July 16 2018 [Updated January 22 2019]
Mikayla MacPherson is a veteran, activist, and inspiration to everyone who knows her. As one of the first transgender military members to receive hormone therapy through military healthcare, she had the opportunity to educate her fellow soldiers and even show some closeted members that they were not alone. However, she hasn’t always been a beacon of hope for fellow transgender military personnel. For much of her life, her future looked bleak. She’s endured discrimination of every nature: whether it was bullying, blackmail, or lawful exclusion. And now, after all the growth and acceptance she’s witnessed, a recent backpedaling in the military's outlook on transgender service has left her and her fellow transgender soldiers in the dark once again.
For MacPherson, life was difficult from the very start. “I knew that something was wrong my entire life,” she said in a phone interview. At eleven years old, she snuck into her mother’s closet to try on her clothes. “Everything clicked into place,” she said, “It was like… now I understand what I’m feeling.” However, this realization brought no solace. Growing up in an ultra conservative and religious small town, coming out was nothing short of self-exile.
“I lived in fear. I was afraid of being outed,” she said. And though she spent her childhood hiding her true self to the best of her abilities, she was inevitably caught wearing a dress by a close family friend. Aware of the punishments she’d receive if her family knew, he took advantage of her vulnerability. “He used that fear of outing me to systematically rape me,” she said. From the age of 15 until she moved away at 18, MacPherson endured inescapable sexual abuse.
If she told anyone about his manipulation, she’d risk being homeless, or worse. “I was extremely worried about the physical consequences,” she said, in a text message, “not just from my family but from other kids my age.” Conversion therapy was also a possibility that terrified her.
“[He said], 'Who would believe you? Everyone would believe me [when I say] that I caught you ‘being a little fairy f*ggot’. He used those very words.” Unfortunately, her abuser's words rang true. “I knew, yes, everyone would believe him and nobody would believe me.”
At 20 years old, she enlisted in the military to prove to her dad that she was a “man” and also to pay for college. “At first I thought going into the military would maybe kind of help me forget about who I was. I volunteered for some of the hardest assignments… ones that were very hazardous, ones that were very physically demanding.” Soon, her hard work paid off, and she climbed the ranks until she was promoted to Naval Chief Petty Officer. However, her sexual trauma, along with untreated gender dysphoria, stuck with her and soon became overbearing.
MacPherson in her Navy uniform pre-transition. Image: Mikayla MacPherson
“I thought I would never be able to be my true self, and that, along with the sexual trauma, PTSD, depression, [and] the gender dysphoria… all of that… was crushing me until it literally came to a point where I just broke.” It was at this breaking point that MacPherson lost the will to live. “I was trying to do suicide by deployment… hoping that the next deployment I went on would be the deployment I’d get killed on.”
Eventually, her critical mental health led to hospitalization. “When you’re at a low point, and you really don’t realize what’s going on and you’re on medications, your body is reacting to antidepressants, and you’re just an open book saying all this stuff,” she said, “I got into the sexual trauma… and that got into gender dysphoria and [the doctors] wrote it all down and then started asking questions about how I identify.”
Next thing she knew, she was sitting down with Behavioral Health and Medical at her home unit. “At that point this was on military medical records,” she said, “transgender service was still banned and they were still kicking people out for it. And I… just thought this was it," she said. “The commander who was the head of Behavioral Health and was a psychiatrist basically said, ‘You do realize… this is an administrative separation.’ That meant that… I was potentially at hazard of losing [any type of benefits].” The information would reach her team in a week, giving her time to officially come out to her home command and say goodbye.
By the time she needed to confront her new commanding officer, a man she hadn’t even met, she was done keeping her past locked up inside. “I told him my entire story,” she said, “here I am, this really hardcore Navy Chief Petty Officer, and I’m sitting in his office bawling like a small child. I was… waiting for him to tell me ‘That’s it, you’re going home.’ And he just sat there, and... he just goes, ‘Okay, I got three questions for you: How do you want me to address you? Have you picked out a name, a true name, for yourself? And what can I do to support you?’”
“It surprised me, totally shocked me, because there’s a ban that’s still in place. He said, ‘Let me explain something. I can retain you for needs of the Navy [and] needs of the military.’ He goes, ‘As long as I’m here, I’ll make sure that you don’t get administratively discharged.’... And then he explained that they were looking to possibly change the policies, that it had been controversial but the Secretary of Defense was moving towards lifting the ban. So he said, ‘I’m not going to lose one of my best senior enlisted members to a stupid rule, for being who they are.’”
From then on, MacPherson was given an overwhelming amount of support from much of her unit. “In the military, rumors fly faster than the speed of light,” MacPherson joked, “so I was like ‘At this point, I’ve got nothing to lose.’” One morning, at a briefing with all her personnel, she officially came out as transgender. “The whole command found out by the end of the day,” she said, “people were coming up to me going ‘Hey, you know what? I support you, Chief. You’re amazing; you’re brave. I could never be as brave as you.’”
Soon after, the ban was lifted, and MacPherson was finally able to begin transitioning under the consent and medical coverage of the military. She even got a handwritten letter from the Pentagon congratulating her on being the first active-duty transgender Navy Chief Petty Officer to be formally recognized as their proper gender. She was given the option to inform other units on the new policy and explain what it means to be transgender. After years of hiding her identity at all costs, she took them up on the offer. “I decided this [needed] to be an education thing.”
MacPherson after beginning her transition. Image: Mikayla MacPherson
After traveling to numerous commands and sharing her story with openness and integrity, she found that her words had a substantial impact. “In two separate commands, I had two individuals come up to me and say, ‘Hey, can we talk? I just wanted to let you know I thought I was the only one.’ The same thing that I [had] thought,” she said.
From that point on, MacPherson was determined to give them the same resources that had saved her and, ultimately, change their lives for the better. “One of them later reached out to me and said, ‘Hey Chief, I just wanted to let you know that you speaking to me... was the greatest thing that ever happened because I was ready to commit suicide because of gender dysphoria.” If it wasn’t for the help MacPherson provided this individual, they claimed they would not be alive today.
It’s moments like this that have given MacPherson's life a new meaning. “[It’s when] everything is going bad that someone tells me what a difference I’ve made. And then, it’s like ‘Oh my god, yes! I am making a difference.’”
However, this golden era of progression was short-lived. In July 2017, president Donald Trump posted a series of tweets claiming to have repealed the transgender military rights policy, sparking widespread panic in the transgender military community and confusion from the Department of Defense, which had not been consulted prior to the tweets. After failing to re-enforce the transgender military ban on the grounds that evidence to support such a ban was unfounded, the policy was in a state of limbo. However, the Supreme Court officially decided to put the ban into effect in January, 2019.
Donald Trump's tweets claiming transgender people could not serve in the military. Image: Twitter
Considering the fact that the highly-regarded RAND study concluded that having transgender people serve openly in the military would have minuscule effects on both military spending and force readiness, the logic behind such a ban remains unclear.
Even transgender veterans out of service are facing the ramifications of the rollback firsthand. “[I’ve been] trying to get my injectable estradiol, which is my prescription, [and] the last two times I tried to get it, they literally rejected it...They’re sitting there going, ‘No. we refuse to cover this. We refuse to do this,’” said MacPherson.
She continued, “[I’m] seriously worried about how healthcare [is] going to go... for veterans.” Even before the repeal was made official, the progression transgender military personnel waited so long to see began declining before their eyes. “It’s like they [kept] thinking, ‘Oh well the policy is going to be repealed, and we’re going to go back to the way things were.’”
Present-day MacPherson. Image: Mikayla MacPherson
For years, MacPherson endured abuse, mental illness, and discrimination in secretive shame. Now, as the battle for transgender military rights resumes, only one thing is certain: MacPherson will not remain silent.
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