Ofer Erez was born and raised as a girl, but even in his youth he knew he was a boy. After he was discharged from the army with the rank of Captain, he tells for the first time how he made history and became the first transgender officer in the IDF.
There is no indication from Ofer Erez’s masculine appearance, the new director of the Jerusalem Open House for Pride and Tolerance (JOH), that 24 years ago he was his parents’ firstborn daughter. Ofer’s beard is styled, his hair is short-cropped and his voice is deep.
About two months ago, Ofer was released from the IDF with the rank of captain, leaving behind a precedent in the army’s history, being recognized as the first out transgender officer in Israel and one of the first out trans soldiers in the world. During his service, he went through sex reassignment surgery whilst being busy writing regulations for recruiting soldiers in his situation.
In his new role at the JOH, Ofer is also conquering a new and symbolic peak. Exactly 30 years since the Israeli law banning homosexuality was abolished, he has become the first out transgender paid CEO of an Israeli organization. Ofer is entering this managerial position at a delicate and complex time, in which unenlightened opinions against the LGBT community are gaining ground in public discourse.
Ofer Erez, Photo: Ronit Bezalel
Only last week, a recording was published by Rabbi Eli Sadan, one of the leaders of the Army Preparatory Program [a program for religious teenagers to prepare them for the army] in the West Bank settlement of Eli, in which he claimed that children of same-sex parents are miserable and he likened homosexuality to a plague that must not be allowed to spread. His partner in the program, Rabbi Yigal Levinstein, gained notoriety a year ago with his “pervert speech” that referred to the LGBT community.
“I have no interest in arguing with Rabbis” says Ofer, being interviewed for the first time using his full name and revealed face. “Religious leaders in Israel are making threats at the expense of the younger generation, and it is impossible to lead a community and in the same breath to use it in a cynical and harmful manner. In spite of the incitement, we will reach out to the youth who are afraid to expose their orientation, including religious Jews and the Arab community. We will minimize the damages, and we will provide them with strength and support.”
Q. Were you ever angry at being born a girl?”
A. “For years I was angry, frustrated and desperate. Every morning I would wake up hoping that that this was just a bad dream. On the other hand, in spite of not experiencing the world as a woman, I hope that what I’ve been through has taught me to be more attentive and sensitive to women.”
Ofer was born and raised in Kibbutz Ein Dor in the Emek Yizrael (Jezreel Valley). It is doubtful that his parents, an educational counsellor and an English teacher, thought about the far-reaching significance when they decided to give their daughter the name Ofer, which is more common among boys. “They just loved the sound and the originality,” he says.
“When I was two years old, I wanted to cut my hair very short,” he smiles, his hand cupping the tuft of hair above his forehead, “I drove my parents crazy and they ignored me because they were sure it was just a whim. When they understood that I wouldn’t back down, they agreed. After all, hair grows back and it would only be a matter of time before they could put my hair into ponytails to go with my dresses.”
“Since then, I have continued to keep my hair short and at the age of 4, I announced that I would wear only trousers. I guess even then I had already established a gender identity that did not match the body with which I was born. I told my parents that I did not want to be a girl any more but instead wanted to be a boy. They assumed that I was just a tomboy but I had the feeling that God had become confused. I spoke to myself in the masculine form.”
“Instead of playing with dolls or teddy bears, I climbed trees and played soccer with the boys on the kibbutz. In the first grade, I encountered for the first time scornful comments from students in class and in response I punched them. Eventually they got used to my look and the questions stopped.”
Q. How did the parents deal with it?
A. “They let me be who I was and did not harass me, but I appeared strange to some of the teachers. One made remarks about my clothes, another remarked about my “boy” haircut. I told them firmly that this how I felt comfortable.”
Q. Did this affect your academic achievements?
A. No, I was actually excellent in school. I studied once a week in a gifted children’s project in the Jordan Valley. In the middle of sixth grade [age 11-12] I was added to a group of outstanding students at Oranim College in Kiryat Tivon. The teachers and students there thought I was a boy and talked to me in the masculine form and I decided not to correct them. After all, I enjoyed it. On the other hand, I was afraid of what would happen if someone found out the truth. What would they do to me if they found out that I was a girl who entered the boys’ toilets?”
A few months later, before the seventh grade, Ofer’s family relocated to Kibbutz Kfar Menachem in the south following his father’s work. The constant remarks toward Ofer became more complicated, against the background of the burgeoning femininity.
“Every child has a hard time leaving home and friends, and for me the difficulty was double, because of my gender identity. Questions like ‘Why do you look like a boy?’ left me unable to respond. I knew what my feelings were, but I didn’t have the words, because what kibbutznik knows what transgender is? Maybe if we lived in the center of Tel Aviv, it would be different.”
“The physical changes in my body frustrated me greatly. In the summer I walked around with layers of clothes and big shirts. I felt as though I had a mirror in front of me, which reminded me every day that I was created in the wrong body. I had an internal reality and an external reality and they didn’t connect.”
Q. Were there still comments from the children in class?
A. “The comments stopped once they got to know me. I insisted on joining the boys in sports classes, and said that it was too easy for me with the girls, but at school they did not agree. I got my parents involved and they made a fuss until they succeeded. Undoubtedly, they are exceptional, but unfortunately there aren’t many stories like these amongst transgender people.”
“At the age of 15, I planned to stage my “death”, to go to another country and adopt there the new identity of a boy, but the separation from my parents and my two brothers, who were three and six years younger than me, tormented me. Therefore, I was planning to return to Israel with a male identity and contact them, without them knowing that this was the Ofer that they knew. This plan makes me very sad when I recall it today.”
It took a moment to connect the pictures of Ofer’s past, with short hair and a defiant look, and the man of the day, who looks full and calm. On the desk in the office is the new identity card that arrived a few days ago in the mail, in which for the first time in his life the word “male” appears next to the sex field. One word that summarizes a 20-year-old gender struggle.
The decision to come out to friends matured at the age of 16. “I studied a science major at Kfar Menachem High School. We were a close group of 20 boys and girls from 10th grade, and they all shared with each other new loves and personal experiences. I usually stayed quiet. They had partners and I couldn’t. Despite the closeness to them, I felt lonely. They did not ostracise me, but I always had a heavy load on my shoulders.”
“My friends did not comprehend that they should understand my gender identity, so they focussed on my sexual orientation, and they asked me, ‘Do you like men?’ I answered in the negative. They asked, ‘Do you like women?’ and I answered again in the negative, because I did not identify with the term lesbian, because I did not feel like a woman. Then they asked, ‘Do you like oranges?’ and I said ‘yes’. So it became an inside joke that ‘Ofer loves oranges’.
“One day, I visited a friend who was not a kibbutz member, and I met her partner, who was a year older than us, and he told me he was transgender and explained the meaning of the word to me.”
“At that moment, I felt that I was no longer alone, that I had a definition, that I could explain who I was, and I decided to tell my close friends. I grabbed each one of them for a personal conversation, and told them that I was a boy and not a girl, and asked them not to tell anyone. In the end, our entive gang knew and from that point onwards they addressed me in the masculine form. It was an open secret between us.”
“At the same time, I fell in love with one of the girls in the group for the first time, and I could not tell her ‘I [feminine] love you’, because it did not sound like me, I wanted the first time to be ‘I [masculine] love you’, and that’s what happened.”
Q. How did she react?
A. “She had feelings for me too, and we started to be together. Our close friends knew about the connection and we were together for a year and a half, and then it just ended.”
Q. When did you tell your parents that you are transgender?
A. “A little after I told my friends, during the summer vacation between 10th and 11th grade. At first I told my mom, and she sat in my room crying. She said she did not want to have a hard life. I told my dad three weeks later when he came to pick me up on his motorcycle. The news did not surprise him. We sat on a bench in a grove near the kibbutz, and he was practical and asked how he could make things easier for me. From that moment on, my parents talked to me in masculine form and treated us like three sons. Even my younger brothers accepted the change naturally.”
The first call up [to the army] came during 11th grade. “My parents were afraid of my enlistment, but I insisted on serving in a combat force. At the beginning of the tests I was told that I had been assigned to combat duty in a classified unit in the IAF [Israeli Air Force], but then my medical profile was lowered because of a problem in my shoulder.”
“When I arrived for the interview at the examiner, she talked to me in the masculine form and I didn’t correct her. She asked me if I had anything to say, and I smiled and told her that my ID card says ‘female’, but I’m really transgender. I asked that at basic training to be given a boys’ uniform, because there’s no chance I’ll get dressed like a girl. She said that she’d check.”
“A week before the induction, in March 2012, I asked to see a mental health officer, as a last resort to receive an exemption for women’s uniform. I spoke with her openly and talked about my motivation. Three days later, she called and said that I was classified as having “difficulties adjusting”. They simply did not know how to deal with my gender identity, so they classified me under a mental health clause. I shouted at her, because I realized that this classification would prevent me from serving in frontline units and going to Officers School. The next day, I was informed that I had been assigned to the Behavioral Diagnostic Sciences course, one of the only positions remaining in the IDF that is intended only for women. They do feedback, pass on sociological questionnaires, and help commanders with soldiers’ evaluations.”
Recruiting was difficult. “On the first day at the induction center, I again asked to receive a boys’ uniform, but they refused. So I demanded a uniform that was two sizes too big in order to blur any feminine features. After the induction, they sent me to basic training and to an assessment course at Educational Centre #11 in Tzrifin [near Petach Tikva].”
“In a conversation with the squad commander, I told her that I was actually a man and expressed my distress and frustration. I clarified that giving up was out of the question and I had no second thoughts about remaining in the IDF. To my surprise, she was the first that supported me.”
“From that moment on, I had an exemption from Dress Uniform [which is gendered], which made it possible for me to walk around in work uniform, which is identical for men and women. She also made sure that every day I would have ten minutes to shower alone, and understood that I was uncomfortable exposing my body to the other female soldiers.”
“At the end of the course, two and a half months later, I asked to serve in a closed base and was assigned to an evaluator post at the training base of the Education Corps, which was sitting next to the Masmiya junction. I got good evaluations from my Commanding Officers and I pressed them to cancel the mental health clause. The clause was cancelled, which opened the way for me to go to Officers School.”
“I arrived at Officers School in January 2013. In preparation for the Officers’ Course, I understood that in order to be able to create sincerity and trust in front of my soldiers, it made no sense for me to stand up and say, ‘Shalom, my name is Ofer, and I am your [female] commander’. I am supposed to present myself as their [male] commander.”
“During the last week of the preparation, one of the cadets gave a lesson about the gay community, and at the end I asked to speak, saying that what I was going to say now was to give them the tools to become better and more sensitive commanders for those under them. I told my personal story. I exposed my emotions and hardships and the classroom was silent. I was very emotional, but from that moment, I began my military service as a male soldier, and the cadets talked to me as a man.”
Q. Have you felt any relief?
A. Sure. I was happy that the sky didn’t fall down on me. I finally breathed. From that moment I started taking hormones, and very soon my beard began to grow and my voice changed, like a child in adolescence.”
The excitement is evident in him now. He clears his throat and asks to go out to the balcony to smoke. The cool wind calms him, and he returns to the office and remembers the curiosity of that time.
“In rehearsals for the graduation ceremony, the drill sergeant of the Officers School, Yitzhak Taito, passed me. He stopped, looked at me and said: ‘Soldier, your hair is too long. Go get a haircut.’ I could not restrain myself, and I said: ‘I am a female soldier.’ It was the last time I said those words. It was hard to miss the shock on his face. He forgot that his microphone headset was still on, and the entire parade ground heard him repeating the words ‘You are a female soldier?’ The person next to me was laughing. It embarrassed him, and he did not approach me any more.”
Ofer tries again and again to subdue a strand of unruly hair in the front of his head. He looks at his reflection on the laptop screen and announces that it will soon get a haircut, just as he did before he finished his army service. Then too, he had his hair in a Marines haircut.
“At finishing school, I realised my gender identity and I appeared as a male cadet rather than female. The base had a training course for commanders and one of the command dilemmas they were presented with was about a male soldier who asked to be treated as a female soldier. There was a heated debate, and one of the commanders objected strongly to the demand, and as a parallel argued that a soldier could claim he was a rooster. Some of the cadets left the room in protest.”
“I have no idea what was decided there, but a few days later the commander of the base at the time, Col. Shlomo Seroussi, ordered that every soldier, male and female, be allowed to determine in which gender they would be addressed – male or female. He was the first to establish in the base gender sensitivity and awareness. Unfortunately, this was not a sweeping decision by the entire IDF, but even this small change encouraged me, and I hoped that it would be meaningful for transgender people who would come later.”
After the completion of the finishing course in May 2013, Ofer was appointed as an officer of examiners in the Behavioral Sciences Department of the Ground Forces Command, and a year later, an article was published online describing “The Life of a Transgender Person in the IDF”. Ofer, who was not interviewed for the article, recognized that it was talking about him. Despite his anger, it turned out that following the publication of the article, a transgender soldier-to-be had asked the IDF for his advice before joining the army.
“After him came another and another, and many of them decided to give up the exemption that was given to transgender people, and it was clear to me that the IDF must deal with the issue in a systemic manner and not ignore the phenomenon. Transgenders are no different from any cisgender soldier; they are people with motivatation and abilities.”
“One day, I reported without prior notice, to the office of deputy chief of staff for women’s affairs, Lt. Col. Limor Shabtai, and I declared that something had to be done. If you also recruit soldiers who require special accommodations, there is no reason not to recruit transgenders. You do not need a budget or much effort to integrate them, just openness. Limor was amazing and sensitive, and suggested that I help her write new procedures.”
“Two weeks later, I received a surprising request from a research institute in Washington DC that invited me to join a panel of seven transgender officers from the armies of Canada, Australia, New Zealand, Britain and Switzerland, and I wanted to go as an IDF representative. But my Commanding Officers at the Ground Forces Unit refused. So I took a vacation and flew there as a civilian, and I honored the IDF’s request by not speaking on the panel.
“There, I met Christine Beck, who served as a combat soldier in the Navy Seals and was exposed a year earlier when she published a book on her sex reassignment surgery. She was sharp and fascinating, and in those days no transgenders were drafted into the US Army, and I was proud that our army was more tolerant. The IDF did something correct and significant, and the Israeli community has a part in the global change.”
In the summer of 2015, Ofer completed his position in the IDF and chose to stay on, moving to the Planning Division as a projects officer for the evacuation of IDF bases from the center of the country. At the same time, he continued to assist the office of deputy chief of staff for women’s affairs (the name was later changed to the Chief of Staff’s Advisor on Gender Issues) in formulating rules relating to transgender issues such as the language gendering, the uniform, the placement in units and residences.
“Along with Lieutenant Colonel Shabtai, it was decided that it was impossible to provide a comprehensive system solution for soldiers like me, but instead a specific arrangement called ‘suit to measure’. Treatment depends on whether or not the soldier is out of the closet, the family’s attitude and the nature of the service. Transgender soldiers came to our interview at the Kirya [Tel Aviv IDF base] and were then sent to their units with organised instructions. The new procedure led to a higher recruitment of transgenders, and today there are 50 such soldiers serving in the IDF.”
Intensive preoccupation with gender identity led Ofer to make a fateful decision. At the recommendation of his mother, he underwent sex-change surgery at Shiba Hospital two years ago.
“It’s not mandatory; there’s no black and white in this issue. I was a man even if I did not take hormones or have surgery. Everyone should act according to their wishes. For me it was mostly a relief. Am I satisfied with the results? Not really. If I had the operation today, my recommendation to myself would be to lower expectations.”
Q. What about preserving fertility?
A. “At the moment, this is irrelevant, and I do not have time for another surgery, but what you can’t see on me does not bother me, and the idea of biological children of my own does not bother me. If or when I want children, the biology will not be a significant issue.”
About a month after the operation, Ofer was invited to a reception at the home of the Ambassador in Washington, Ron Dermer, on the occasion of Pride Month. This time he was allowed to attend in uniform, as an official representative of the Israel Defense Forces. After the meeting, he went on a lecture tour in San Francisco, Los Angeles and Chicago where he addressed students, Jewish communities, senators and government officials.
Toward the end of the mission he arrived at Westpoint, the New York State Military Academy. “I met a male soldier there who told me about his desire to become a female soldier, and I wished him luck and expressed the hope that he could continue to serve even after the end of the process.”
“A few days later I was watching television at the hotel, and there was a news story that as of January 2017 they would start recruiting transgenders into the US Army. I sat alone on the bed, with a smile on my face, and I had no one to share the excitement with. In the end I phoned friends in Israel and woke them up excitedly. Incidentally, this revolutionary decision by the Obama administration was overturned by the Trump administration, but after the intervention of the Federal Court, the recruitment of transgenders began two months ago.”
Since high school, he says, he had several long-term relationships with women, which lasted more than a year. There were also some less significant relationships.
“I have no problem in being in a relationship with anyone who accepts me as I am, I never hid my past, you cannot have a romantic relationship with a secret in the middle, so it was important to me that the women I go out with introduce me to their parents as I am.”
Q. And what did you feel at the first meeting with their parents?
A. “I was always embarrassed and tense, and I’m sure that for the women it was also a hurdle to go through, but we never hid who I was. At the end of high school I had a girlfriend whose parents were traditional and conservative, so it was probably more complicated. When I went to their house, they treated me normally and preferred to ignore and not pry around in my life.”
“During the army I had girlfriends from more inclusive families, and the parents were even interested in the process I went through, and I have to say that I fell in love with each of the families.”
“My last relationship was two years ago, when I was an officer, and with that girl’s parents I felt like a part of the family. I stil have a connection with them.”
Q. Are not you in a relationship at the moment?
A. “Right now, no. My head and my heart are all in the Jerusalem Open House (JOH), and after this article I will have to get used to the fact that everyone will know my thoughts, feelings and difficulties and know the jounrey I have been through.”
At the Jerusalem Open House of Pride and Tolerance, Ofer landed immediately after his release from the IDF two months ago, and moved from the Shapira neighborhood of Tel Aviv to the Katamonim neighbourhood in Jerusalem.
The JOH, which was established in 1997 on HaSorag Street near Kikar HaChatulot (the Cats’ Square), offers activities for teenagers and adults: lectures, performances, discussions and Shabbat receptions. You can also get subsidized psychosocial treatments and use the services of the clinic, which offers fast, anonymous HIV testing.
On leaving the elevator, you can see a large viewfinder located in the front door. In the past, it was used by managers to check on new arrivals, fearing harassment. Today they do not even look through it.
Inside the house, there is an unusual eclectic appearance. A young man wearing a kippah with tzitzit hanging, stands next to the wooden cupboard containing Bibles, Koran and the New Testament. Behind him, on a brown leather sofa sit two skinny young men chatting in Arabic. On the side stands a shy, long-haired young woman examining the glass display, which sells kippot, pins, bracelets, earrings and fans – all in the rainbow flag colours of the LGBT community.
The door opens with a small creak, and an adult enters the room wearing a kippa. He takes a Talmud out of the closet and sits down at one of the tables. On the wall above him is a plaque commemorating Shira Banki, the girl murdered at the LGBT Pride March in 2015 by the ultra-Orthodox Yishai Shlissel. After about half an hour in which he is immersed in the book, the man returns it to its place and goes outside.
“I have no idea who he is,” Ofer smiles. “This is the meaning of the house – it is open to young and old, religious and secular, Jews and Arabs, and everyone can come and sit quietly, without being bothered.”
In the meantime, his office looks like a mirror image of an old military office, including the bare walls that need to be painted. A monotonous rattle emanates from the old air conditioner and is mixed with the noise from the street.
But the uproar does not seem to discrupt his concentration, and his eyes flutter over the many emails concerning the planning of the LGBT Pride March in Jerusalem in about six months.
Q. Are you worried about there being another Yishai Schlissel?
A. “There is always concern, but there will be heavy security by the police, with metal detectors and hidden detectives that will be circulating in the crowd, and I am currently busy expanding the accessibility of the parade for people with disabilities and families with children.”
Q. Where do you aspire to lead the Open House?
A. “One of the challenges in a conservative and mixed city like Jerusalem is to provide support to all the LGBT communities – including elderly LGBT members, Haredim and Arab populations, some of whom do not have their families’ support.”
“In addition, we will expand the youth activities in the schools and create partnerships with clinics, social workers and retirement homes. Another goal is to locate a new building for the JOH, and I will not finish the job until I carry it out.”
The Chairman of the JOH, Eran Globus, enters the room and interrupts Ofer. “When you see the 25,000 participants, you know that our efforts as a community are worthwhile,” Globus says. “There is no reason why Jerusalem should not become a global LGBT capital thanks to dialogue between the sectors. Our perception is to create connections, not blowing up bridges. Only on one thing did we set a red line: we will not sit with rabbis calling for the death of homosexuals.”
But not only are Charedi, homosexuals and lesbians are on the new CEO’s agenda. Just as he did in the IDF, it is important for him to initiate a program for transgender people, some of whom are forced to work as sex workers in order to survive.
“It’s no secret that this is a weakened population within the LGBT community as well. Transgender women often suffer from street violence and offensive remarks. Do you know that in the law of discrimination there is a prohibition on discrimination based on sexual orientation, but gender identity is not mentioned? So if a person does not want to rent an apartment to a transgender person, he is not breaking the law. That has to be changed.”