Ofer Erez, 25, made history when he became Israel's first openly trans Israel Defense Forces ( IDF ) officer in 2013. Erez has since retired from the military and is the CEO of Jerusalem Open House ( JOH ), the city's LGBTQ community organization.
A Wider Bridge ( AWB ) awarded JOH an impact grant this summer to help fund, alongside other funders, the annual Jerusalem March for Pride and Tolerance, which was attended by 30,000 people. Erez will be bringing his story to Chicago Oct. 22 at Temple Sholom, 3480 N. Lake Shore Dr.; the event, co-sponsored by AWB and Temple Sholom, begins at 6:30 p.m.
Erez served in the IDF for six and a half years, the first three years in the behavior analysis unit and the rest serving as a General Headquarters project officer. He explained that he could not be an out trans serviceperson when he entered the military because it was not yet even an option.
"Nobody in the IDF knew what it meant to be trans," said Erez. "I was also terrified I would face transphobia and be discriminated against."
Although Erez did not disclose his status as a trans person when he was drafted, he said he did tell his immediate commanders right away because he wanted to be honest with them about who he is. They immediately accepted him.
After Erez came out to the entire company, he explained that it became apparent to him that this was something the IDF should address on a systemic level.
"I approached IDF's Gender Affairs Office and explained the necessity of this policy," said Erez. "We analyzed my personal experience, including the obstacles and challenges that I had to face, and thought about how to change the system to make the IDF more trans friendly. From those conversations, we came up with a trans inclusive policy that the IDF now uses for every trans soldier."
Erez decided to leave the military because he wanted to serve the community in a different way. He described JOH as an amazing organization.
"I saw in JOH's work so many aspects that I can relate to and be a part of," said Erez. "The JOH is not only working to build a community or to create social change, it does both of these things together. It is a space where people from many diverse communities can be together under one roof. I love that the JOH is aiming for a more inclusive, open and tolerant Jerusalem. It makes the city better not just for LGBTQ people, but for all people."
As for what the AWB Impact Grant has done for JOH, Erez said it allowed them to organize the largest-ever Jerusalem March for Pride and Tolerance, where people from all over Israel and elsewhere gathered to celebrate. Erez explained that among the attendees were secular and religious people, people of all ages, Jews, Christians and Muslims.
Erez's journey to this moment in his young life began in the northern part of Israel on a small kibbutz called Ein Dor. He later moved with his family to another kibbutz called Kfar Menahem.
A kibbutz is a small community usually located far away from the cities," said Erez. "It is like a small town, where everyone knows each other. If you are a kid, you grow up with a tight-knit group of friends. You feel like you are surrounded by a big family.
"Because I had supportive parents, I grew up feeling true to myself without having to explain it to others," said Erez. "My parents let me cut my hair and they did not make me wear girls' clothes. Coming out, to me, was not about coming out to myself, but about explaining to others how I felt. It was hard because there were no role models for trans people around me. There was no trans visibility. Not in the media. Not in my community."
Erez said he had no way of expressing himself openly until he was 16 years old and met another trans person named Eli who was dating a friend of his. After that, he was able to tell his friends privately and they were all supportive.
"The first time I actually came out publicly in front of a group was during my military service," said Erez.
When Erez is not working he likes to travel and spend time with his blind black lab dog Baloo.
In terms of what people will hear at Erez's talk Oct. 22, he said it will encompass all the facets of his life and the work he currently does at JOH.
"I never dreamed of being an activist," said Erez. "It is something that I discovered is important to me. I think that being involved and being able to impact one's community is very important. I encourage everyone who wants to make a difference to go out there in whatever way you can, to change the world."
To RSVP for this free event, visit awiderbridge.org/ofer-tour-rsvp-chicago-temple-sholom-10-22/.