Michelle Evans - The Story of a Transgender Air Force Veteran
Welcome to Season 3 of The Flight Deck! This season’s theme is LGBTQ+ aerospace history. We’ll be investigating ways that LGBTQ+ people have been part of aviation and space exploration since the beginning, and also ways the aerospace industry has shaped the LGBTQ+ community. We’ve got a fantastic lineup of conversations heading your way this season, and it’s starting off with X-15 historian, transgender activist, Air Force veteran and science educator Michelle Evans.
Michelle Evans spent most of her Air Force service here in Washington State and was even on base when Mount St. Helens erupted! In this interview, she shares stories from her time in the service, discusses ways her time in the Air Force intersected with her identity as a trans woman, and reflects on how her friendships helped her weather difficult moments on base.
Full shownotes and transcript after the jump.
Hello and welcome to The Flight Deck, the podcast of The Museum of Flight in Seattle, WA. I’m your host Sean Mobley.
Today we launch Season 3 of the podcast. The theme for this season is LGBTQ+ Aerospace History, investigating the ways that LGBTQ+ people have been part of aviation and space exploration since the beginning, and also the ways the aerospace industry has helped shape the LGBTQ+ community. This first episode features an interview with Michelle Evans, a transgender Air Force Veteran and award-winning space educator. She’s author of the book “The X-15 Rocket Plane: Flying the First Wings into Space.” Now I know this episode is a long one compared to what I’ve released before. But folks, this was a three-hour interview. She and I conducted it as part of the Oral History program at The Museum of Flight. Condensing it down to a little over an hour was already a monumental task, so I hope you’ll forgive the length, especially once you hear her story. So with that, let’s head into the interview.
SM: Because of your father’s job, did you get the chance to go see airplanes or anything like that?
ME: Oh, yeah. Oh, yeah. It was very interesting because he got a job with a company called Sangamo Electric, which is some place that most people have never heard of. Not a huge aerospace company. But what they did was that they sold instrumentation tape recorders. And they were like these big, huge, 16-track tape recorders. And so what he did was that he had this giant territory all through Southern California, up through Edwards Air Force Base, China Lake Naval Ordnance Test Station, San Clemente Island, places like that, that he would travel around to delivering these recorders, setting them up for test systems. And so one of the things he did when I was five years old, he told me, it’s like, “I’ve got to run up to Edwards today, and how about I come pick you up when you’re finished at kindergarten and you can come up to Edwards?”
And it was like, okay. That sounded interesting. I had never really been away from home at that point. And so he took me up to Edwards Air Force Base with him, which is a couple of hour drive. And that was my first time visiting the place that would really have probably more influence on my life than anything else. And it was really cool because my dad would go off, and he had work to do, of course, so he’d usually pawn me off on somebody else to keep me occupied. And we’d go wandering around the hangars and see all the aircraft there and talk to pilots and things like that. That’s the first place I saw the X-15, all three of them sitting in the hangar. So many cool things. A far cry from what that hangar looks like today. But it’s what really gave me the passion for the rest of my life in the aerospace industry. But even then, it’s really bizarre because I never expected to go into aerospace for some reason. It’s one of these things, my dad’s an aerospace engineer. Well, I’m not going to do what he did. And then it ended up, gee, I ended up doing basically the same kind of thing. [laughs] So, yeah.
And I should—I don’t know. I guess we can get into that later, too. I mean, this is also the time when I was starting to deal with the fact that I understood that I was really female and stuff. So I don’t know if you want to talk about that a little later or…?
SM: Sure. Why don’t—share—yeah, share a little bit about what was your relationship to gender—
SM: —as a child and as you were growing up.
ME: Well, I mean, I’ve known since I was, like, two and three years old that my gender that they were telling me I was and the gender that I knew I was were different. I didn’t have words for it. There was no word “transgender” in those days. There were other words which were not very flattering. But, of course, I didn’t know those either. But, I mean, the word “transgender” didn’t even come in until I was in my 20s.
And I know it’s really bizarre, especially for anybody who might listen to this in the future, but I grew up in a time when there was no internet, if anybody can even identify with the idea of not having a computer, a phone, whatever. So there was no way to find out that I was not alone in who I was.
And like a lot of trans kids nowadays, they try to talk about these things with their parents when they’re very young. And I was shut down very quickly on that. It’s like, that’s not something that—no. You’re a boy. You have to be a boy. And it didn’t really go over very well with me, but I learned very quickly how to hide who I was. I don’t think I did a great job of it, but my best way of finding out how to hide was that I just became very non-social. I didn’t really interact with other people very much.
My favorite pastime when I was that age—and later, to this day—after I did learn to read was to sit there and read books. I’d never go anywhere without a book. And so people would go to lunch and they’d socialize, they’d go to sports, they’d do all these other things. Me, I’d be off in a corner reading a book. That was my perfect lunch hour, was just sitting and reading for an hour. And I did not want to interact with other people because I was always afraid that they might find out something they shouldn’t find out. [laughs]
So… [sighs] Yeah. That was a tough time. And then it became a lot tougher when puberty came along. You can imagine the idea of somebody basically going through puberty the wrong direction. For a female such as myself, I had what I consider testosterone poisoning. And it changed my bone structure. It changed my voice. That’s why you hear this really crappy voice. And I know if my wife was listening here, if she was here with me today, she would say, “You don’t have a crappy voice. You would have a really perfect voice for 3:00 a.m. on FM radio.” That’s what she liked to say.
But I considered it a crappy voice because I get “sirred” every day. I had an incident right here in the hotel where somebody—I was talking to the front desk, and the lady was “sirring” me. And I kept telling her, “It’s not ‘sir.’” And I had to explain. It’s like, “I’m female. That’s inappropriate.” And she literally started laughing her head off and then hung up. And that hurts. It really does. So that happens a lot.
SM: By that point, you’d already been bitten by the aerospace bug.
ME: Oh, yeah. Oh, yeah. Yeah. I mean, yeah. As I say, I loved Apollo, loved X-15, followed all that stuff. Today, of course, everybody looks at it, it’s like, you have the 12 pilots of the X-15. The most famous is obviously Neil Armstrong. But when I was going through there, when I was going up to Edwards with my dad and stuff, it’s Neil—I mean, I met Neil up there. I talk about it in my book.
But the person that was the uppermost tier of the test pilots, that was Joe Walker. He was the big one. He was really the big one. And my dad was able to get me a photograph with an autograph of Joe and everything one time. And that was like my absolute prized possession. It’s like, yeah, all these astronauts, they’re cool. But, no. This is Joe Walker. He flies a rocket plane. That was the guy that I wanted to be but couldn’t because of my eyesight. Yeah.
SM: How soon after graduating high school did you join the Air Force? Did you do anything in between?
ME: Well, I actually joined the Air Force before I got out of high school. As I said, I was in Redondo Beach at that time. I had joined the Air Force in May of 1973. I graduated in June of ‘73. And so I was—my dad came down to visit one time. Again, I was living with my mom at that point. And my dad came to visit, and we went out for pizza as we always did. And he was talking about it. It’s like, “So what are you going to do? You’re getting out of high school. Where are you going to go?”
So I went and I took my test with the Air Force, and I passed all my tests. And they offered me a job as what was called a missile systems analyst. And that job could work on Titans, Minutemans, and various other missiles. Of course, all I saw was Titans and Minutemans, the big things in the silos. I didn’t really know there were other missiles that I could work on. And so I signed up with that, had a guaranteed job with that.
I was the very first—on the day that they were giving out assignments for our class, the people were getting their assignments, and they were like, Plattsburgh, New York, Loring, Maine, Minot, North Dakota—a real garden spot just like Chanute. And they came down, and mine was one of the last names to be given, and it was Fairchild Air Force Base in Spokane, Washington. I was the first West Coast assignment in like over six months. And being from California, it’s like, that was going to be great. I did not want to go to Minot. I was not real big on Maine or New York. So going to Fairchild was like a dream come true as far as anything that was available to me.
And it’s one of those things, I think, our SRAM missile, we had a total of 14 bases that we could go to. That was it for the whole country. Everything was domestic. I remember in basic electronics, one of the guys that went through with us was a guy who was going into the Titan missile, and he only had three bases he got to go to: one in Texas, one in Arizona, and one in Arkansas. And it’s like, “So why did you join the Air Force?” “Oh, because I wanted to travel.” “Well, you—yeah, you chose the wrong profession.”
So anyway, so I go to Fairchild. I get to Fairchild. I arrived at Fairchild just before the 4th of July in 1974. And Spokane was pretty cool at that point because that—they were having a World’s Fair while I was there. I’d never gotten to go to a World’s Fair before, and here it was right in my backyard. Went to my very first World’s Fair on July 4th of 1974 and had a really interesting time there.
So I ended up in the SRAM. And there were three different jobs that I could have had. Actually, only two that I knew of. The third one, I did not—I was not even aware of. One was—the SRAM was carried on board the Boeing B-52. And it was carried supposedly on the wings and in rotary launcher in the bay. They actually never used the wing mounts. They just did it on the rotary launcher. And so you could have gone to aircraft checkout, where it was all the missile systems integrated with the B-52, or missile checkout, where you just worked on the missile itself out in a facility called the Integrated Maintenance Facility, which is like IMF. Like Mission: Impossible, the IMF Force. Impossible Missions Force. And we were part of the Munitions Maintenance Squadron, which then everybody called the Mickey Mouse Squadron. Some people even took their hats and put ears on them. We did things we weren’t supposed to do.
But then there was a third job which was called the analysis section. And I’d never even heard of that before. I didn’t know that was even a possibility. And yet that’s where I got assigned. Three people in the shop. That was it. It was cool. There was a tech sergeant, a staff sergeant, and lowly airman me. And analysis was like the perfect place for me because I got to go in there and what that did was, we got to take care of all of the records, all of the flight stuff. Anytime the aircraft flew with the SRAM on it, we got to go over and do debriefings of the air crew. Had a blast. And that could happen any time, day or night. I don’t know how many times I got up at 3:00 and 4:00 in the morning to go debrief an air crew.
But it was cool. Sit around there, get to talk with the pilots and the—well, actually, our guys were the navigators and the radar navigators. And that was a neat job. I loved that. I got to interact with everybody all the way up to the wing commander, the deputy commander for maintenance, all the bigwigs. I got into some really cool briefings and stuff that I wasn’t supposed to be able to get into. Yeah. That was like the perfect spot for me.
And then things started going not quite so well. One of the things was that I was in the service because I needed my education, so I was going to school all the time. And we had on-base classes, we had off-base classes and stuff. And so I’m always going to school, working toward my degree, and always had this idea I was going to stay in the Air Force. That was going to be my career. I figured, once I finish my degree, then maybe I could transfer over to be like a missile launch officer or something like that. That was what I was sort of aiming for.
But as I say, things started going a little downhill. I found out the hard way that we had an ORI, which is Operational Readiness Inspection. And that’s where you basically pretend you’re going to war. The guy flies in from SAC Headquarters in Omaha and says, “Okay. As of this moment, we’re doing an ORI, and you are now on a war footing.” And I know the very first time that happened was just right after I got to the base. Our first ORI was probably a couple of weeks after I got to the base. And we’d been drilled into this thing. When you’re living in the barracks, you always—when you leave, you make sure your barracks room is perfect. It’s spotless for inspection, right?
So they get the call for the ORI. But I figured ORI, we’re going to war. So I put my uniform on, I got out, got in my car, drove to the analysis section. And I got there, and nobody’s there. What’s going on? And finally, later, people start trickling in and trickling in. And about two hours later, I get a phone call. They actually—the call actually went to my boss, from the first sergeant in the squadron. And the boss comes over to me. It’s like, “When you left the barracks this morning, did you not make your bed?” And it’s like, “No. I thought we were going to war. I don’t think it would really matter if they nuke the place and my bed wasn’t made.” That’s when I found out, yeah, you had to make your bed no matter what.
So. [sighs] I had to leave the simulated war and go back and clean up the room. And came back. Ugh. Some of the regulations were a little strange. They also had a regulation that you were only supposed to keep so much, like, on the walls and stuff. You had posters and things. I had every inch of my walls covered with posters. I had models hanging from the ceiling, all this stuff.
And we have a second thing called an Operational Read—or not the—CAFI, Commanders Annual Facility Inspection. And again, somebody comes down from headquarters and comes in and just inspects the facility. So you have to clean everything. You don’t have a speck of anything on the carpet, whatever. And you spend like a week just making everything pristine. And the first sergeant, who had it out for me then, he kept bugging me. It’s like, “You’ve got to take stuff of the walls,” and stuff like that. I actually put more stuff on the walls. I was a little rebellious.
And then—so I’m at work on that day, and I get another call from the first sergeant. And he really didn’t like me after that day because he called me up and said, “Well, the pre-inspector came through the barracks, and they saw your room. And they really like your room. And so the commander of SAC is coming through this afternoon, and they want to take him to your room just to show it off with all the pictures and the models and everything.” [laughs] And he was really ticked at me over that.
And it was very bizarre for a little airman like me when they showed up there and I had, like, a general and a whole bunch of colonels and a whole bunch of captains and lieutenants all stuffed into my room. [laughs] And I had, like, an SR-71 hanging up there. And the head of SAC is there. “Cool. I flew that airplane.” And poor first sergeant was just fuming out in the hall the whole time. But anyway, one of my rebellious streaks. So he never bothered me anymore about what was on the walls in my room.
But going back to ORIs. There was another ORI several years later. And it happened that my boss was on vacation. But he hadn’t gone anywhere. He was just out at his—a house he had just bought. He was spending time at his house. And so, as I say, we only had three people. And during an ORI, it gets really, really busy. And we could have really used him to be there. I mean, Richard and I were working 24 hours a day.
And I’m sitting there typing up a report one time after we’d done some debriefings during their simulated war flights. And I’m sitting there typing and typing, and Richard looks over my head and it’s like, “You know that what you’re typing is absolute gibberish, right?” Total garbage. Made no sense. There was not a real word anywhere on the paper. I thought I was doing great. And after that I had said, “It would have been really nice if the boss had come in. And he could have cancelled his time and come in and spent some time with us.”
That didn’t go over very well. And that sort of started my downfall in the Air Force. Because I had made a comment to the deputy squadron commander about it, and his attitude was, “Well, I put your boss in that position. So if you’re complaining about the boss, then that must mean you’re taking issue with me.” And it’s like, “No.”
So they ended up taking me out of analysis, my perfect job. And this was right after I had re-enlisted. And they took me away from my dream job, and they stuck me in missile checkout, which you actually had to drive, like, five miles off the base and around to the weapons storage area where the IMF was, the missile checkout area was. There’s, like, four gates you have to go through. And they have to do bomb checks and everything else whenever you go in the place.
I was not real happy out in the IMF. It’s like, in Washington, as you know, of course, like during the winter, it gets dark very early. You’re in the IMF. We get out there before the sun rose and we left after the sun had set. The whole building had one window that was, like, that big—[holds up hands to demonstrate]—in the blast door on the front door. That’s the only window we had out of that place. I did the best I could out there, but it was not what I really wanted to be doing.
SM: You also—you’re—you also took a picture of yourself on one of those missiles.
ME: Yeah, I did.
SM: Tell me about that.
ME: I had special permission one time because I was also a photographer. It’s one of the things I did when I re-enlisted. The first immediate thing I did was I wanted to do photography. And I bought a camera system from another guy that lived in the barracks, and it was a Nikon F with all the extra lenses and the whole bit. Spent 400 bucks of my $2,000 re-enlistment bonus buying my first professional 35mm camera. Still have that camera.
Because they knew I liked to write, they wanted me to write a story for a maintenance magazine. And I told them, “Well, we need to get pictures for it.” So I got special permission to bring my camera out to the IMF, which cameras were never allowed out there. And so it was pretty cool to have a whole day to go out there and take pictures. And I got pictures of all the equipment and all this other stuff.
And, of course, yeah, we fooled around a lot, too, including doing—I’ve actually done it twice, where I’ve done my Doctor Strangelove impression, where I go off and it’s like, well, we have this missile, and you’ve got to get up on top of the missile and ride it down like Slim Pickens. So that’s why I have a picture actually sitting on top of the SRAM on the hoist. They lifted it up. And, yeah. So I’m sitting there holding on. And, yeah.
I did that one other time with the Hound Dog missile, which was the missile that the SRAM took over from. And the Hound Dog, much larger missile. They could only carry two of them out on the wings of the B-52. And we had the very last Hound Dog on base. And I have a really nice little group shot of all of us in front of that final Hound Dog.
But then I handed off my camera to my buddy Marvin, and I said, “Wait a minute. I’ve got to get a picture here today. And you’ll know when to take the picture.” And so I handed them my little camera—again, my Instamatic—and I climbed up on top of the Hound Dog, got up on the wing, crawled out on the fuselage, and climbed out all to the nose of the thing. And I sat there on the nose, and I’ve got my little hat, and I’m doing the Slim Pickens thing. And I got my picture of that, too. So I’ve got two Doctor Strangelove pictures on my website that you can find. It’s fun. Marvin was—oh, God. He was my best friend ever.
We did so many things together. We would take trips together. And his parents—he’s actually from Washington, and his parents lived up in Bellingham area. And so first time I ever came to this side of the Cascades was when we went over to spend the weekend at his parents’ place. And we went and drove around and went and visited places. It was my first trip where I went up to Vancouver. First time I’d ever been to BC. Growing up in Southern California, we went down into Baja into Mexico all the time. So now I got to go to the other Border States. And really loved hanging out with him and his dad and his mom. It was a great family. We took many trips over there.
And, again, it turns out Marvin also was gay. But, of course, in the Air Force, you didn’t talk about that, although it was sort of an open secret. It was sort of weird because he would, like, go out with girls. He was very outgoing. But you could just tell that it wasn’t really his thing. And I even asked him one day, I asked him very specifically about it. Because Marvin was also very religious, and I said, “If you’re actually gay, isn’t that something that God doesn’t approve of?” And his answer to me was literally, “Well, I know I’m going to hell, but what the heck.” Okay, Marvin. [laughs] So no bones about it. That’s—you know.
And Marvin and—he was also a missile systems analyst. He worked in aircraft checkout. He ended up changing jobs about the same time I tried to change jobs, but that’s—yeah. We can talk about that a little bit more later. But Marvin was able to do so. He was able to change jobs. And he ended up leaving the base and went to SAC Headquarters. And we still kept in contact and everything.
And it was after I got out of the military, he was one of the first people I tried to get back in contact with because he was already out of the military. And I called his mom and said, “I’d like to get ahold of Marvin again.” And she was like, “You want to talk to Marvin?” I was like, “Well, yeah. Of course. He’s my best friend.” It’s like, “Well, you’re sure?” It’s like, “Well, yeah.” “Okay. Well…” “Is there something wrong?” “Well, I’ll let him tell you.” It’s like, “Okay.”
And so she gave me his phone number. He’d moved up to Alaska, was working for Arco up on the North Slope. And I call him up. He was actually living in Anchorage, but he commuted back and forth to the North Slope. And so I called him up in Anchorage, and he’s like, “Oh, Mom didn’t tell you, huh?” And it’s like, “Why? What’s there to tell?” And it’s like, “Oh. Well, I’m gay.” I was like, “Okay.” “Well, yeah. Well, my parents, they sort of disowned me, and my family won’t talk to me anymore.” “Well, that’s really shitty.” But it’s like, I didn’t have any problem with it. And I knew who I was. But I didn’t tell him that. I was not telling anybody at the time. That’s another part of the story.
But we stayed in contact. And unfortunately, Marvin ended up with AIDS. And he was able to move down from Alaska and move to San Francisco, where he could be treated at the VA Hospital there. And so I was able to visit him. Cherie was able to meet him, which was—I was so, so happy that she was able to meet him and stuff. And we had some great times together. And he’d come down to our place, we’d go up to his place, whatever. He had his boyfriend, John, worked for American Express. I would love to find John again someday.
But… [sighs] Yeah. Marvin, he died of AIDS. And that is still one of the biggest losses in my life, that he did not survive. If he had survived probably another year, he’d probably still be with us today. He was right on the cusp of all the treatments and the drugs and everything. It was just so damn close. He was one of the last people to go before all that came in.
SM: Well, while you were at Fairchild, Mount St. Helens erupted.
ME: Oh, yes, it did. [laughs]
SM: How did that impact you and your time on the air base? What was the aftermath like?
ME: But that Sunday was the open house day for Fairchild, where all the public comes out and does everything. First time ever, we got an SR-71 on base. That was cool. We got an SR-71 on display, plus all the other stuff going on and everything. And again, I was like an official base photographer. I was taking pictures of everything and what have you.
But I had actually been out there the day before. We’d had some people in from some magazines and stuff, and I was their escort out on the flight line. We would go out there in my private car. I got to drive out to the end of the runway. That was so cool. And we’d be taking pictures of everything coming in and stuff. And so I did all that stuff the day before.
So on the morning of the actual open house, I hadn’t even—I’m not going to get up early for this thing. So I’m still sleeping in the barracks. And, oh God. I know it’s been so long now. What was it? 8:32 in the morning, I think, is when it blew up. 8:32 or 8:38, something like that. It’s terrible. My memory is going bad now because I’m so darn old.
But Mount St. Helens blew up at like 8:30 in the morning. So, of course, we didn’t know about that in the barracks or anything. But I woke up, like, right at the time that we would have gotten the shockwave coming through the ground. I woke up out of bed, startled, like something just happened. It was really weird because it’s like, I don’t want to be awake. I want to sleep today. Why the heck did I wake up? And say, nobody believes me. It’s like, but I know what happened that day. It was just weird.
So it’s like, okay. I’m up. What the heck? I might as well throw on some clothes and go out, check it out, see what’s going on. Get a hot dog or something. And so I’m going out and wandering around and stuff, spending most of my time with the SR-71. I actually crawled up in the rafters, which was cool. I wasn’t supposed to do that. But I wanted to get, like, looking-down shots on the SR. I did things like that that I wasn’t supposed to do many times.
And at one point—it’s about 11:00, 11:30, something like that—and I remember going out—absolutely clear sky, perfect blue sky. And I remember going out and looking up, and the sky didn’t look right. It looked like it was going to rain. But there’s no clouds in the sky. It had that darkness to it. It was just bizarre. Had no idea. Had not heard about this—it’s still like three hours after the explosion—had not heard anything about it because no TVs or whatever. We’re out on the flight line. But it was all the ash coming in, and it was darkening everything.
And it was like about 15 minutes later, they start—they came out with big announcements over the loudspeakers, and they say, “We need to tell everybody to please leave the base because there’s been a volcanic explosion. And we understand a cloud is coming this way, so everybody needs to go home.” All of the 100,000 people or whoever from Spokane all had to be gotten off the base. And that’s when we first heard that the thing had gone off. And so, yeah. It was strange. Everybody was just peeling off the base and heading home. And I went back to the barracks along with the other people, and we ended up in the barracks and turn on the TV. And it’s like, you just see this boiling and roiling of this thing going off. Had no idea how many people had died yet that day or anything.
But then it was like, okay. You go out and you’d see the sky getting darker and stuff. And I went out. I took a photograph that—there’s this—this is like 3:00 in the afternoon in May. So I don’t know, sunset would be like 5:00-something, probably. But you look out, and it’s just this really deep orange right on the horizon, and the rest of the sky is absolutely black. And that picture, I took that picture and within about 15 minutes, the—it had come all the way down to the horizon. And it was black all the way to the horizon. And that was like the last light that we saw. And it was in the afternoon and it looked like it was 2:00 in the morning. I’ve never seen anything so dark in my life as I did in the middle of the afternoon that day.
And then you started getting these little sprinkles that looked like gray snow coming down as the ash started coming down. Because Spokane was really the first place to get hit by this. It got blown up into the air, came across, and came right down on Eastern Washington. And I think some of it came down like in Moses Lake and started sort of laying down around Moses Lake up into Spokane and then into Idaho. And it just—it kept coming down and coming down and coming down. And we sat there in the barracks, and we had no idea if it was ever going to stop. Is it just going to keep filling up? I mean, what’s going to happen here?
And so then we had to start doing the clean-up. And the big deal was, it’s like this stuff was—it’s like 98 percent glass, is what the particles are. And so you could spray it down, like you could take a hose and spray it down, five minutes later, it’s right back in the air again because it dries up immediately. And so we had to go out there and take these giant brooms and brush everything off. And we’d just push it off into the side. And we had to sweep the entire base. [laughs]
I still—I’ve tried though Fairchild to get a copy of the photograph. I know they had, like, everybody that was not doing something else, they lined us up out—it was actually right next to the building where I used to work in analysis. And we had like hundreds of us lined up in ranks out there. And they had gotten the big sweep brooms for everybody, and we’re all standing there with our brooms. And somebody came out—the base photographer came out and took a picture. And I’ve never been able to get a copy of that picture. I want that picture.
And then, right after that, it’s like, okay. And the first thing we had to do was go out and sweep the runway. So you’ve got this line of people, and we’re all like three miles down the runway sweeping, sweeping, sweeping. Because they had to get that thing off because the SR-71 was stuck there. They couldn’t get it off. Beale Air Force Base was really ticked off. They wanted their SR-71 back now. So we had to get that cleaned off for them as quickly as we could. So we swept that off. We had to sweep all the taxiways. And then eventually we would work onto other areas of base.
SM: You’ve danced around this a little bit.
SM: But why don’t we talk a little bit more about this. And share whatever you’re comfortable with. Feel free to pause if you need to. But tell me about—you wanted to do Air Force for a career.
SM: And then something happened and shifted that. And you were—
SM: —no longer interested. So start talking about how and why you left the Air Force.
ME: Well, it wasn’t so much that I wasn’t interested. It’s like the Air Force didn’t want me there anymore, or at least certain people in the Air Force. One of the things that I was able to do because of my work with the modeling agencies was that I had an excuse to have female things. Some clothing, some—a wig, stuff like that. And there were times when I could actually leave the base and be myself. I wasn’t going—I was out—I could, like, drive around in the woods or something and just like, cool, this is who I am.
And it turned out that there were a couple of people who found out about this. And the only thing that saved me from immediate discharge was the fact that these guys—because they were yelling it from high heaven, what they had seen—but the only thing that saved me was the fact that everybody knew that those two guys happened to hate my guts to start with, so nobody believed them. And I certainly was not about to set them straight and say, “Oh, yeah. That’s—I—yeah.” No, I’m not going there. And it was only them. They were the only two who knew the secret, so to speak, officially.
But, of course, everybody found out about it. Everybody knew about it. Nobody openly spoke with me about it, but it was—everybody knew. So I sort of became very ostracized, which, I don’t know, in some ways, it wasn’t that new to me because I was not that social to begin with, so I was sort of ostracized for not being social. And then, on top of this, because I wasn’t—I mean, all through my life, once I went through puberty and I became aware of who I was interested in sexually—I knew I was only interested in females—but I also really never did anything because I was afraid. I couldn’t be with somebody and be intimate with somebody and not tell them the reality of who I am. I can’t lie to somebody like that.
[sighs] And so, yeah. I didn’t date. I never went to prom. I didn’t do any of that kind of stuff. I just rarely ever dated. And same thing in the Air Force. I had a couple of girls that I saw, but it was very short-lived stuff. I never really did much of anything. And so I think there were a lot of people that had the impression that I was probably gay, which is interesting, because I am, but not the way they thought. I even found out both my parents thought I was gay. And, again, it’s like when I explained to them later, it’s like, well, you’re right, but… Yeah, definitely not what they thought.
So I started getting treated much, much differently than I had been. As bad as I was treated before, after this thing had happened, because it was—this is about 18 months before. It was in—it was the spring of ‘79 when this occurred, so it was about a year before Mount St. Helens. And so starting that time, it was about 18 months out from the end of my enlistment, my second enlistment. And, yeah, I just started being treated differently. And I realized that I really needed to get the heck out of there.
And I still had this idea that I was going to stay in the Air Force, so I started desperately trying to find a way to get out of this squadron, get away from the people who were treating me like that, who knew the secret. I started testing for everything. I passed every frigging test that I ever took. I took the officer’s qualification test. Marvin took it with me that day. I was the only one who passed the qualification test in our group that day. Even Marvin didn’t pass it. Because I think he was thinking about staying in as well, and he didn’t. But I was trying to change jobs, do something. Just had to get out of there.
And so one of the things that I did was I had become friends with the base historian. And so he worked directly for the wing commander up in headquarters. And he said he was leaving. He was getting out. He was going somewhere else. He was going to take off. And he said, “You should take this job.” It’s like, “Okay. That’d be cool. I could like that. Produce the quarterly history reports, do all—this is right up my alley.” And so I went through the process of doing this, where I went through the interview, I interview with the base—or the wing commander. And he’s like, “Yeah. We want you on board.”
But then, the problem comes up, goes back to the squadron. And the squadron commander and the first sergeant, they knew all these rumors about me and they had it in for me. They were looking for some way—because they officially couldn’t do anything, so they were looking for any excuse to do something to me. And so this thing with the wing commander and several other jobs that I tried, every single time, they would step in and say, “I’m sorry. You can’t transfer. You’re not allowed to transfer. We have a manning shortage in this squadron. We need you to stay here.” So they could override the wing commander just by saying, “Sorry, we’ve got a manning shortage.” And they used that on me. I was going to go into radar operations—or satellite operations, the wing historian, all these different things that I tried. Crypto. Every single time, they stepped in. “No.” They wanted to keep me there so they could keep harassing me and harassing me until they could find something to pin on me.
And so that happened for about a year. And actually, to back up a little bit, because it was not too long after it happened, about two or three weeks after this original incident happened—and it took me years and years to come to terms with this and to even realize—to even remember it. But Marvin and I were planning to take a trip. It was for the Memorial Day weekend. And his parents were coming across from Bellingham, and we were coming across on Highway 2, and we met at a campsite near Grand Coulee. We were actually very near Dry Falls. And we spent the weekend there.
But we left after work on Friday to head over to meet them. So we were driving late at night. There’s this dark road down Highway 2. There’s nobody else on the highway. And Marvin had never said a thing about what had transpired. I figured he probably had heard about it, but, of course, I wasn’t going to bring it up. And Marvin decided to bring it up during that drive. It’s just the two of us in the car. And it’s like just dead silence for so long. And he finally says, “I heard about something that happened, and I just needed to ask you. Is there any truth to what I’ve heard?” And I just remember sitting there in that car and staring straight ahead out at that dark pavement, and I did something that I despise in myself. And I lied to him. And I said, “No, of course not. Are you kidding me?” But I couldn’t talk about it. I could never, ever talk about it.
And it wasn’t until many years later at, many years after Marvin was gone, when I was actually finally coming out, and I look back at that moment and that night was probably the moment of the deepest regret I will ever have in my life. Because I have a very strong feeling that Marvin was hoping, first of all, that I would tell the truth because I think he wanted to tell me his truth that night as well. And I shut down that opportunity for him to talk about himself and to admit to somebody else—because he probably never admitted it to anybody else either.
And then all those years later, when we spent all that time together after getting out of the service, of course, I was still in a position where I never, ever talked about it. I was still not out. Cherie was the only person who knew about this deep, dark secret of mine. And then Marvin was gone, and I never got to tell him. And so just that whole years of regret that I never, ever told Marvin the truth, and I will never forgive myself for not doing that. Of all the things, he came out to me. He was honest with me. And I could never do that with him because—I was just not in a place to do it until… [sighs] It was like eight years after he died when I started doing anything toward actual transition. And so, yeah. That is my absolute deepest regret that I could never talk to Marvin.
And it actually set me on a course later when I had this—it hit me. It didn’t hit me until years later about—it’s like, oh God, that night. I should have said something. I had it so buried that I had—I wasn’t even remembering that for a long time. And then Cherie came to me once, and she said, “Did anybody ever do an AIDS quilt for Marvin?” And I said, “I’m sure somebody probably did. John probably did something or whatever.” And so we went online and tried to look it up, and we found out, no, nobody ever did an AIDS quilt for Marvin. And it was like, we have to do an AIDS quilt for Marvin. And that was our new quest was to do that in his honor. And spent a long time trying to figure out how to do it and all this stuff, finding out how big and all the other requirements and stuff.
And one of the deals that came out of that, too, was saying—because I had found out years before, I had said, “I need to find out where Marvin is.” Because after he died—I told you, his parents totally disowned him. After he died, his parents stepped in and took him away from John. Marvin was born in a little town about 90 miles east of Oklahoma City. And everything he always told me was he hated Oklahoma. He never wanted to return to Oklahoma. And his parents took him away from John and took him back to Oklahoma and buried him in his hometown. The last thing he ever wanted to do. And so I knew where he was. I knew where his grave was located. And it’s like this thing in the back of my mind. One of these days, I’ve got to go back there, and I’ve got to have a talk with him.
[sighs] And then Cherie came up with this thing about the AIDS quilt, and we had to do the AIDS quilt. And that made this whole thing—it’s like, okay. Now it all makes sense. We’ve got to do this quilt, and we’re going to take it back to Marvin. And so it was this big quest to get this thing done and get it perfect. And then we took a cross-country trip, and we went to Oklahoma.
And it was interesting, too, because just before we went to Oklahoma, I was trying to find out—I needed to make sure. I knew, it’s like, okay, we know where he’s buried, but it’s this giant cemetery. Where is he there and stuff? So I called back there and was trying to find out, how do I find out where he is? And I ended up calling funeral—the first funeral home I happened to call happened to be the one that had taken care of Marvin. And so the guy there was very nice, and he was able to help me out. Not only that, he put me in touch with Marvin’s mom, which was something I definitely did not expect. His dad had died back in the ‘80s, and she was down in Texas, I believe, at the time. She’s probably gone now. I don’t know. She was getting very old. She’s in her nineties, if she’s still around.
But I actually called her and talked to her. That’s the first time I’ve talked to her since that day when she said, “I’ll let Marvin tell you what’s going on.” And I think that she’d finally come to terms with it all, and she finally understood. And she—you know. But I told her. It’s like, we used to come over to your place all the time. I don’t—she never put it together. She never put together who I was, who I had been back in those days. But it was very interesting to have that conversation. And she was telling me stuff about the gravesite and stuff, and she was asking me to check on things when I was there for her and—so, yeah.
We took this cross-country road trip with the AIDS quilt all rolled up in the back. And we went to Oklahoma, and we went to the funeral home. We talked to the guy there. He made sure we knew exactly where we were going. We had to go just like six miles out of town. And we went out there. And it’s interesting. If you look on Google Earth, you can actually see his gravesite on Google Earth because it’s like right inside the entrance and it’s a big block on there that’s much bigger than, like, anybody else’s. [coughs] Excuse me.
And we went there. And I’d actually written a letter to Marvin. And Cherie stayed over in the car while I did that. And I went and I read my letter to Marvin, and I talked to him. We actually took the AIDS quilt, and we laid it out across the top. We brought flowers and put them up for him. And then—yeah, then we left. But at least I finally got to have my talk with Marvin after all those years, and I apologized to him profusely for lying to him that night. I just—I hate people that lie. I really do. And I hated myself. And so it was the most closure I’ll ever get. But there it is.
And then we were able to take the AIDS quilt down. There was a display going on of the AIDS quilt—section of the AIDS quilt down at the San Diego History Museum. And so one of the ways you can turn in an AIDS quilt is you could actually take it to a place where they have a display. So they took it in. We had a big ceremony there. We got pictures. It was really cool. Friends of us met us there. We had this big group there for Marvin. And we unrolled the quilt and everything.
This is Sean stepping in to pause the interview for a moment. During the actual interview, we actually paused there for a break because as you can imagine that was an emotional moment for everyone in the room. But I wanted to share something new we’re trying this season of the podcast. A chance for you to react or to share your own story.
The theme this season is LGBTQ+ stories in aerospace, and as with many underrepresented groups in history, museums face a challenge of telling stories because so few of them are documented in the sources that museums have traditionally turned to when creating exhibits. So, this is a call for help. We want to hear your story. If you are a member of the LGBTQ+ community involved in aerospace, whether as a career or you just love NASA and space exploration and planes, we want to hear from you. Send an email with your story to email@example.com. If we get some stories, we’ll do an extra episode at the end of this season where we share them, with your permission. Or if there’s a person in history that you know about that we should be looking into, please also send an email. We’re always looking for ways to do a better job at telling the whole story. Again the email is firstname.lastname@example.org. Thank you for your help.
SM: Going back to your exit from the Air Force—
ME: Ah, yes. Back to the fun stuff. [laughs]
SM: And again, answer as you’re comfortable. Feel free to pause—
SM: —or just not answer. It’s okay.
SM: But, yeah. So where we had talked about it, you had some people higher up who were making life difficult, and rumors were kind of swirling around the area.
ME: Oh, yeah.
SM: And your enlistment is just about to be up.
ME: Yeah. Yeah. So as I say, about a year after the original incident, we got hit by Mount St. Helens
We’re cleaning everything up. We started out with the runways, the taxiways, the streets, all this stuff. Finally got down to the buildings themselves. Had to clean up the buildings. So we’re finally back in our offices. I’m out at the IMF, and we are literally just finishing the last of the Mount St. Helens clean up. And we’re now just a few months away from getting out, and it’s like, okay, no big deal. But I was resigned to my fate. I’d finished my degree, which is what I really wanted to do. It’s like, okay, I’ve got that. I can get out, and we’ll go on with my life.
And so this buddy of mine, [Jim Amador?], he was running a buffer. And have you ever run a buffer? They’re not fun. Oh God, I hated those things. And he’s running the buffer, and it’s—the buffer is running him, you know. That’s the kind of thing these things are. And he ran into my foot with the buffer. And what it did was—it didn’t harm me, but it sliced open my shoe right where the sole and the topping of the shoe, it just—it took that seam out. So I had a hole like that long on the side of my shoe.
And so it’s like, great. This is wonderful. I’ve got a screwed-up pair of shoes. But I figured, well, I’ve only got a few months left. I can make it through this. Because I’m not going to go out and buy another stupid pair of shoes that I’m just going to throw away anyway as soon as I get out of the Air Force. And so I actually tried to repair them as good as I could, just to make them serviceable enough to use.
But the story got back to the first sergeant that I had a pair of shoes with a hole in them. So they found their opening. They knew they had me now. So what he did was that—it’s like, when you’re fairly new, you’re new on base, the young guys, they’re the ones who always get tagged for what’s called parade duty, like when there’s a retirement ceremony or something and they’ve got to do a parade when somebody’s retiring. And I got a notice from the first sergeant: “You’ve got parade duty. We’re going to do a retirement, and you’ve got to show up for parade duty.” This is not something a sergeant is supposed to be doing. Okay. This is—the low people get to do this. I’m past that now. But, no, I got tagged for that.
So, again, you couldn’t even tell that there was a break in the shoe. I had it sealed up and stuff. It was not perfect, but you couldn’t tell. So I showed up for parade formation, and we had to go through inspection before we went out to the parade ground. And the first sergeant is doing all of the inspection, and he’s going down and telling people, “Oh, fix your collar, straighten your tie,” what have you. Comes to me, “Oh, looks like you have an unserviceable pair of shoes. I’m sorry. I’m going to have to write you up for being out of uniform and for disobeying an order. Because you were told to be here in a serviceable uniform and your uniform is not serviceable, so you’ve disobeyed a lawful order.” It’s like, great.
So they were going to throw a court-martial at me over this pair of shoes. And I made an appointment with the judge advocate. And I went over and I sat down in his office, and I told him what was going on. And the guy was like, “Well, you’ve got a spotless record. Everything is fine. You’re getting out in a few months. So my suggestion to you is take an Article 15.” Because I could take an Article 15, which is non-judicial punishment, instead of going to a formal court-martial. “Just take an Article 15. Whatever they do, they’ll probably fine you and all this other stuff. But with your record and since you’re getting out, they’ll just suspend that. And so as long as you keep okay for the next few months, then that will remain suspended, and it’s no big deal.”
The problem is, with an Article 15, is that you have no recourse. Once you accept the Article 15, then your squadron commander is the one who gets to make the judgement on what is the proper punishment. Now, again, the judge advocate said, “Well, it’ll be something minor. It’s just a paperwork thing.” [clears throat] Excuse me. “So just take the Article 15, finish off your months, and get out.”
And so I took it. I accepted it. They did not do what the judge advocate said they were going to do. They threw the book at me. They took away my pay. They took away my rank. They did everything they possibly could under the laws of an Article 15 to me. I even went back to the judge advocate and say, “See what I’ve got here?” And he was, like, livid. He could not believe what they had done. But, of course, he didn’t know the story about these people finding out about being trans and all the rest of this stuff. He didn’t know the rest of the background of it because I had never, of course, told anybody about it.
But that’s what the outcome of that whole thing was. They found their opening, and they took it, and they threw the book at me. And one of the big deals was the first sergeant, he really didn’t like me and so he loved the idea that they were able to take away my rank. Because one of the things that that did, as a sergeant, as an E-4, when I left—again, I told you, I’ve got, like, models, books, posters—I mean, I’ve got a lot of stuff. I’ve been there for seven years on Fairchild. I’d accumulated a lot of stuff. And as an E-4, I get all that stuff shipped home. I lost my rank. I’m now an E-3. I don’t get stuff shipped home anymore. And he knew that. So he wanted to make sure that he really screwed me over good and made sure that I wasn’t going to get my stuff shipped home.
So I did what I could to fight it. But, again, with an Article 15, you can’t really fight it very well. Of course, I was, like, talking to my parents about it. By this time, both my mom and my dad had remarried, so I had a stepfather and a stepmother in all this. And everybody was trying to get involved, trying to figure out what was—what they’re going to do.
And it was really interesting. The first thing that my stepdad did, he called the White House. [laughs] Again, this is back during Jimmy Carter. And he called the Jimmy Carter White House, and he wanted to talk to Jimmy Carter and talk about what a bunch of BS this was. And he actually ended up talking to Jody Powell. I don’t know if you remember that name, but he was the press secretary for Jimmy Carter. He actually got that far up the chain, which was pretty, pretty good. I was amazed. My stepdad was pretty cool. Tom Baker. He was very interesting. He was a bigoted SOB, which is a whole different thing, but, yeah. But for this thing, he was cool.
And, of course, the White House is like, “Well, there’s nothing we can do about this.” So it went through all these different machinations. And this went on for months, and it was terrible. And the first sergeant and the squadron commander were just—they were just in their element. They loved it. Which is terrible because this was a new squadron commander. It was a Lieutenant Colonel Somebody. I can’t even remember his name. The guy that was there before Major [Batson?], he was a really great guy. He and I were really good friends. But now I got this new guy, and he was just a jerk.
So the first sergeant and the commander, they’re having their heyday knowing they can screw me over but good. And it’s now getting up to like September or so. I’m a couple months away from getting out. It’s been going on all summer. I’ve been trying to deal with it. And it finally hit me that here we are in the late ‘70s, early ‘80s—literally, early ‘80s. We were just at the—in 1980. It’s like September 1980. And this was a time—we’re a few years out from Vietnam. This was the era when the hairstyles where the guys had longer hair and stuff. And so the people in the military always stood out because you got this military buzz cut and stuff.
And so we used to always catch hell because people always could tell you’re in the military. This is the time when they were spitting on you for being a baby-killer coming back from Vietnam and stuff. The military was not liked at all. Which always—I never understood that. It’s like, most of the guys that went to Vietnam did so because they were drafted, and yet they’re the ones being spit on? They didn’t want to be there either. Which was very strange, but that’s another story. I have so many other stories. I could bore you all day.
So it dawned on me, we have this problem with the military. Military is not popular. And they’re doing stuff like this to people like me. There was another guy who was a lieutenant in the Army who tried desperately to change the regulations for haircuts so that guys in the military could fit in better by having a little longer hair. And he went through all these machinations where he got—he was really well loved, had a perfect record. But he decided he was going to challenge the haircut regulations, so he started growing his hair a little bit, going a little bit over his ear. Oh my God. How terrible is that?
So they court-martialed him for it. And he was queuing up to do this whole thing about fighting the regulations through the court-martial. That was his whole intent was to fight the regulations. And there was press involved, civilian people involved, everything else. But then they start the court-martial. They start the court-marital, and he’s expecting to fight on the merits of the haircut. What do they do? They read the charges. Failure to obey a lawful order. Had nothing to do with a haircut. Exactly what they threw at me. Failure to obey a lawful order. Had nothing to do with my uniform. They can just use that as a blanket thing. He had nothing to fight it. “We told you to get a haircut. You didn’t get a haircut. You disobeyed a lawful order.” They threw the book at him, and he was discharged.
And so they were trying to pull the same thing for me. So I remember reading about that. And I said, “We need to do something. Somebody’s got to be able to step in and do something about this.” I’ve been railroaded. I understood the underlying thing that was going on, but that was never talked about.
So I came up with this really interesting idea one day, and I decided I was going to write two letters. And at the time, the head of the Joint Chiefs of Staff was a guy named David C. Jones. Believe it was C. And he happened to be an Air Force general. But he was in charge of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Very well regarded. And so I decided I’m going to write one letter to General Jones and tell him exactly what’s going on here, what happened. Again, not talking about the trans stuff. That’s out of the thing. But just the fact that they screwed me over over this pair of shoes.
But I’m going to write a second letter, and I mail them both on the same day. And the second letter was to Mike Wallace of 60 Minutes. And I told him the same story. And it’s like, yeah, wouldn’t it be cool if we could get this out into something like 60 Minutes? Maybe something could happen. I was desperate for anything. So I go off and I mail those two letters.
Not too long afterwards, like about a week later, all of a sudden, this plane lands from Omaha. And it’s the, I think, Adjutant-General or something for Strategic Air Command flew in. And he marched into the wing commander’s office, and he told the wing commander—or asked the wing commander, “What the hell is going on in this base?” And the wing commander is like, “What are you talking about?” And he told the wing commander why he was there. He was there because of my letter to the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
And so the wing commander—then it starts rolling downhill. And the wing commander then calls the squadron commander, who calls the first sergeant, who calls my boss and tells them all what’s going on. And talk about a really good day in the Air Force. [laughs] Because after all the hell that I’d gone through for a year and a half, all of a sudden it all went away. And it was like, this all happened like within just a week of me getting out, is when it finally resolved itself. And it all came about because of those two letters that I sent off. Because I also told General Jones, “By the way, I’ve also cc’d Mike Wallace on this.” And all of a sudden, everybody was very apologetic, and I got my rank back, and I got my money back, and I got my stuff shipped home.
And eventually, I got my return letter from Mike Wallace—or from—well, somebody else at 60 Minutes, who basically said, since the thing has been resolved, they weren’t going to do a story. So that was good. It did exactly what General Jones wanted it to because he did not want that on 60 Minutes. How stupid could it be? “Oh, we’ve tried to court-martial somebody over a stupid pair of shoes.” And so in the end, I was vindicated and I got everything back, something I never expected to do. It was really right down to the wire.
And my favorite part of it, on top of all that, was on the day that I was signing out of the squadron—I’ve got to go turn stuff in and do all this stuff—and one of the last things I have to do is I have to get signed out of the squadron, and I have to get paperwork signed by the first sergeant. The first sergeant was very near his retirement, and he had put in for a dream base of his that he wanted to go to before he retired. And he had just got his orders. He was going to England. And he really had been wanting that for like 20 years, and he got his orders to England. And I went in and I sat down in his office, and he sat there and glared at me. “You know they just cancelled my orders.” “Oh? I’m so sorry to hear that.” [laughs] And I really, oh, I was so sorry to hear that. And that was the end of his career. I was amazed. I was really amazed. But in the end, I won. Took me a year and a half, but I won. And it was—I still can’t believe it ever happened.
But it was very interesting because many, many years later, I—after going through transition and stuff—and my life got so much better after I was finally able to transition and I was able to be myself. Cherie was always there with me. The very first day I met Cherie, I don’t know why, but I told her this deep, dark secret of mine. It was exactly 53 weeks to the day after I got out of the military, is when I met Cherie. And that first day we met, I was thrown into this situation, I met her, and I told her that day, “By the way, I’m not a guy.” And to this day, I’m still totally amazed by the fact that she did not run away from me. She did not yell and scream and get all freaked out. And she stuck with me. And she said, “So what?”
And so she became my safe space. She was the one person who knew my secret for so many years. And so it was many years later, after my second attempt at a suicide, that when I was recovering in the hospital—and Cherie was sitting there with me, and she said, “I’ve been telling you for many years that you need to do something about this. Are you going to listen to me now?” And, of course, like Cherie always is, she is always right. And when you get to that point, you figure you got nothing left to lose. And so I went down this road of transition. Something I knew I would never be able to do because I’m tall, I’m big, I got that crappy FM radio voice. I knew I could never successfully transition.
But even after I went through all that, went through all the machinations, the legalities, did everything I needed to do legally, medically, everything to transition, there was still—I became much happier. I wasn’t suicidal anymore, which was a big thing. But there was still this problem that was underlying it all, and I could never figure it out.
And I was in—I was in pretty regular therapy sessions with the therapist at Kaiser, which is my medical group. And I’ve been with her for years. And for whatever reason, I happened to be on the computer one morning, and I happened to run across an article about PTSD. And I started reading this article, and they had like a bullet point list of all these symptoms that PTSD has. And I went down that list, and I said, “Yeah, yeah, yeah.” Every single one of the damn symptoms on there. And it’s like, why the hell do I have PTSD? But this explains everything. And I even had Cherie—it’s like, “Come on. You’ve got to—I’ve got to read this to you.” And she said, “Yeah, that sounds like exactly what you’re going through.”
And I then went in, my next appointment with my therapist, and I sat there in her office, and I said, “I just had this revelation that I think I have PTSD.” And she sat there and said, “Oh, yeah. I put that in your chart like two years ago.” “Oh, thanks. And you never told me about this. Would have been nice to know. Maybe we could have done something about this.”
And so I finally understood that I had PTSD. But then it was like, where the hell did it come from? Where is this thing coming from? I had no clue. And it took a lot more work and no help from that therapist at all. And all of a sudden, it finally dawned on me. It was like maybe a year later where it finally hit me. It’s like, I know where this came from. And it came from that very first day when those two guys found out about the fact that I was trans.
And again, it’s one of those things that had been walled off, the feelings of what happened. I mean, I had been trapped in my room. They were pounding on my door, trying to break my door down to get in to get to me. I considered jumping out the window. I was up on the second story. Anything to try to get away. I hid in that room for a very, very long time and never came back out. And to make a very long story shorter, as I said, it was—it all came from that incident, and everything flowed from that. And especially over the next year and a half of all the treatment that I went through.
And it was interesting because then somebody said, “Well, if you’ve got PTSD from service, you should do something about it. You should tell the service. Tell the VA.” And so I did. And I said, “This happened in 1980.” This is like 2018 when I finally figured this out. 2019. And nobody’s ever going to believe this. There’s certainly nobody going to ever verify it.
But I put in the paperwork. And it took like six months of going through this and going through exams and them going through all of my military records and stuff. And I was absolutely blown away one day when I got the letter from them saying that they verified every single thing that I had said. It was in the record. They found it all. And yes, you’re going to get compensation for PTSD because it’s very clear. You could see a direct delineation between this is what happened before, this is what happened after. My record was extremely clear.
And I had most of my records. And it was after that that I actually sat down and I pulled those records out, because I hadn’t seen them for years. And I pulled them out of the file drawer. Being OCD like I am, they’re all filed away. And I actually started reading through that stuff. And I read some of this stuff to Cherie, and I read her the letters that I wrote to the Joint Chiefs of Staff and to Mike Wallace and all the other stuff and all the—and my performance reports and everything that had just gone to crap afterwards. And I’m still blown away to this day that after all these days they were able to fix every—or find it, that it was actually there. Yeah.
SM: I’m hoping you’ll speak to the next generation of trans youth. Looking back on everything we’ve talked about, what would you want them to take away from that? And especially people who are interested in pursuing military or aerospace or any kind of career that you’ve had a part of?
ME: Well, it is wonderful that we finally, supposedly, have full equality within the military, that people can come out as being trans and not get kicked out of the Air Force. I never thought I would live to see that day. It was touch-and-go there for a while because it was first announced back in 2016 by Secretary of Defense Croft—Ashcroft, I believe, is the right name, if I’m remembering my—I hope I haven’t lost my memory completely. And he announced that trans people could come out openly.
And then something happened at the end of the year that changed all that. And I actually knew trans people in the military at that time, which was an absolute horrific time, because here they’d been told they could come out, but now they’re being told they have to go back in the closet. It doesn’t work that way. But now hopefully we’re past that. That’s a very sad chapter that’s behind us. And trans people are now able to serve openly. And that’s wonderful. And I hope people are now able to understand that if they’re trans, they can do anything that they want it do. And be it the military or any sort of thing that they want to do. I would hope that my experience is showing them that that’s possible, that they can do that.
And it’s like, again, I was at a college one time. And I always worry because I’m in my sixties now and I worry about going to speak at a college. It’s like, how can these kids identify with me? And after one of the talks, I had this kid come up to me, and he said, “You know what? I’m trans. And I had the most amazing time being here in this classroom with you today because meeting you tells me that I can survive. If you can do this, I can do this.” And so I hope that maybe that’s what’s going to come out of some of this, is just the fact that I’m here and that I’ve survived, and the stuff that I’ve gone through to get to this point, if I can do this, it’s a heck of a lot easier for trans people today. Although in some cases, there are some people that are fighting back against trans. And God, this has got to stop. Oh my God. We’re being attacked by so many people.
But at least we have the opportunities to move forward now, I hope. And hopefully this is just a small hiccup we’ve got going on right now and that we’re going to end up moving back forward again. Because, yeah, we’re not going to go back in the closet. I certainly can’t go back in the closet. I know people who have de-transitioned, and they’ve done so not because they’re not who they said they are but because people have fought back against them. And almost every time I’ve seen that happen, it has ended in tragedy. It does not work. You cannot tell us we are not who we are. And we should not be seen as a threat to anybody else.
I mean, we’re sitting here in this room right now. I don’t think anybody else has decided they’re going to go home and change their wardrobe, right? I hope I speak for everybody. And, yeah. So, again, I hope that somehow I can be a little bit of an example, that it’s like I can do one of the most macho things in the world, talking about this fantastic aircraft, talk about the macho thing, a rocket airplane, the fastest and highest aircraft that ever flew, and I was able to write about it, and I’m able to go all over the country and even overseas and talk about this and be accepted.
And so if I can do this—it goes back to one of my favorite talks. When I was with Gene Cernan, we did like three talks with him in one day. And one of his favorite things he liked to do is he would sit there and he would find some young kid in one of his audiences. And he would talk to that kid, and he’d say, “You know what? You’re like six years old today. And I want to tell you that I flew to the Moon, and I landed on the Moon, and I lived on the Moon for three days. So never, ever tell me that anything in your life is impossible.”
And I hope that maybe just a little bit, maybe my story will do that for some other trans kid, to say, “Hey, whatever you think, whatever you’re going through, maybe seeing something of what I’ve gone through is going to show you that nothing in your life is impossible either, that you’re going to survive, and you’re going to do much better than I ever did.” And I can’t wait to see these young kids as they’re growing up and seeing how well they’re going to be respected and liked and admired and accepted. And that’s all we need. We just want to be accepted for who we are, just like every other person wants to be. We’re not trying to screw anybody over. We’re not trying to freak anybody out. We just want to be who we are and that’s it. Just let us live our lives. And if I can be an example for somebody else, then I’m all for it.
Thank you for tuning in to this episode of The Flight Deck, the podcast of The Museum of Flight in Seattle, WA.
As I said in the intro, this edited version of the interview is only half as long as Michelle’s entire oral history. In the longer version, she shares a lot more anecdotes about her time in the miliary, and also about her extensive career in the private aerospace industry after she left the air force. As with all our oral histories, the complete versions are available for free on the Museum’s Digital Collection, and I’ll leave a link to it in the shownotes, which you can find at museumofflight.org/podcast.
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Until next time this is your host Sean Mobley saying to everyone out there on that good Earth, see you out there folks.