Serving out and proud in the IDF

Ofer Erez talks about being trans in the IDF and helping others. Photo by Samantha Cooper

For Ofer Erez, 25, there was never any question about being a transgender man. He always knew that he was a boy, despite being born female. It was just a matter of finding the right words for it.

“I was born in a small kibbutz in the north of Israel, then moved to another small kibbutz in the south of Israel. The same thing, the middle of nowhere,” he said. “I came out to my parents and friends when I was 16. It wasn’t because at 16, I understood. It was more because until that point, especially in Israel, ‘trans’ wasn’t an option.”

But somehow Erez, who was in Washington, D.C., last week, managed. He learned about the word from a friend of a friend, who also happened to be a transgender man.

“In the first meeting, I asked him, ‘What does it mean?’ and he explained to me that he was born female, but he’s a man. This is how he feels, this is how he sees himself and wants to live his life. My reaction was,” he said with eyes wide, mimicking the moment, “You can do that?”

The friend was also the first person Erez came out to.

His friends and family were accepting and understanding, as well. Since that moment when he came out, everything changed.

When he enlisted in the Israel Defense Forces in 2012, he did so as a female. He came from a proud-Zionist family and thought the only way he would be able to serve his country would be in the closet.

“It wasn’t easy,” he said. “Although I introduced myself as a female to my peers. I did tell the IDF officials. They didn’t know what to do with me.”

But he got lucky, although he had a mark on his record because of his trans identity. His commanding officers didn’t have a problem, but Erez still had to be addressed by female pronouns and wear a woman’s uniform.

Still, he was able to get some accommodations, like wearing a unisex work uniform and having short but separate shower times.

Things got better. He went to officer school, entering as a female but leaving as a male.

“Maybe the most basic thing they taught you about while training was, ‘What does it mean to be an officer?’ For me it was
obvious that I wanted to be the kind of commander whose soldiers feel open with and they can trust,” he said. “I realized I should be open an honest with them. I should lead by example.”

He came out to his school during the last month of officer training. After that, he began transitioning. All the medical treatments were paid for by the IDF.

And since then, everything changed. When a friend revealed to him that he was the first openly-transgender member of the military, Erez didn’t originally realize why it was so noteworthy.

“I didn’t think there was any big deal about my service,” he said.

He started getting phone calls from recruits and officers, looking for an answer to the question: How can I serve proudly and be myself proudly?

And that is what led him to the Jerusalem Open House for Pride and Tolerance, which he now leads. He is working on drafting new policies that will ensure transgender soldiers will be able to get accommodations without facing the same issues he had.

“When we started, I wasn’t able to see how big the picture is,” Erez explained. “Half of it was a personal point of view and half of it was, I appreciate the work this organization was doing. This is the military, we need regulations, let’s write them. I want to contribute.”

The personal touch he has bought to his work at the JOH is important, and he feels similarly about his work with the IDF. He has seen so many more people use the policy than he expected, which helped him realize that he wants to bring the policy to other militaries, including America’s.

“Nobody is serving the IDF because we want to be rich,” he said. “The same as serving is personal, writing this policy
is personal.”

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