Lieutenant Shachar joined the IDF as a woman. Throughout his military service, he went through the unique and complicated process of changing his gender. Identifying himself as a man, he has become the first openly transgender officer in the IDF.
His story of acceptance, patience and honesty is an inspiration to other transgender soldiers in the IDF and to anyone who believes that diversity and equality is possible anytime and anywhere, even in the military.
This article is an in depth interview with Lt. Shachar, whose story was also featured on BuzzFeed in February 2015.
Shachar joined the army knowing he felt like a man and identifying himself as transgender, but not everyone in his life knew. At the time of his recruitment he still wasn’t ready to introduce himself to everyone as a man. “I knew that I felt like a man by the time I was two years old, at sixteen I learned how to define those feelings, and since then all the important people in my life have known. Nearing my recruitment it was clear to me that I had to address the issue.”
Shachar’s Story – Overcoming Challenges Step by Step
Within 24 hours of arriving at his training base, Shachar approached his commander to talk to her about his needs. “I wasn’t ready to tell everyone around me, but I did choose to talk to my commanders. I understood that if I wanted any consideration I needed to be honest with them.” The commander understood the situation and gave Shachar a separate time to shower on his own, and special permission to only wear his field uniform (which is the same for men and women). This way he could go through training avoiding situations that would make him feel uncomfortable.
“During training I chose to keep my orientation to myself and not speak about it. When people asked I elegantly avoided answering. Back then I had a very clear ideology; it was important for me to succeed in my service, and I was convinced that being open about my gender would just create needless conflicts that could distract me from doing my job.”
During officer’s training course Shachar came to the understanding that he had to “come out” about his gender orientation. He realized that if he wanted to be a successful officer and have good relationships with his soldiers, he would have to be honest with them. “As an officer-in-training I understood that I wanted to have an honest and trustworthy relationship with my soldiers, which meant I had to be able to tell them who I really am.”
“As an officer-in-training I understood that I wanted to have an honest and trustworthy relationship with my soldiers, which meant I had to be able to tell them who I really am.”
Towards the end of the officer’s training course, a whole week is dedicated to teaching the future officers of the IDF how to cope with the individual needs of each soldier. The week is full of activities that put an emphasis on differences between soldiers and their special needs. Shachar came out to his company during a unique activity they had at the end of that week.
“The activity was to ask each other questions that we didn’t know the answers to, no answers required – just questions. During the round one of the guys asked me why I was wearing a men’s uniform. At the end of the activity I decided that I wanted to answer him in front of the whole group. It was the first time in my life that I addressed the topic in a large forum. I said to him that I wear a men’s uniform because that’s how I feel. My whole life I’ve known I’m a man, despite the fact that I was born a woman. I think, feel and identify as a man.”
“I wear a men’s uniform because that’s how I feel. My whole life I’ve known I’m a man, despite the fact that I was born a woman. I think, feel and identify as a man.”
Shachar finished officer’s training course as a man. His commander personally made sure that his officer’s diploma declared him as a male commander.
The Next Step: Physical Transformation Supported by the Army
Israeli law obligates public health care clinics to fund sex change processes if the requester is fit to undergo physical sex change therapy. During their military service, soldiers are cared for by the Health Corps, which is obligated to follow the same laws as any other public health care clinic. Therefore the IDF, under Israeli law, funds both hormonal treatment and sex reassignment surgery.
“I’m glad to say that after finishing officer’s training course and choosing to live openly with my gender, I decided that there is no reason not to start going through a physical transformation. The first step was hormones and the second a surgery.”
Shachar got a recommendation from a psychologist to start going through sex changing hormonal treatment. After bringing the recommendation to a military doctor he was referred to a professional endocrinologist who started his hormonal treatment. Shachar is now in the process of taking sex changing hormones. If he chooses to take the next step and undergo a sex reassignment surgery during his service, the IDF will also fund and support that treatment.
Changing Policies Along the Way
Despite the overall acceptance and support of his commanders and peers, sometimes base policies just didn’t know how to deal with his unique situation. During his training, Shachar told the commanders that he identifies as male so that they could find ways to help him feel more comfortable, but they still would not address him as male in private conversations.
“At one point during my training I went up to one of the commanders I felt comfortable with and asked her why she wouldn’t address me as a man in our personal conversations. Her answer was that she wasn’t allowed to. The laws of the base were that soldiers were to be addressed as written in their identification cards. For example, if a soldier has a nickname that everyone calls her by, the commander still has to address her by her formal name, as written on her ID. By the same logic, the commanders could not address me as a male. I accepted the policy”
Several months later the officers at the base had a discussion about the subject. The base commander changed the policy and declared that transgender soldiers would be addressed however they choose. “When I heard about that decision it made me very happy. It means that transgender soldiers who recruit after me will receive even better treatment than I did.”
Inspiring Other Transgenders
Shachar’s story opened doors for other transgenders, helping them understand that it is possible to join the army and feel comfortable. He regularly gets phone calls from commanders and soldiers asking for advice, and agrees to interview for the media to get the message out.
“When there’s a will, there’s a way! There are orders from above, good instincts on the ground, and a general will to incorporate us. It’s just a matter of several soldiers each year, but transgenders are a special part of society that is worth fighting for. It may seem complicated, but it’s not – it’s a moral choice, a moral choice that the IDF made when it chose to define itself as the nation’s army. There is no reason not to recruit great people just because it requires a few modifications in the system.”
“Transgenders are a special part of society that is worth fighting for. It may seem complicated, but it’s not – it’s a moral choice, a moral choice that the IDF made when it chose to define itself as the nation’s army. There is no reason not to recruit great people just because it requires a few modifications in the system.”
“I can’t tell you that every single commander in the IDF is accepting of transgenders, but overall I think that our chain of command is made up of very good people. There’s an informal message in the IDF that if you have a problem with transgenders – shut up – because there’s no place for that kind of opinion in the army. I think it’s great!”
For Shachar, the highest level of acceptance is when his gender just becomes a non-issue. “The biggest support is just to say: “we don’t care.” It’s to be able to see beyond gender issues and just evaluate a soldier according to the work he does. When a commander is able to do that – it’s the most empowering feeling for a transgender soldier.”
“The biggest support is just to say: “we don’t care.” It’s to be able to see beyond gender issues and just evaluate a soldier according to the work he does. When a commander is able to do that – it’s the most empowering feeling for a transgender soldier.”
The Official Policy
Brigadier General Rachel Tevet-Weisel, the Women’s Affairs Advisor to the IDF Chief of Staff, is also responsible for policy making on LGBT issues. “The main issue is that it’s really not an issue. Today in the army we don’t ask anyone about his or her sexual preferences. It’s not an issue in term of recruitment, its not an issue in terms of where they are going to serve, it’s not our business – it’s only their business. The only place where it could be my business is if it’s going to be a problem for them.”
The IDF has constituted several policies to make military service more comfortable for transgender soldiers, in order to avoid the kind of problems that they may face. These policies are not recommendations, they are orders. Which means that if a transgender soldier approaches a representative of Brig. Gen. Tevet-Wiesel (there is one on every base in the IDF) and receives these adaptations, his commanders are obligated to follow them.
“If a male soldier comes to us and says he is in a process to become a woman I have to know about it because I need to make adaptations in his service. For example, only male soldiers can wear a male uniform and only female soldiers can wear a female uniform, but he can come to me and say “ I am a guy but I want to be a women, so I need you to tell the authorities that I can wear a uniform for women.” It can be a uniform, it can be special permission to have long hair, if he chooses to be addressed by a female name – we will talk to his commander and it will be that way.”
Despite the progressive policies, obviously not every soldier and commander in the IDF has tolerant views towards LGBT soldiers. Brigadier General Rachel Tevet-Weisel acknowledges that and understands that when it comes to people’s views, education is the only policy.
“I don’t think the army is clean of homophobia. There are probably places that soldiers aren’t acting in the right way, but this is against the policy of the IDF. If I hear about [homophobic actions] I’ll talk to the commanders there, and they will have to do something about it.”
“But part of the education today in the army is that you have to be tolerant. They have a special program in officer’s training course that talks all about tolerance and LGBT issues are one of their subjects. You have to accept everyone as they are, you can’t choose, these are your soldiers and these are the people you are going to fight with. It’s not that there aren’t problems [like homophobia], I’m sure there are, but that isn’t the policy. Most of the commanders know that policy and the pass it onto their soldiers. It’s a strict one.”