By ALLIE MORRIS
Mikayla Bourque guarded military outposts in Germany while serving in the U.S. Army. She rushed into burning buildings as an Allenstown firefighter and EMT. But these days, what makes Bourque most uncomfortable is walking into a public bathroom.
Bourque transitioned from Mike to Mikayla eight years ago, becoming a transgender woman at the age of 46. The process helped Bourque shed the depression she battled for years.
“Talk about night and day,” said Bourque, whose cherry-red dyed hair hangs in loose waves down her back. “Imagine for the first time actually being who you are to other people, and people actually see you.”
But over the last few months, Bourque has been fearful that someone emboldened by the current political climate may lash out verbally or even physically.
A nationwide battle over transgender rights erupted after North Carolina passed a law this year mandating people use public bathrooms that match the gender on their birth certificate.
While awareness is increasing as high-profile figures like Caitlyn Jenner transition before the public’s eye, New Hampshire’s transgender residents say they still face hostile and insensitive comments in person and on social media.
“I feel more unsafe than I have in years,” said Bourque, of Laconia. She plans her visits to the movie theater based on a film’s length and whether she can avoid using the women’s restroom.
“The amount of people that say they hate transgenders, or they make the assumption that I am a pedophile, without even knowing who I am, it’s very hard for me to laugh that off,” said Bourque.
New Hampshire is the only state in New England, and one of more than 30 nationwide, without a law protecting transgender people from discrimination.
A legislative proposal to create one was defeated unanimously by the state Senate in 2009.
But such discrimination was banned recently within state government, when Gov. Maggie Hassan signed an executive order in June.
The policy won’t be fully implemented until next month, but it’s already having an effect.
Bourque has worked for New Hampshire Employment Security for more than 20 years, and was among the first openly transgender state employees.
Bourque is hoping to become the first state worker to get gender reassignment surgery covered by the state’s insurance plan.
The procedure has always been out of her reach. The $35,000 price tag, too high. The closest qualified doctor in Pennsylvania, too far. And the most affordable option, an $8,000 operation in Thailand, too risky.
The state’s health insurer doesn’t have to cover the surgery until January under the Affordable Care Act, but Anthem is offering the benefit to state workers early, in line with the executive order.
Bourque is meeting with her councilor next month to get a signed letter saying the surgery is medically necessary. She plans to put herself on the 100-person waitlist at Boston Medical Center, which in May announced it will begin performing male-to-female genital surgery.
When Bourque says the word, “surgery,” a smile spreads across her round face.
Once it’s complete, Bourque will be able to go to Maine, where she was born, and scrub away the last legal remnant of Mike: the male gender mark written on her birth certificate.
“It doesn’t change who I am, but to me it’s like the last step,” she said. “Then I’ve done everything I wanted to do with my life.”
Screaming for help
Growing up in Concord, Bourque knew the boys in her family played in the blue room with trucks. Her sisters stayed in the pink room with dolls.
Bourque always felt a longing to join the girls; she loved needle-point and baking. But her mother said no when Bourque repeatedly asked to wear a princess costume for Halloween.
By age nine Bourque knew that something was different, that her body wasn’t proper, the lump between her legs wasn’t right.
The feeling intensified during high school in the 1970s, when Bourque, a track athlete at 5 feet 10 inches, felt weak standing in the locker room’s open showers at Concord High School.
“I knew something was wrong, I shouldn’t be in front of the other guys,” she said. “I didn’t express it to anyone.”
Bourque couldn’t put a name to the feeling, but eventually she came to understand herself as a cross-dresser. She started slipping on women’s bras, and skirts in secret. Her strong male-oriented upbringing helped her hide the tendencies, in the military, as a firefighter.
Bourque told her first wife; their relationship disintegrated into divorce four years later.
“I was just screaming out for help . . . this is what I want to be,” Bourque said. “Here I am trying to appear as a male, when I have always had this feeling I was in the wrong body.”
Bourque’s brother committed suicide in 2005, she said, after telling his wife he was transgender. Before his death, the siblings had never discussed it.
After three sessions with a grief councilor, Bourque began to wonder, then accept what she had felt all her life: she was transgender, too.
“I was depressed because I couldn’t express who I am,” she said.
It was two years before Bourque showed up to work at the Laconia employment security office as Mikayla, dressed in the brown peasant blouse and skirt she had picked out the night before.
In the lead up, Bourque prepared. She told her second wife, Lisa, and their three daughters. While the oldest and youngest accepted Mikayla, the middle child couldn’t part with Mike. When she put on a graduation gown and walked across the stage to accept a diploma from Hopkinton High School, Bourque sat at their Contoocook home, unwelcome at the ceremony.
Bourque spent $5,000 on a new wardrobe, trading slacks and button-ups for flowing skirts and pink blouses. She learned to sit like a woman, with her ankles crossed, and she tested out different colored hair dyes and blue eyeshadow.
Pushing her voice to a higher, more feminine pitch was exhausting and sounded phoney, like a call center operator, so she accepted her masculine tone.
She legally changed her name, from Michael Marcel, to Mikayla Jennifer.
And she began taking hormones to get breasts and soften her skin. The treatment was covered by insurance, but the hours of counseling were not.
For the first year, Bourque couldn’t look at herself in the mirror, seeing her old body, paired with her new self.
Outwardly, Bourque shined.
Her family started to embrace Mikayla.
“A lot of people talk about losing my father, but for me, it honestly was like gaining a so much better connection with her,” said Ashley Janvrin, Bourque’s oldest daughter. “When she was Mike she wasn’t a happy person.”
Before Bourque showed up to work as Mikayla, the head of Employment Security sent an email to workers telling them they should call Bourque by her new name and use feminine pronouns. Bourque was to use the single-stall bathroom.
The July morning in 2008 when Bourque reintroduced herself to coworkers as Mikayla, she lingered outside the office door for several minutes. She adjusted the red wig that covered her still-short hair and made sure she hadn’t left her purse – an unfamiliar accessory – in the car. She wondered whether her colleagues would laugh at her, or stop taking her seriously.
“It was fear of the unknown,” Bourque said. “It’s like the first day of school . . . I felt like I was a brand new employee.”
The day was uneventful, Bourque recalled, and later her colleagues told her they didn’t want to offer congratulations or make a big deal at risk of making her uncomfortable.
Bourque did face growing pains when she transferred to the Manchester office about a year later. In Laconia, Bourque had quickly begun using the women’s room, which had multiple stalls and sinks.
In Manchester, Bourque’s new boss requested she use the single-stall restroom near the office kitchen. She refused.
At an office training in Conway the same year, a supervisor put up a sign on the bathroom door for Bourque to flip when she was inside. Some coworkers were uncomfortable, he explained.
“Well, they are going to have to get used to it,” Bourque said she fired back, settling the debate.
She has continued to push for transgender rights.
With a doctor’s note, Bourque changed the “M” to an “F” on her federal passport. Then using that document, she got the DMV to switch the gender mark on her state driver’s license, during a time when the division required proof of gender reassignment surgery to make the change. (Since 2014, they no longer do).
Bourque used the government issued ID cards to convince her local gym to continue to let her use the women’s locker room after a few complaints arose.
“I have sat and watched this,” she said. “It’s been exciting.”
It hasn’t all been rosy. Bourque left her part-time job at a coffee shop six months after she publicly transitioned because her manager said the customers didn’t like “dealing with a transgender.”
Bourque testified in favor of the failed 2009 bill to bar discrimination based on gender identity or expression. The measure passed the House by a single vote, then met a crushing 24-0 defeat in the Senate.
Much of the debate then centered around bathrooms. Then-Rep. Nancy Elliott, a Republican, called the proposal a “complete violation of our citizens’ rights.” Writing an opinion published in the House calendar, she said: “To make the entire 1.3 million residents of our state uncomfortable and afraid in the restroom is unconscionable and an example of the tyrannical minority pushing around the majority.”
The current debate around bathroom-use has frightened Bourque. The last two times she saw a movie in Gilford, patrons told her she was in the wrong bathroom. At Wal-Mart, a pack of teens followed her through the aisles while she shopped, calling her a “man in a dress.”
Bourque relies on her roommate, Sandy, and her wife, from whom she is now separated, for support. She is hopeful a law will pass, to ensure rights for all.
“It all boils down to the restroom,” she said. “That’s the final frontier.”