Today marks the beginning of LGBT Pride celebrations in Israel. To kick it off, we interviewed Cpl. Yehonatan, who serves in the foreign relations department as part of the Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories Unit. As a soldier who is both religious and proudly gay, Cpl. Yehonatan isn’t new to fielding questions on the subject. In order to dispel the stigma and open a dialogue, he’s given lectures on every base he’s been stationed at. We sat with him at his base, the Coordination and Liaison Administration to the Gaza strip, and spoke about his experiences.
Since you’ve come out in the army, how do you deal with people who are less familiar or less understanding of the LGBT community?
The army has been very accommodating, and everyone from my coworkers to my high-ranking officers support me. The army takes in everybody and has soldiers from all over. This can sometimes be challenging, but I think the main point is that you have to come at that with patience, and realize that not everybody comes from the same background. Not everybody holds the same beliefs, and that’s fine. I try to understand that and answer questions when I can. It’s important to be honest with yourself and not apologize for who you are.
How did you start giving these talks?
When I was in basic training, we were all asked to prepare a 10-minute speech about something important to us. I sat down with my commander and told her, “so, I want to talk about something, but it’ll be longer than ten minutes.” I told her about being a part of the LGBT community and my experiences as a gay man in Israel. I told her about my idea for the speech and she said “I love it! Let’s do it!” That was the first time I gave my talk.
When I was in the course for my job, a lot of rumors went around, and some soldiers were being a little childish about it. I asked myself, what can I do about this? I can complain, I can be ask to be placed in the next course, or I can address the issue and open a dialogue. I gave the talk again, and it cleared up a lot of misunderstandings and fears that some of the other soldiers had. I also spoke again on my current base, and we’re working on getting me to speak at others so that we can open the dialogue further.
Do people ever come up to you after a lecture to tell you that you’ve changed how they see the LGBT community?
One guy, who was very religious, came up to me after one of my talks. He told me, “you know what? I never thought about it from this direction. I’m really glad you gave the talk, because I never thought about gay people like this.” He didn’t say he was more comfortable with it, but he didn’t stop doing the same things he was doing before around me – he didn’t disappear in the shower room when I walked in and he wasn’t freaking out. People have mainly responded by saying they are beginning to think a little differently about these issues.
I’ve found that this is something that’s worth putting myself out there for. There are a lot of opportunities in the army to make a difference and have an impact on the way people look at different issues in society. Even if you don’t change someone’s outlook completely, but you make them think about it for five minutes, that’s great. It makes people think, “oh, the person standing in front of me is different from who I thought he was, and he’s a completely normal guy.” That sort of juxtaposition at least makes people reconsider how they address the issue, and how they address the person.
Do you think your fellow soldiers are more receptive to learning about the LGBT community?
If you take almost anyone from the LGBT community and put them in front of people, and they say “hey, this is me, this is the situation I’m in, this is me talking to you,” then I think that people are much more receptive. They think, “they wear the uniform just like me, they just want to get home at the end of the week, they just want to live their lives.” It just puts everyone on the same level. It’s one of the really good things about the army – it shows that we’re all really the same, even if our lives are different once we leave base. It’s really important to remember that when people are talking about the LGBT community, it’s just as likely that the gay person we’re talking about could be the soldier, could be the religious guy, could be your son or daughter, could be anyone.
How do you reconcile your sexuality and your religious observance?
I feel like a lot of people, when they look at religion, make the mistake and assume that if you can’t or don’t do one thing or have an undeniable struggle with something, you should throw the baby out with the bathwater. I disagree with that completely. A lot of people would say that you can’t be religious if you’re gay, but there are people who say that you can’t be religious if you make any physical contact with the opposite sex. And there are a lot of religious and observant people who obviously do. There are so many interpretations of everything, and this idea that if you can’t do one thing means you should do nothing is unreasonable. I say in my talks that there’s one being who can judge my religiosity. It’s not a rabbi, or a person from my community, or a person on my base, but God. So, until He gives you the power to judge me, please keep your opinion to yourself. Religious attitudes have changed so much in the last 100 years. It takes time and takes serious religious scholarship. We can start taking these steps to change attitudes and become more accepting.
What would you say to a young LGBT person from a religious community who feels like they’re alone?
You’re alright. Don’t change.