Sitting before a group of 60 peers would rarely be difficult for a highly-trained military officer, but this time was different.
“I told them, ‘I want to tell you a personal story.’ I was going to give them a quick look at my world, so if they have a soldier (under their command) with the same story, they would know how to treat them,” said Lt. Shachar.*
Shachar is the first openly transgender officer in the Israel Defense Forces, starting his military service as a female soldier and then graduating from officer training as a male.
He was recently in Chicago and participated in the Pride Parade, visited with several members of Jewish United Fund’s Young Leadership Division, and attended a salute to LGBTQ veterans in Daley Plaza-all during the same week the United States military announced that transgender people may serve openly.
Born female, Shachar said by age 5, he felt that he was in the wrong body. “I was never a girl. From the first moment, it was not only how I acted-it was how I felt.”
Puberty’s arrival-and along with it, a decidedly female body-exacerbated the conflict between his outward appearance and inner self.
“It really became a problem to me…I didn’t believe there was a way to explain my feelings to others. I wanted to disappear to a faraway country where no one knew me.
“I didn’t think there was a place in the world for me.”
At 16, he could no longer hide his secret. He desperately needed to tell a family member or friend or therapist-someone who would listen. By chance, he met someone who identified as transgender, born female and who was now a man.
“I thought it’s not only in my head. Because he was finally someone I could relate to. He was a missing piece of the puzzle…I now had a way to express these feelings.”
Shachar told his parents and close friends, one conversation at a time. “It was scary and I stumbled with my words.” Yet more than anything, he felt relief.
Then, at age 18, it was time to enlist, as is required in Israel.
“I wanted to be the best soldier I could,” he said. “I wanted to do the best service. I formed guidelines for myself and decided I wouldn’t let anything negative affect my service.”
Still, there was the issue of his identity.
“When I joined, I chose not to tell my peers. But I trusted my commanders,” he said. “I was so fortunate that my first conversation with my commander was up front. The only question she had was ‘OK, how can I help you?'”
“I am very proud of my uniform, but I couldn’t bear the thought of being dressed as a woman,” Shachar said. “They gave me permission to wear a uniform that is unisex. It was a great solution. We still use this solution today.”
Shachar transitioned from physically female to male during his service. For all who serve, the IDF provides medical care that includes treatments for gender dysphoria, a medically defined condition in which a person experiences distress because there’s a mismatch between their biological sex and gender identity. Still, the only people who were aware of his situation were his commanding officers, until he neared the end of his officer training course.
“I asked myself what kind of officer I was going to be. I wanted to have an open and honest relationship with my soldiers.”
A conviction to creating a trusting relationship between himself and those under his command-like he experienced with his commanding officer-compelled him to share his story with 60 of his peers.
They had no idea he started life as a female. Once again, he was in a vulnerable position, unsure of their response.
He found the group to be accepting-and curious, asking many questions. “From this moment on, it wasn’t a secret anymore,” he said.
He was asked to tell his story to a reporter. A week after the article published, a teenager contacted the reporter, hoping to speak to Shachar because he was transgender, too.
“Then came another one. And then another one. I realized there was a bigger picture to my personal story. There is an issue to be addressed.”
He was invited to work with the chief gender officer, a brigadier-general who oversees all matters of gender and women’s issues for those serving in the IDF, to better understand the needs of transgender soldiers.
“They (IDF leadership) actively look at ways to make our service better,” he said. “The IDF is flexible with its policies. Policies are always changing so each and every [soldier] gets what they need.”
Shachar is continuing his service as an advisor and speaker. In the future, he wants to attend university to major in engineering, and plans to volunteer with the IDF to work on transgender issues.
*Lt. Shachar’s last name has been excluded per Israel Defense Forces policy.
This article originally appeared in the August 2016 edition of JUF News.