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An Israeli soldier's story. (my perspective).

In my native Israel, every citizen has to serve in the army when they turn 18--men and women, gay or straight. In fact, a straight friend of mine who was trying to get out of his national duty went to his army medical exam with a face full of make-up and told the army doctor he had a voracious sexual appetite for men. The doctor responded, "Yeah, so what? I do too."

Antigay bias is officially not tolerated in the army. Still, it takes a brave soul to be out amid the machismo of the barracks. It is so easy to feel like you're the only gay person in a room filled with your mates as they talk about their girlfriends. Achva, or brotherhood, is one of the most valued principles of the Israeli Army--and of Israeli society in general--and it can can border on homoerotic. Israeli men don't flinch at affection like Americans do: Soldiers hug and kiss one another. Sometimes we might have to share a bed or a shower. But Achva isn't about sexual orientation, so the macho, all-male environment of the Army can be at once intimidating and confusing if you're questioning your sexuality, as I was when I was 18 and 19.

I led a double life in the service. I grew up in a working-class, secular Sephardic Jewish home in Bat Yam, a small suburb south of Tel Aviv. My Egyptian-born father is a truck driver, and he instilled in me a very macho sense of what it means to be a man. When I got to the army, I was really butch: I bought myself a gun and a big motorcycle and relished my ambitions of becoming an officer. More than anything, I wanted to be part of the gang. But at night I would go to gay meeting places, praying I wouldn't run into anyone I knew.

For a time no one knew I had a boyfriend. My secrecy had less to do with what others would think than with my struggle to understand how I could be at once a manly army officer and an out gay man. I didn't come out until I left the service at 21 and got involved with a man 12 years older.

I enrolled in law school after leaving the army because I believed I was compensating for the disappointment my parents would feel when they found out about me. My mother was initially shocked when I told her I was gay, but her love and support for me proved unconditional, and we've become closer as a result of my honesty. She dotes on my boyfriends and even accompanied my partner and me on a trip to France. My father is more complicated. On the surface he seems a typical homophobic working-class man. Yet he treats my boyfriends with the same respect he reserves for his own friends.

The greatest surprise came from my younger brother. He hangs out with a crowd of tough guys, whom I dismissed as a bunch of homophobic thugs. But when my brother learned I was gay, he and his friends demonstrated themselves to be far more understanding than I had given them credit for. Those guys are my fiercest defenders.

I stopped letting other people's expectations get in the way of my life decisions. I left law school to become a flight attendant for El Al airlines, a job that literally opened up the world to me. I discovered then my deep-seated desire to become an artist. Today, at 33, I am a photographer living in London, where I am working on the Gay Men Fighting AIDS 2003 campaign. My photography has been exhibited internationally in art shows all over Europe, in magazines on both sides of the globe, and in a forthcoming book from German publisher Bruno Gmunder titled Kobi Israel Views.

My photographic lens allows me to revisit the places I wasn't able to go when I was in the grips of my sexual identity crisis. Many of my photographs depict Israeli servicemen. As the world is so accustomed to seeing pictures of soldiers in battle, I show another side. Here are the men as I knew them, playing, laughing, bonding, throwing their arms around one another's shoulders. Through my art, I can fearlessly evoke my fantasies as clearly as my memories. My camera has become a vital organ for me, a conduit of sorts between my eyes and my mind's eye.

As told to Kera Bolonik. For a link to Kobi Israel's photography Web site, go to www.advocate.com.
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Article Details
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Author:Israel, Kobi
Publication:The Advocate (The national gay & lesbian newsmagazine)
Article Type:Column
Geographic Code:7ISRA
Date:Apr 1, 2003
Words:764
Previous Article:He wrote the book. (reader forum).
Next Article:Rants & raves.
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