Israeli army Maj. Yoni Schoenfeld, right, listens to his partner, Noam, during an interview with the Associated Press in Tel Aviv, Israel.
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.
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