According to the Israel Defense Forces, Cpt. Sharon Ogen is the mother of a baby boy. According to the State of Israel, however, she isn’t.
Ogen’s wife gave birth to their son, and though Israel’s laws make it easier for lesbian partners to get custody compared to the process for gay men to adopt a child, it will still be some time before Ogen is considered her son’s legal guardian.
With the army, all Ogen had to do was bring in a few forms to her unit’s human resource officer, and her son was afforded all the rights and perks of having a parent in the armed forces.
“The IDF has a solution for things when the state doesn’t,” Ogen says.
In light of the ongoing LGBT Pride Month and the upcoming pride parades that will take place in cities and towns throughout the country, Ogen spoke with The Times of Israel in her Ramat Hasharon apartment about her experiences coming out as a lesbian officer in the IDF.
‘In every place I served, in every position that I did, I never felt that I had to hide or cover anything up’
When Ogen, 33, first joined the Israel Defense Forces after college, she had a degree in veterinary medicine and a husband.
Today, she still has the degree — plus two more — but now she has a wife and a son, as well as a dog and a cat. (For privacy concerns, Ogen asked that the name of her wife and son not be published.)
From her divorce through the process of coming out of the closet, to meeting and marrying her wife, and finally having a baby, Ogen has received full support from the army and her commanders, she says.
“In every place I served, in every position that I did, I never felt that I had to hide or cover anything up,” Ogen says.
But throughout our conversation, it was important for Ogen to differentiate between the army and the government as it relates to LGBT issues.
In fact, the only homophobia Ogen and her wife ever experienced took place while she was on leave, when a man yelled at them in a shopping mall parking lot, telling them to “get their perversion out of here.”
While Ogen recognized that as a lesbian her experiences in the army were easier than those of gay male and transgender soldiers, she stresses that the IDF is considered one of the world’s more progressive militaries as it relates to LGBT issues and for good reason. The State of Israel, on the other hand, still has a long way to go, she says.
“I love the IDF. I think the army is the one place where people aren’t discriminated against in terms of salary. It doesn’t matter if you’re a male or female officer, you get the same salary,” Ogen says.
Ogen brushes off the concern that by speaking so glowingly of her experiences in the army she is taking part in “pinkwashing,” or covering up Israel’s problems by stressing its better treatment of gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people.
“No one gave me a page full of messages to get across. No one told me what not to say,” she says.
From married to single to married again
Ogen grew up in the Tel Aviv suburb of Rishon Lezion. After graduating high school, she entered an army program called Atuda, in which the IDF pays for participants to go to university before the army in exchange for six years of military service.
“I was a pretty nerdy student,” she says with a laugh. “So going on to study in a university before the army struck me as pretty natural.”
Ogen studied veterinary medicine at the Hebrew University’s agricultural campus in Rehovot, where she would also later earn her master’s degree and then a doctorate in the same field.
While there, she married her husband, and upon her graduation, Ogen became one of the 18 veterinarians employed by the army.
As the days of the mounted cavalry are behind the IDF, only three of the veterinarians actually treat animals, serving in the army’s Oketz K-9 unit to provide medical care for the dogs. The rest serve in public health positions.
Today, Ogen serves as the medical training officer for the IDF’s Southern Command in Beersheba, responsible for educating the command’s doctors and medics.
But she started out in the IDF chief medical officer’s unit, visiting the food companies that supply the army to ensure they followed proper food safety protocols. It was during that time she and her husband split up.
After the break-up, Ogen threw herself headfirst into her career, taking a position as the medical officer of the army’s 162nd Armored Division just after the 2012 Operation Pillar of Defense in Gaza. It was the first time a veterinarian had filled that role.
At the same time, she also started dating women to see if she was, in fact, a lesbian, as she had long expected.
“Some people travel abroad to search for themselves. I searched for myself in the army,” she says.
She always knew she was something of a “tomboy,” preferring a short haircut and taking an interest in “guy things,” like mountain climbing, surfing and karate, but it wasn’t until after her divorce from her husband that she “explored her curiosity,” she says.
“I think I always knew I was a lesbian, that I was attracted to women, but it was always easy and comfortable for me with guys. But once I started going out with women, I realized that as easy as it was for me to date men, there was just no comparison,” Ogen says.
A short while after joining the 162nd Division, Ogen and her now-wife were introduced through a mutual friend.
Both of them knew how to sail, so their friend set them up to go out on a boat from the Jaffa port one Saturday in December that was “full of sunlight,” Ogen says.
“It was love at first sight. I remember the moment I saw her,” Ogen says, looking across the kitchen table at her wife with what can only be described as googly eyes.
The two quickly became as inseparable as they could be, given the difficulties of maintaining a relationship while serving in the army.
Every weekend and holiday, Ogen’s then-girlfriend, now-wife would come visit, whether it was up north in the Golan Heights or all the way down south in Division 80 headquarters, located a few minutes drive from Eilat.
“Everybody on base knew her,” Ogen says about her wife.
The two married on July 10, 2014, just after the start of that summer’s Gaza war.
“The number of people who could attend got smaller because everyone was at the front, and the people who came were wearing their uniforms,” she says.
Their mutual love of sailing and the sea inspired them to create a new last name when they got married. Ogen, in Hebrew, means anchor.
Getting the recognition they deserve
It was a simple process to get the army to recognize the marriage, less so with the State of Israel, where life cycle events are largely controlled by the Orthodox Rabbinate.
“The army is much more progressive than the country. Our relationship was officially recognized through an attorney provided by the army for free,” Ogen says.
‘I couldn’t even imagine if something happened to me, and [my wife] didn’t get the benefits she was supposed to.’
She was so used to the IDF’s more accepting policies regarding gay and lesbian couples, Ogen was surprised when the Defense Ministry announced in May that the “bereaved” same-sex partners of soldiers who fall in battle would receive the same benefits as their heterosexual counterparts. She assumed that it was already the case.
“I couldn’t even imagine if something happened to me, and [my wife] didn’t get the benefits she was supposed to. That would be unbelievable. Until the issue came up, I was not even aware of that discrimination because in the army I always felt equal,” she says.
When Ogen’s baby was born this year, the army was again accommodating, bringing in a reservist so she could take additional time off to be with her wife and son, something her commanders were not required to do, she says.
Ogen and her wife missed this year’s Tel Aviv Pride Parade — she had to be on base that weekend — but they plan to go to the Jerusalem parade in July, where last year 16-year-old Shira Banki was stabbed and killed, and they also intend to go to “Haifa and Ashdod and Rishon [Lezion] and Hadera,” Ogen says.
“They don’t need us in Tel Aviv as much, but they do in those other places,” she says.
But to Ogen more important than annual parades and demonstrations is her day-to-day service in the army where people can ask questions and learn about LGBT issues.
“You meet people you would never meet otherwise,” Ogen says. “I sat and spoke with a Bedouin tracker who’d never met a lesbian before. And he asked me the most invasive questions because he feels comfortable talking to me. There’s no reason for there to be a filter,” Ogen says.
“People will accept you for what you are.”