In its weekend edition Israeli newspaper Yedioth Ahronot presented stories of three transgender men in the Israeli army. Here’s one of them, the story of Captain M., a Jewish religious trans man.
Nothing in the handsome, so masculine, face of the 26-year-old Captain M. reveals that until just a year and a half ago he was a woman. A religious woman. The bearded officer with the yarmulke remembers himself as a happy little girl who loved to wear dresses. “Only when I reached adolescence, when all the girls around me were talking about physical changes, I felt Yuck,” he remembers. “I wasn’t comfortable with my body. I was wearing three shirts to hide it. And when my father said about a new shabbat outfit, ‘Wow, you can already see you’re a little woman”, I threw away the outfit.”
The house was religious and pluralistic. Captain M. knew about the LGBT community, and yet he was convinced that he was suffering from a mental illness. “I was sure I was crazy,” he says simply. “But at the age of 15 I looked through a professional medical journal that my mother, a doctor, had received in the mail, and there was a story about a gay doctor who had been born female. I remember I was so excited. I said to myself, ‘here there’s another one like me in the world, I did not invent it and I’m not crazy.’ I even cried with relief. then I continued to cry because I knew I would never be happy.”
“Because I am religious, and I thought that in the religious framework there was no room for people like me. I was afraid that I could not get married and start a family. The article was in English, and it was clear to me that in Israel there were no people like me who were born girls but felt they were boys. So I agreed with myself that I would just be the strange woman at the end of the street.”
The high school years and the pre-army preparatory passed for captain M. in accordance with his biological gender. Then he joined the army. “I joined the Intelligence Corps’ course which was combined, women and men, and in the officers class I was with the women’s team. Also because I am religious, I refrained from touching. The job was demanding, on a closed base, and at nights, instead of sleeping, I was putting on headphones and watching documentaries about transgender people like me, who felt they had not born in the right sex. These shows documented the process these people went through transitioning from boys to girls or from girls to boys. I felt really bad about myself. Until one night it just hit me, and I asked myself, why am I so miserable when I can, like all these people, be who I really am and become a happy human being? The next morning I went to my commander. I told him that I was transgender and asked to be released from the service in order to begin the process of transition from a girl into a boy.”
To Captain M’s surprise, the intelligence officer in charge strengthened him in his decision, and promised him a supportive environment if he continued his military service. And so it was. “I came out, I started the transition and with the help of a personnel officer I moved to another base. I cut my hair, I bought a yarmulke for myself and flowers for the personnel officer who helped me, and I arrived at the new base as a man. Some people there knew me from the past and yet approached me as male, ‘bro’ and slapped me on my back. Some said, ‘a new female officer arrived,’ and then,’ Oh … it’s actually a male officer.’ I received so many good and moving responses.”
Were you surprised by the military acceptance?
“Very much, precisely because the fear of the army was that I wanted to be released. But then I realized I was not alone, and among IDF soldiers there are other transgender people like me. The army is making efforts to help them integrate into significant roles. It’s unbelievable. Because it’s not just an army- it’s an army in the state of Israel. If you were to ask the world which army is suitable for inclusion of transgender people, I don’t think the answer would immediately be: “The army of the Jewish people.”
Chief military rabbi candidate, Col. Eyal Karim, said that a gay man should be treated like a “sick” or “deformed” man. The head of the pre-army preparatory called the gay community “perverts”, and hundreds of rabbis publicly supported these blunt words.
“In the last Gay Pride parade in Jerusalem there was a great presence of religious people. This is our answer to such words,” says Captain M. “You have to understand that not all religious people think like these rabbis. I am a religious person and I believe that God created me a girl intentionally. Some people say: if this is the way God created you, then you have to accept it and live in anguish. But I don’t believe that God wants to create a human being who lives in agony. I have learned and received so much from this journey. I am what I’m supposed to be. I did my repairs, and today I am able to worship G-d as a whole person.”
Transgender treatment in the IDF is conducted according to the policy “tailored suit” – that is, any appeal of a soldier or a future soldier is examined individually and treated as needed with various parties. The IDF accompanies some of the transgender people even before their recruitment, sometimes even before the first order, and until their release. The YOHALAM unit (Hebrew abbreviation for Counsel Chief of Staff on Gender) conducts informational days on the subject and provides a solution to the commanders. The IDF covers the costs of the medical treatment for a sex change, performed according to existing procedures in the State of Israel, and the Ministry of Health helps as much as possible. In addition, transgender soldiers are being given a male or female uniform as needed, and not according to what is written in their birth certificate.
During army service, do you come across homophobic comments?
“Very few. When I pass through the guards at the base in the mornings, there are guards who already recognize me. At the beginning of the process I looked like a girl with a yarmulke, my voice was high, and sometimes they would laugh at me. Like, ‘what are you doing here?’ ‘I’m here because I’m a man,’ I’d say. They would ask: ‘Then why is your voice so high?’ Even outside the military people would stare at me sometimes on the street. Look and turn their heads. I’ve had short hair and a yarmulke, but I still looked like a girl. It was confusing. Once, at the central bus station in Jerusalem, a woman ran after me and asked me, ‘tell me, are you a boy or girl?’ I told her, I am a boy. Then she said ‘OK’ and left.”
What’s next? Do you think about marriage, kids?
“I don’t know what the future holds. Two years ago I’d say no, but two years ago I also didn’t think that today I’d be a man with a beard and a deep voice.”