Asking and Telling in Israel

Article excerpt

Byline: 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. …