Ofer Erez wasn’t looking to be a symbol when, as a transgendered Israeli Army captain, he fought for policy changes for other LGBTQ soldiers. What has ensued is beyond what he could have imagined.
“There were no transgendered soldiers in the military,” Erez said. “What does it mean to be transgendered in the IDF? No one knew. There was no policy and no one could tell me what to expect.”
Erez is now the executive director of the Jerusalem Open House and will be in Minnesota at Shir Tikvah on Wednesday, Oct. 24 speaking about his military experience and his work after serving. The trip is happening thanks to A Wider Bridge, which awarded Erez an AWB Impact Grant to fund the Jerusalem March for Pride and Tolerance – attended in August by a record-breaking 30,000 people.
“We presented this specific project because it’s very unique,” Erez said. “Everything about the march is being funded by donations, not by some government budget. We were happy to get A Wider Bridge involved because we believe Jerusalem should be a city where more people get involved to have a more tolerant Jerusalem.”
Erez came out as transgendered when he was 16, but was so terrified of being found out, that he drafted into the military as a female.
“I did want my commanders to know. I believe it’s something I should be able to talk about with the people responsible for me,” he said. “After officer school and story got published, I got calls from young people and commanders, and they want to know how can we serve as ourselves and have a successful service. From this point, I realized there was more going on. If I have the ability to help shape a better organization, I should do it.”
Erez since went to help write the policies that would help protect and support transgendered soldiers.
“The most important thing we still need to do in the IDF and Israeli society is education,” he said. “Not just by regulations and policy, but how we act. How we treat the LGBQ? How do we treat transgendered?”
Ronit Bezalel, the communications director for A Wider Bridge, praised the Jerusalem Open House’s impact.
“They do so much with so little,” she said. “There’s a need for them we thought they could truly use the funds.”
The AWB Impact Grants are investments that help LGBTQ organizations build capacity and help amplify the organization’s voices. A Wider Bridge, which was founded in 2010, works to create opportunities through leadership missions and educational community events for LGBTQ people and allies in North America while advocating alongside LGBTQ partners in Israel.
Erez said the work of Jerusalem Open House is on two fronts: Advocating for social change and working to build community. He said that much of the pushback to the Jerusalem march has come from within the LGBTQ community.
“Jerusalem is a very complex, unique, and conservative city,” he said. “The communities are diverse, but we have a lot of conservative Muslims, Jews, and Christians living there.
“I joke that I almost made peace there: The three biggest religions agree on something, that we shouldn’t march there.”
The Jerusalem parade has had a violent past. An Orthodox Jewish man was arrested for stabbing three people in 2005. After he got out of jail, he came back to the parade in 2016 and stabbed five, killing one.
“I know this event shocked not just LGBTQ but all the people who live there that don’t believe this is how the city should look,” Erez said. “We do this march and we are activists because hate and discrimination is an everyday thing in our community and it’s not something we should ignore. The march has grown 5 times bigger since 2015. Not just LGBTQ, but allies, too. It’s a political statement that we support Jerusalem as a city for all.”