When Ofer Erez heard the Trump administration’s reasons why transgender people were unfit to serve in the U.S. military, each of them contradicted everything he learned in his six years as a transgender soldier and officer in the Israel Defense Forces and as a consultant to the army on integrating transgender troops.
“It’s clearly a decision based on either Trump’s prejudice and transphobia – or on his narrow political considerations. Because it has absolutely nothing to do with military and the quality of service. You can see that by looking at the IDF,” Erez said in an interview with Haaretz. “I feel very frustrated by the situation in the United States because it is hurting good people on the ground doing the work that needs to be done to defend their country.”
Two months ago, Erez capped off a six-year stint in the IDF where he served as a commander in the General Staff’s planning division, handling complex national infrastructure projects and commanding hundreds of soldiers. During his service, he helped the army develop policies for transgender service and toured internationally, telling the world his story, under the pseudonym “Captain Shachar” to shield his identity for security reasons.
Today, as a civilian, Erez is the newly appointed executive director of Jerusalem Open House For Pride and Tolerance, the Israeli capital’s hub for services and education serving the LGBT population, both Israeli and Palestinian – and is able to speak freely in his own name, not only as an army representative.
He said Trump’s announcement brought back memories of a 2017 visit to the U.S. Military Academy at West Point where “they held a wonderful lunch reception for LGBT soldiers.”
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Coming in the wake of the change in policy during the Obama era, Erez recalled, it was the first event in which transgender troops could openly participate and it sparked quite a bit of excitement. Today, however, he is concerned about the fate of such soldiers under Trump's new policy.
“They were all good hardworking people, some of whom who have gone all over the world on dangerous missions to protect the U.S. and democracy," Erez said. "They are great patriots who are only asking for one thing: the right to serve their country."
It was late last Friday that Trump made the announcement that infuriated and frustrated Erez, along with many trans activists, particularly those with military backgrounds.
Trump’s antagonism toward transgender soldiers and his determination to reverse President Obama’s decision to accept them into the U.S. military is not new. Last July, he declared an outright ban on transgender troops, a move that was stymied by the military itself, which said it was too sudden and disruptive, and was successfully challenged in court on the grounds that the ban was rooted in prejudice and possibly unconstitutional.
The latest policy, billed as limiting transgender service rather than banning it outright, still sends a message that transgender soldiers are unwelcome in the U.S. military, stating that “persons with a history or diagnosis of gender dysphoria – including individuals who the policies state may require substantial medical treatment, including medications and surgery – are disqualified from military service except under limited circumstances.”
In unveiling the new policy, Trump claimed it was “developed through extensive study by senior uniformed and civilian leaders” who, he said, had “concluded that the accession or retention of individuals with a history or diagnosis of gender dysphoria – those who may require substantial medical treatment, including through medical drugs or surgery – presents considerable risk to military effectiveness and lethality.”
The truth, Erez said, is precisely the opposite: Transgender soldiers make an army more effective, not less so.
“There are no better experts and no better laboratory than what we have in the IDF," he told Haaretz. "And there, as in any organization, we’ve found that the more diverse an army becomes, the better it functions and the more effective it is. In Israel, our most elite units actively look for people who think differently and live out of the usual framework, who have different abilities and different life experiences.”
Moreover, added Erez, the claim that transgender soldiers require extensive and expensive medical treatment is another hollow excuse with no basis in reality. “What kind of medications do most trans people taking? Hormone treatments – either estrogen and testosterone. And in the general population, including the military, there are plenty of men who need testosterone for various reasons and women who take estrogen. Neither harms your ability to function or is highly costly.”
As for the claim that reassignment surgery disrupts military service, he explained, “I did my top surgery (breast removal) during my service. I took medical leave for one month and I was back. When, later on, I dislocated my shoulder, and needed surgery for that, I was out for far longer.”
Erez’s perspective is unique, having experienced the transformation in the IDF’s ability to handle transgender soldiers in its ranks first-hand and driven some of that change himself. Already transgender, he entered the army reluctantly as a female soldier in 2012. While confiding to his commanding officers from the beginning that he was transgender, Erez kept the information from the women in his unit.
A year and a half into his service, while in officers training school, he decided he couldn’t tell the soldiers under his command to be honest with him if he himself was not honest with them – and he went public.
“I felt as if I needed to be open and honest with my soldiers for them to feel open and honest with me. You can’t expect your soldiers to do something you can’t do,” he said.
This was the beginning of the process during which, alongside his regular duties – commanding both male and female soldiers – Erez acted as a consultant to the army, in tandem with a representative of the transgender advocacy organization Maavarim. Together with the office of the Adviser to the Chief of the General Staff on Gender Issues, they developed official guidelines on practical issues like the use of bathrooms, showers and other facilities, uniforms and other matters – all formalized in official policies issued in 2016. The procedures and policies they developed are constantly being reexamined and updated, and have been used as guidelines by the other 19 countries that welcome transgender military service.
Because of its universal conscription laws, Israel was essentially forced to pioneer integration of transgender soldiers into its military. At about the same age they receive their draft notices, on the verge of legal adulthood at age 18, an increasing number of Israeli youth are coming out as transgender. While many of these young transgender people request and receive discharges from the IDF and perform civilian volunteer service instead, others, like Erez, feel motivated to become soldiers.
He added that once he understood that the army was serious and sincere about working to be more inclusive, he – together with Maavarim – embraced the opportunity to help develop formal guidelines.
“Before the creation of the policy, the IDF hesitated to accept transgender individuals because they didn’t know what to do with them and they didn’t want to put people in situations they couldn’t handle, and their commanders in a place where they didn’t know what to do,” he said.
Now that the policies are clear – although they are not perfect and are continually being updated each time a new problem is encountered – Erez said he feels comfortable telling motivated transgender youth that there is a place for them in the IDF.
“What was key to doing this successfully was including people like me who understand both worlds – transgender and the military – and know how to build a bridge.”
Erez said he never experienced a situation where any soldier, religious or secular, refused to serve alongside him because of his gender identity: “Never. Not once. I think this is also something Trump can’t understand. He didn’t serve in the military. When you are a soldier and you have a mission, you don’t care about the gender of the person next to you. If that person next to you knows his job and what they are doing, that is all they care about.”
Moreover, his experience in helping to create army policy points to the fact that making the military open to transgender individuals who are motivated to serve is far less difficult than what many people think.
“The truth is that can be done with very few resources on one hand and basic common sense on the other," Erez noted. "Our experience working with the IDF over the past four years is the best proof that challenges are very easy to solve and very easy to handle. Any other claims are just an excuse for prejudice.”