My Turn: Being Gay in the Military

By Yoni Schoenfeld

I began my mandatory service in the Israel Defense Forces in the summer of 1994, just a year after the government decided that gays could serve openly in the military. At the time, I had not yet solidified my sexual orientation, having had encounters with both men and women. I was generally confused.

One thing I did know was that I wanted to join an infantry unit and also serve as a paratrooper—like a "real man." Basic training was grueling, with sleepless nights, agonizing exercises, and long runs in full battle gear. Those hardships taught me the value of friendship: men struggling together, bleeding together, and supporting one another while pushing themselves to the limits of their abilities. They also taught me that there's a flip side to military machismo: a helping hand when times are tough or a brotherly hug when missions are accomplished successfully. These friendships enabled me to open up to the other men and talk about my sexual identity. The reactions were always supportive; regardless of whom you share your bed with, these friends would say, we know you are a good fighter and a member of the team.

And so, oddly enough, it was my military service that helped me make sense of my sexual orientation. By the time I became a young officer, I'd come out of the closet to my family and friends and had a steady partner. I did not pin a gay-pride flag on my duffel bag or hang one at my base; I don't think that would have been appropriate in the military, given the diversity of opinions and beliefs. But I never lied about my preferences, and by the time I became a senior officer in an elite unit, most of my fellow officers knew my story. Yes, I was a gay officer in a special-forces unit—and a damn good one, at that.

As Israelis, we are taught from a young age to admire the United States. The American dream offers an alternative to the somewhat harsh reality of life in the Middle East. But that dream has been betrayed by the "don't ask, don't tell" policy that governs gay and lesbian service in the U.S. military. Repealing it will help America fall in line with what many other countries have already accepted—that, in the 21st century, sexual preferences should not be a matter of shame or secrecy, not even in the military. The thought of living a lie while serving—of not being able to share one's personal life with fellow fighters and commanders—is hard to bear. (And it's ridiculous: if Israel, a nation that is forever on high alert, can defend itself just fine with open homosexuals in its defense forces, then any other nation's army should also be able to integrate.)

I was lucky—I had the distinction of serving under a two-star general with an extremely open mind. To him, my sexual orientation was never an issue. He believed that work and personal life are separate matters. In this environment, I felt comfortable bringing my partner to various events. And just as before, the other members of my unit, in general, reacted positively.

More recently I have served the Israel Defense Forces as editor in chief of its weekly magazine, Bamachane. Less than a decade ago, before my tenure began, the magazine caused a public outcry when it put a photo on the cover of an out-of-the-closet officer waving a gay-pride flag. The military responded by suspending publication for a few weeks; the establishment didn't think the image was becoming of someone high-ranking. But last June, during Israel's gay-pride week, the IDF asked me to appear in front of foreign reporters and share my story—a sign of even further cultural acceptance of gays in the military since the early '90s. That week, for our main feature, we profiled a gay officer named Josh who wed his partner in Canada (gay marriage is not yet legal in Israel). In the piece, we wrote about a recent promotion he'd received. His new rank was bestowed on him with his Orthodox commander on one side, and his partner, Lior, on the other.

Schoenfeld, A Major, Has More than 16 Years of Combat Service.