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Back to Section One | Back to Arts & Entertainment
posted Friday, February 25, 2011 - Volume 39 Issue 08
Transgender community 'left behind' by DADT repeal - A Transgender veteran shares her views on the future
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Transgender community 'left behind' by DADT repeal - A Transgender veteran shares her views on the future

by Shaun Knittel - SGN Associate Editor

Michelle Marie McKay, 59, can at long last live comfortably. In 2008, she became the woman she always knew she truly was. Much more than a Transgender member of society, the Williamsburg, VA, citizen is an activist with Equality Virginia, a founder of the Coalition for Transgender Rights in Virginia, a facilitator with the Richmond Organization for Sexual Minority Youth, and a board member of the Virginia Anti Violence Program. In other words, when it comes to the woes of the Trans community, Michelle is somewhat of an expert.

There is another title McKay lays claim to: veteran.

I met Michelle on OutMilitary.com, a social network site for LGBT servicemembers and their supporters. It was her profile picture that made me stop and read her stats: a photo split down the middle, one side an official U.S. Navy photo of a young man, the other side an older woman with blonde hair and a similar smile. The man on the left is who she used to be, and the woman on the right is who she is now. After a brief exchange, I felt compelled to tell her story in the pages of the Seattle Gay News. With the debate raging over Transgender equality within the ranks of the U.S. military, I think Michelle - a 'she' who never really felt like a 'he,' even when enlisted in the service - has a very interesting and unique perspective on an argument that has only just begun.

SECRET SAILOR, 1970 'I enlisted in the U.S. Navy in 1970, just two weeks after graduating high school,' recalled Michelle. 'I did this because of Vietnam, and I had a fear of being drafted into the Army. I felt I couldn't survive Vietnam because I wasn't masculine. I had always known I wasn't the boy I was seen as and demanded to be.'

Enlisting in the Navy, thought Michelle, would be an easy tour; simply serve your time and then get out.

But life rarely works out the way we plan it. Michelle soon learned that lesson tenfold.

'I wanted to serve on an aircraft carrier,' she explained. 'The ship is large and, so I thought, it would be easy to blend in.'

However, Michelle, received orders to Submarine School in New London, CT, where, upon graduation, the new sailor was assigned to the pre-commission crew of the submarine USS Archerfish (SSN 678). When the boat got underway, Michelle says, 'my gender feelings began to get discovered.'

'I thought I did well hiding these feelings, but living in a steel tube with 95-plus others made it difficult to conceal,' she said. 'I was not out to anyone in the Navy; only a few civilian friends knew.'

'After a few people discovered my secret, small pranks soon gave way to hurtful ones, and then worse. I became disenchanted, angry, and my self-esteem crashed. I no longer cared about anything - including myself.'

Michelle said she tried, in vain, to get transferred off the boat. 'I knew I could not continue to endure the abuse I was experiencing.'

Eventually, the troubled sailor found a way out. After serving her time, Michelle received an honorable discharge from the Navy.

So why would Michelle advocate for open service by Trans personnel when she received so much grief? Because she says that, like DADT, serving in silence and shame is what perpetuates such situations. She believes that if Transgender servicemembers didn't have to hide their gender identity, the situation would greatly improve. In fact, Michelle says that the passage of a DADT repeal has little to do with the issue of Transgender people and military service.

'DADT directly targeted sexual orientation,' she explains. 'That has nothing to do with gender identity. The Department of Defense views Transgender status and Gender Identity Disorder Diagnosis as automatic disqualifications from military service. This is a policy, not a law.'

'Policies can be changed,' she said.

'I WAS, AT LAST, COMPLETE' After the abusive experience during military service, Michelle said she decided to 'create an outside shell' where people could see that she was physically a man, but a woman on the inside.

Adopting a 'normal' life, Michelle worked for General Dynamics Electric Boat Division and eventually ended up working for IBM in Virginia.

Still, no matter how involved in day-to-day life she was, Michelle says, 'Difficulties began to surface within myself. I was failing myself by pretending to be a man. Finally, in 1990, my whole world collapsed around me.'

Michelle says she went into a deep depression and felt as if she no longer knew who she was. 'After 12 years of deep depression and 14 suicide attempts, I found myself alone. I separated from and then divorced my wife. I lost everything.'

'Alone and once again ready to end my life, I finally accepted what I had known since I was a child: I wasn't, and never wanted to be, a man,' said Michelle. 'I finally accepted myself. I informed my family, children, and ex-wife of my transition.'

On July 31, 2008, Michelle's life changed forever. Michelle had finally transitioned to the woman she always felt she was supposed to be.

'I awoke in recovery and realized I was, at last, complete,' she recalled. 'Excitement and happiness filled me completely, and I cried.'

'That day, a new journey did not begin,' Michelle points out. 'The journey of this woman's life only continues. I am not a new or different person. I don't need to find who I am. I know who I am and what I want to accomplish.'

MILITARY ACCESS DENIED Speaking from a position of experience, Michelle believes that Transgender people should be allowed to serve in the U.S. military. The truth is, she says, they already are.

'There are, and have been, many Transgender individuals who have served in the U.S. military. However, they have not been able to do so openly,' she said.

U.S. Military regulations effectively prohibit service by Transgender persons. According to the Servicemembers Legal Defense Network, an organization that provides LGBT servicemembers and veterans with legal advice, the military regulations that prohibit Trans service break down into two basic categories: medical and conduct regulations.

Military regulations state that men and women who identify with or present a gender different from their sex at birth have mental conditions that make them ineligible to serve.

'Presently, the American Psychiatric Association has Gender Identity Disorder listed in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders,' said Michelle. 'I have no mental disorder and I will argue that with anyone. Just as sexual orientation is not, I believe, a choice, neither is gender identity.'

Homosexuality was listed in the APA's DSM as a mental disorder, but was removed in 1973.

'Who would choose to live a life being denied the basic civil rights to life, liberty, and freedom in order to be who they truly are,' asks Michelle.

Military regulations also state that those who have undergone genital surgery are listed as having physical abnormalities. Servicemembers caught cross-dressing on a military installation have been court-martialed for interfering with 'good order and discipline,' according to the National Center for Transgender Equality.

Currently, only seven nations - Canada, the United Kingdom, Spain, Israel, the Czech Republic, Thailand, and Australia - allow Transgender troops.

The Transgender American Veterans Association, an advocacy group founded in 2003, estimates there could be as many as 300,000 Transgender people among the nation's 26 million veterans.

The truth is no one knows exactly how many Transgender people are serving or have served. Neither the Department of Defense nor the VA keep statistics on how many servicemembers have been discharged or treated for 'Transgender conditions or conduct.'

Still, the military's posture on gender identity has not prevented Transgender citizens from signing up before they come out, or from obtaining psychological counseling, hormones, and routine health care through the Department of Veterans Affairs once they return to civilian life.

'For years, Transgender people have been left behind in the wake of political expediency,' said Michelle. 'Many a federal bill or state bill has had gender identity and expression stripped from it because it's seen as difficult to accept. Because of this, Transgender people are not visible.'

Michelle says that many Trans people find that, after they transition, it becomes easy to blend into society because of that invisibility.

'I believe that we as a community - and I use that term loosely - need to become more vocal and seen if we are to achieve equality and true acceptance,' she concludes. 'Transgender people are part of the LGBT - not a silent T.'

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