Last week, four years after I graduated from the Israel Defense Forces officer course, I was promoted to the rank of captain. For me, this is not a personal achievement; it is one dedicated to my commanders. Understand that my journey was not like any other. I am Israel’s first openly transgender soldier.
A year and a half into my service, at the urging of my supportive superiors, I found myself in front of a group of fellow cadets and came out. To say it was easy would be dishonest. And without the faith and support of the people around me, I might have never found the strength to make that life-changing decision.
But I did. And for it I was rewarded with kindness, understanding and tolerance. My peers received me with open arms. They congratulated me and told me how proud they were of my achievement. They even asked why I had kept it a secret for so long. Of course they would have supported me all along.
Their words were more than mere platitudes. Not once during my time at the IDF have I been discriminated against because of my gender identity. And my superiors also offered more than just supportive gestures. The Israeli military’s health insurance covered the cost of my transition. They paid for my hormone injections and complex surgery, including difficult procedures such as double mastectomy and chest reconstruction.
The sheer kindness and tolerance that made it all possible for me is what motivates me now to create the same conditions for those who are still on the journey that I have already successfully completed. And I have a message for all young people — not just for those who are transgender — who are still struggling, who feel different: We are equal and we all should have equal rights and opportunities.
I have now been in the IDF for five years, and I just decided to make it my home for an extra three. In addition to fulfilling my day-to-day tasks as a captain, I serve as a special adviser to the IDF’s gender affairs office. It is an incredible, and humbling, honor to be a part of how Israel and its military are leading the way on transgender issues.
The work that I do gives me the opportunity to interact with other transgender recruits in the IDF. I know of at least another dozen men and women in the Israeli military who identify as transgender. My job is to create an environment in which they feel safe and comfortable to come out. To demonstrate to them that they have no reason to be afraid, that they will be treated with the same respect and consideration that I have experienced.
Israel’s critics often accuse the IDF of “pinkwashing,” using cultural propaganda that seeks to present Israel as a haven for minorities in order to deflect criticism about the military’s treatment of Palestinians. The obscene fatuity of the concept should be obvious: Israel is the only gay-friendly country in the Middle East, a region where people like myself are routinely being harassed, prosecuted and worse.
I reject the accusation of being a propaganda tool for the IDF in its entirety. I am not a mouthpiece. To the contrary, the IDF has given me a platform to advance the rights of my people. Everything else is malicious slander to further political agendas.
I would encourage other governments, and militaries, still struggling with the issue of transgenderism to look to Israel for guidance. They should feel positive about allowing open service for everyone — the straight, homosexual and transgender men and women willing to put their lives on the line for their country.
My journey was not like any other. But there is no reason that it cannot be replicated. Where there is equality, there will be justice. And where justice is honored and preserved, there will be opportunities for all.
Capt. Shachar Erez is the first openly transgender soldier in the IDF.