The Pentagon plans to announce on July 1 its plan to accept and integrate transgender people into the armed forces. The Israeli Defense Force (IDF) has beat us to it.
At an event at Congregation Kol Ami on Friday, Lt. Shacher of the IDF told his own moving story of coming to terms with his gender identity and the support he has received from military leaders in making his transition. Shacher (active duty Israeli officers are identified only by their first names) stood in uniform in front of a crowd that included David Siegel, the Israeli Consul General; Rabbi Zach Shapiro of Culver City’s Temple Akiba and Rabbi Denise Eger of Kol Ami, who arranged Shacher’s presentation.
He spoke nervously at first, but Shacher then became more confident as he told the story of his transition over the past 22 years to the young man he is today.
Shacher, a word that means “dove” in Hebrew, was born a girl at a small kibbutz in the north of Israel. Early on, his parents began to realize that he didn’t identify with the sex to which he was born. At the age of two, Shacher said, he asked his parents to shave his head. By five he was refusing to wear dresses. “God put me in the wrong body,” Shacher thought then. As he grew up he began climbing trees and playing soccer while girls his age were dressing dolls. His parents, while initially puzzled, supported their daughter’s evolution into their son.
“If I didn’t get their support, telling me it’s okay to be who you are, I wouldn’t be here today,” Shacher said.
Shacher said that he understood early on that he was a boy. But the question was how to let other people know that. When he was 16, he decided there was only one way to transform himself into what he knew he really was — he had to runaway and create a brand new life. But the thought of leaving his family and friends was heart-breaking, he said. Then one day a friend introduced him to another trans man, and Shacher realized he wasn’t the anomaly he had thought he was. “At that moment, I thought in this world maybe there is a place for me,” Shacher said.
He began telling the rest of his family and his friends, one on one, that he identified as a boy. Shacher said the response was hugs. “Between me and my friends, I was the man I always wanted to be.”
After high school Shacher joined the IDF, which is required of all but a few exempt Israelis. He didn’t want to let his gender identity get in the way of his building a military career. But he also decided that he needed to be honest with his officers.
Shacher was identified officially as female and bunked with female soldiers. But on his first day in the military he asked for permission to wear the uniform worn by male soldiers rather than that worn by women. Permission was denied, but Shacher was allowed to wear another uniform used by troops in the field that didn’t define one’s sexual identity.
So his commander knew and accepted that Shacher identified as a man, but while going through basic training, Shacher couldn’t bring himself to come out to his fellow soldiers. He quickly moved up the ranks and was named a lieutenant, with troops reporting to him.
In his speech on Friday, Shacher made clear that being honest to those who report to him is very important. But how to tell them that the soldier they knew as a woman actually identified as a man? What, he asked himself, could be a more important identity than one’s gender? “The first words used about us when we are born are: ‘Is it a boy or is it a girl?'” he said.
So Shacher revealed his identity to his 15 female soldiers, something he doesn’t remember much about because of the stress he felt. His revelation came in his answer to a question from a woman who asked why he didn’t wear a woman’s uniform. “I wear a man’s uniform because I see myself and have lived my whole life as a man,” he replied. The women in the group hugged him.
Shacher said the IDF has been very supportive of his transition. The military actually has a brigadier general who oversees gender issues. He has worked with her to make it easier for transgender people to be themselves in the military. In addition to letting him wear a different uniform, the IDF even waived enforcing its no beard rule in his case. On hormone therapy paid for by the IDF, Shacher sports a small beard that he says helps him reinforce his identity as a man. Last month he had his first gender reassignment surgery, also funded by the military.
Meanwhile, the Pentagon’s plan to embrace transgender people, once denied service for “medical reasons” is under attack by Republicans in Congress. U.S. Rep. Mac Thornberry, a Texas Republican, chairs the Armed Services Committee and continues to question the plan.