightforward. For those of us who are confused, it’s a complicated process no matter what,” she said.
BuzzFeed changed the officer’s name to Shachar at his request. An earlier version of this story referred to him by a different name.