Lieutenant Shachar Erez is the first openly transgender soldier serving in the Israeli Defense Forces, Israel’s military. Erez has served in the military since 2012 and was still a female when he joined.
Erez’s story was shared on Twitter by the Jewish Agency for Israel the same day that U.S. President Donald Trump announced on Twitter that he is reversing President Barack Obama’s decision to allow open transgender individuals to serve in the military.
“After consultation with my Generals and military experts, please be advised that the United States Government will not accept or allow Transgender individuals to serve in any capacity in the U.S. Military,” Trump tweeted. “Our military must be focused on decisive and overwhelming victory and cannot be burdened with the tremendous medical costs and disruption that transgender in the military would entail. Thank you.”
Here is a look at Erez’s story.
1. Shachar Entered the Israeli Military Wearing a Female Uniform on His First Day
Shachar enlisted in the IDF, as required by all Israeli citizens, in 2012. He hoped to wear a male uniform, but wore a female uniform on his first day. He felt uncomfortable and spoke with his commander.
“For me it was unacceptable in any way,” the 23-year-old Shachar told NBC News in April 2017 when he visited New York. “I told her everything, and of course, I was the first person she ever met who identified as transgender,” he said. “The first question [she asked] was, ‘How can I help? What do you need?’ I was shocked actually, and I told her, ‘[a] men’s uniform.’”
At the time, his commander couldn’t give him a male uniform, but she provided him with a unisex uniform. He finally felt comfortable, but he still had not told his fellow cadets about being transgender. That changed when he saw one of his colleagues give a speech about the LGBTQ community.
“I was super nervous and changed my mind about it like eight times,” he told NBC News. “I just remember how I opened it by saying that I want to tell them my personal story, but not in order for them to better know me, but in order for them to be better officers in the future.”
But after he came out, he felt normal. Shachar’s colleagues respected his gender identity.
2. Israeli Is Paying for His Sex Reassignment
By the end of 2013, Shachar was the first enlisted Israeli officer to medically transition. His medical insurance provided by the government paid for his sex reassignment surgeries and hormone therapy since Israeli law mandates health insurance coverage for transgender needs.
“I did my upper surgery, my chest surgery, actually during my service. The IDF is my insurance and so it covered all my expenses for my hormones and surgeries,” Erez told PRI’s The World in March. “Taking testosterone is making me a better soldier, and stronger.”
Shachar said he enjoyed being able to grow a beard and said he has been treated just like every other soldier.
“Everybody joins the IDF,” he says. “People are pretty used to meeting persons who are different from them. So everything was pretty normal.”
Shachar told After Ellen that he always wanted to take hormones and knew the effects.
“The first thing that happens when you start taking hormones is that your voice changes, you start growing a beard and you get muscular, so this is of course the pros of it. I think the cons of taking hormones is just that we still don’t know enough about the long term effects it can have on your body,” Shachar told After Ellen. “Unfortunately, trans medical care is still something that’s kind of new, and we still don’t have enough studies about it to understand the long term effects.”
3. He Says He Knew He Was a Boy at Age 16 & Asked His Parents to Cut His Hair Short at 2 Years Old
Shacher has known he was transgender from a very young age. When he was 16 years old, he realized her was a boy. However, he said he remembered asking his parents to cut his hair short when he was only two years old. By the time he was four, he refused to wear dresses, notes Jewish Boston.
Shacher had the advantage of growing up in a liberal household.
“I grew up in a Kibbutz, a small, liberal community in the countryside of North Israel. It was a very liberal community,” he told the Crimson. “My two wonderful parents pretty much went with everything I asked.”
Shacher said he remembered being 10 years old and looking at himself in the mirror and thinking that he wasn’t seeing his own body. “I felt disconnected and a little guilty,” he told the Crimson. “I didn’t think my inside truth could exist in the outside world.”
Shacher long feared what would happen when he finally had to enlist in the IDF, but he was surprised how everything worked out. He said the commander he spoke to was a 19-year-old orthodox Jewish woman, who never met a transgender person before. But she was still helpful and was treated like any other soldier.
4. Openly Gay & Lesbian Soldiers Have Served in the Israeli Army Since 1993, but There Was no Policy for Transgender Individuals Before Shacher
In 1993, the IDF began allowing gays and lesbians to openly serve in the military. However, before Shacher, there was no policy on transgender personnel until Shacher. After he enlisted, the IDF officially opened all positions to transgender individuals.
A 2015 report by the Palm Center praised the IDF’s transgender policy, noting that it “enjoys broad support” and is “widely considered a success.”
“Some [transgender individuals] come with documents and say they are starting the transitioning process. In those cases, we think, how we can help them, whether it’s with uniforms or a special permit to have long hair. If there is a soldier who enlists as a man, but along his service wants to be addressed using female terms, then we do that,” Brig. Gen. Rachel Tevet-Weisel, an IDF advisor on LGBT and women’s issues, told the Palm Center.
Shachar also provided a comment, telling the Palm Center, “Serving in the army and being recognized for who I really am by my fellow soldiers made me feel like a real man for the first time in my life. It made me feel like myself. When you feel accepted and happy as who you are, you want to do your best as a soldier, as a person.”
5. A 2016 Study Estimates There Are About 4,000 Transgender Individuals Serving in the U.S. Military
A 2016 RAND Study estimates that there are about 4,000 transgender individuals serving in the U.S. military. Of those, an estimated 2,450 are active, while 1,510 are in the Selected Reserve. Time Magazine reports that studies of foreign militaries found that transgender policies “had benefits for all service members by creating a more inclusive and diverse force.”
The RAND study also found that implementing a policy of allowing openly transgender personnel did not make a significant impact on the military’s readiness to act. The study reads:
Given the small estimated number of transgender personnel and the even smaller number who would seek gender transition–related treatment in a given year, the study found that the readiness impact of transition-related treatment would lead to a loss of less than 0.0015 percent of total available labor-years in the active component. Even using the highest estimates, less than 0.1 percent of the force would seek gender transition–related treatment that would affect their ability to deploy.
Time noted that there have been other transgender individuals who have followed in Shachar’s footsteps. Amy, who transitioned from male to female, told the magazine that it was “empowering” to be treated equally and supported by her peers.