Lt. Shachar Erez is the first transgender officer on active duty in the Israeli Defense Force. On a recent visit to the US, Lt. Shachar met with the Consulate in New York as well as the Philadelphia Mayor’s Office Commission on LGBT Affairs. He also spoke to students at Temple University, the University of Pennsylvania, and other universities during his stay, and despite a busy schedule, was gracious enough to take the time to share his story with AfterEllen. On the day of his speaking engagement in Philadelphia I caught up with him by phone.
AE: Thank you so much for speaking with AfterEllen about your experience. To get a little bit of your back story, I understand that you enlisted into the defense force as female, and just began your transition a few years ago, correct?
Lt. Shachar: Yes. The first time that I told someone that I’m trans was when I was 16 years old. I told my parents and my closest friends, but it was almost six years ago and back then I was afraid that me being trans would be a problem in military service, and I didn’t want to raise any unnecessary attention to myself. I said to myself that what’s important to me is to give the best service that I can and not deal with my gender identity. And so I chose to enlist as a female to actually hide the fact that I’m trans, and so it was like a step back for me back then. It was only after one year in service that I finally told everybody, and actually, it was the moment that it stopped being a secret. So, afterwards, I could start my physical change. Before that I couldn’t say to people that I’m female and grow a beard. [Laughs]
AE: Since you started the hormones, have there been any physical setbacks? What do you feel are the pros and cons of hormone treatment?
Lt. Shachar: First of all, I always knew I wanted to take hormones, even before I understood completely 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. 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.
AE: That’s true. Do you think that hormone therapy for trans men is safer or less safe than it is for trans women?
Lt. Shachar: Good question. I don’t know if it’s safer. I do know that in both cases you better consult an endocrinologist. You shouldn’t do it on your own. There are people that try to get the hormones on the black market everywhere in the world, not just the US or Israel. You know it’s still a medical procedure that needs to be supervised by professionals. I don’t know if one of them is more dangerous. I do know that for trans men the treatment hormone, testosterone, is a really strong hormone. For us, with hormones at least, it’s sort of easier. Like my voice changed very quickly, and I started to grow a beard and stuff. Unfortunately for trans women when they start taking estrogen, their voices do not change that drastically as with trans men, and they still need to do more treatments in order to get rid of beards and hair other places. If they want to, of course. I know that testosterone is, you could say, more effective than estrogen.
AE: As far as your mood, did you find that it changed?
Lt. Shachar: It’s a good question! I don’t know! [Laughs] I know that, I don’t think my mood changed because, you can imagine, oh you take testosterone and you can be more violent and something like this. None of this happened, but after I started taking hormones, it’s funny, but I just became happier. You know one study that was done in Holland shows that after you start taking hormones, the rate of people who tried to commit suicide goes down by more than fifty percent. The hormone treatment is one of the most important things in order to lower the feelings about your gender dysphoria. So when I started taking hormones, I think I just became a lot more confident and a lot more comfortable in my own body.
AE: And you’ll be taking them the rest of your life, right?
Lt. Shachar: Yes, unfortunately.
AE: I understand that all of your treatment is completely funded through the Israeli Defense Force?
Lt. Shachar: Yes, in Israel it’s amazing because we have healthcare and health insurance for everybody. And, as a soldier, my health insurance is the IDF and so my hormones are paid off completely by the IDF. And I’m not special. It’s the same for trans women. I am the first one to ever try it and succeed actually. In Israel we also get coverage for sex change operations from our insurance. And so, as a soldier, I did the surgery and all cost was paid off by the IDF.
AE: Wow. I’m assuming your situation would be different if you were an American going through this transition.
Lt. Shachar: I know that in America trans people in service were banned until recently. I don’t know the American society well enough to know how I would feel if I were born there, but I do think that my military service was one of the most empowering things for me as trans because, as you can imagine, in the military everybody is equal. You are exactly like everybody else because it’s the military, and for me this feeling was one of the best I could imagine. It was one of the first times that I ever felt like everybody else, and this was all I ever wanted. Just to be normal.
AE: You’ve said that you felt male from the time you were very young. What I wonder about is, there are always going to be little girls who are just tomboys, and they want to wear “boys clothes” and do “boys things”—or what society says those things are. I was one of those, but of course, I still identify as female. What was the turning point for you? What is that moment of distinction between wanting to do “boy things” and wear “boy clothes” and actually realizing that you feel male and know you are trans?
Lt. Shachar: Actually the term trans was not a term I knew growing up because I grew up in the countryside of Israel. It was very liberal, but still the whole concept of gender and sexual orientation was relatively new to us, and so I didn’t have the words to express how I felt. But my parents told me that until the age of five years old, I actually said to them: I want to be a boy. I don’t know if a lot of tomboy-girls say this, but I know that for me, after the age of six, I understood that this is not something that I could say out loud. It’s not something that society could accept. And so, I stopped saying it to other people, but to myself I kept thinking about it. You know, this is not my body. This is not just some sort of choice that I made to look like a boy or do, what we call boys hobbies. I felt disconnected from my body, and actually I remember one time when I was ten years old, I guess. I’d just come back from the barbershop after I’d shaved my head, and I looked at myself in the mirror, and I was ten, and still I remember thinking to myself this is not my body. This is the body of some young girl who I’m actually hurting, or, I don’t know, ruining her body because she could be a very beautiful kid, but I’m cutting her hair short, I’m dressing her in boys’ clothing, and I’m hurting her. And this kind of disconnection from my body is one of my earliest memories of really feeling that something here is not right.
AE: It must have been really hard for you as a teenager. How did you deal with that, and at that point were your parents understanding of what you were feeling?
Lt. Shachar: Until I was sixteen . . . as I said earlier, I always knew what was my truth: that I’m a boy. But I also realized, at least back then, that there was no way that the reality outside would find a way to meet the reality inside of me. I couldn’t find how the two things go together, and so growing up as a teenager—you said it great—it was even harder, going into puberty, and having to face the fact that yes, you know, I have a female body. As a child, I could hide it a lot more easily, but as a teenager I needed to make a lot more effort to hide it from other people and even from myself. I remember myself – in Israel in the summer it’s hot, I don’t know, like Miami maybe here. Still, I remember wearing three layers of clothing in order to hide my body in the middle of August. This was my way to deal with the outside. I always knew that I’m a boy, and I want to live like a man, but I didn’t think there was any chance of it coming true in my reality. So, my solution, my fantasy, was to disappear to a faraway country, start a new life, like fake my own death and start with a new identity – that was the solution of a fourteen year old kid. I believed back then that this was the only way I could ever be myself. I’m glad that I was wrong! [laughs]
AE: You must feel so relieved to have come out and finally transitioned?
Shachar: Relieved, yeah, but I always keep reminding myself how privileged I am. There is a lot of luck in my story and privilege, and I try not to forget it.
AE: Do you mean privilege in that you happen to have a lot of support and you were able to have your transition funded?
Lt. Shachar: Exactly. Also support form my family and my commanders, and you know, you asked earlier about the differences between trans men and trans women. I think for trans men things are generally – not every time – but in general trans men have some privilege over trans women, especially when you start with transitioning, because you can pass more easily. Like I can walk down the street, and no one will know that I’m trans. And so if someone wants to discriminate against me on the basis of gender, they wouldn’t even know. Unfortunately for trans women, it’s not the case a lot of times. Even to be a trans man, I keep reminding myself that I’m privileged.
AE: I read in another article, you said that everyone has been very understanding in the Defense Force and that’s going very well for you. Tell me about that.
Lt. Shachar: Yeah. In my first year of service, even my first two years of service, I couldn’t understand how every commander I have gave me the same exact treatment—good treatment and support! How can this be? It seemed too good to be true. But after becoming a commander, going through the officer course in the IDF, I realized why I got that kind of treatment. We are all taught to be very sensitive to our soldiers because in the IDF we have a mandatory draft, which means that everybody in Israeli society joins the IDF—Jews, secular, religious, Christians, Muslims, the Bedouins, men, women, trans—during the officer course we are taught how to be considerate, and how to be accepting and be just open to anyone no matter how different their culture. And I think this is the main reason why I was so well treated in the IDF, because this is the way the IDF treats their soldiers.
AE; That’s great. So, do you have any advice for a young person who might be trans who is reading this, and they don’t have any sort of privilege, and especially people who haven’t really come out about this. What would you say to them?
Lt. Shachar: I’m helping a lot of young people in the military. I try to keep saying to them, you know, don’t give up. Things are getting better, and things will get better. I feel I’m too privileged maybe to say those kinds of things, but I really believe in it. When I was growing up I didn’t believe there was any chance of me living my life as I wanted to live it, but I was wrong. I do believe our society is going in the right direction, and I hope to inspire people not to give up on their life, on their dreams, or on their identity.
AE: I think that’s really important, and also it’s still a process for you, you’ve mentioned. And part of that process is surgery, I understand. Is that something you’ve decided on yet?
Lt. Shachar: I had my first surgery, the chest surgery, last May. Again, all of it was paid for by the military because that’s what Israeli law demands. The other surgeries are a lot more complex medically, and so I wish to have them, but I’m really scared. [laughs]
AE: That’s understandable! I don’t know that much about it. I imagine it must be a very invasive surgery, and I know that there are trans people who don’t ever go through any sort of secondary surgery, but for you, personally, do you feel like you can be okay with this if you decide not to go through with surgery?
Lt. Shachar: Ooh, it’s a good question. I think as much as I can push it, as much as I can delay it, I will do it. I don’t think I could go through my whole life without it, but I hope maybe in the next five or ten years medicine will become better for us, and the surgery will be safer, and then I can do it.
AE: I understand. But just the hormones alone have made a world of difference for you, regardless of surgery. Correct me if I’m wrong.
Lt. Shachar: Definitely. Hormones were one of the most important steps for me in my process.