Kyleanne Hunter1

Kyleane Hunter, Former U.S. Marine officer and combat Cobra helicopter pilot, Co-founder /co-director of the Think Broader Foundation on the Intolerance of Gender Identity, Her Sexual Assault, Living with Scars of Her Bilateral Mastectomy, Choosing Career First, and Never Questioning Her Womanhood.”

ORIGIN: What sets your soul on fire?
Kyleanne Hunter:
Intolerance surrounding gender identity. Throughout our lives, girls are taught to be peaceful, to be passive, to be demure. We are taught to only be sexual on a man’s terms. We are taught to shrink our personal and professional desires to fit masculine desires. Be caring, be small, be gentle … that’s what we’re taught. But I chose violent, hard jobs. I chose to put a career first. I chose to not settle for the first opportunity that came around. For most of my life (until my wonderful life partner came along), this made me a target. While I dedicated my life to fighting for this country, I was assaulted physically and verbally. I was blackmailed. I lost relationships. I distanced myself from my family. I convinced myself that I had to become masculine, to betray my gender and myself to succeed in my given career. As I grew and matured, I was able to reconcile the fact that though I chose a “nontraditional” path, it did not mean that I had to give up my gender, my femininity, or my passion for myself. Gender identity is therefore a passion of mine. Allowing each individual to express themselves in their most authentic way, without being pigeon-holed by false narratives about what women (or men) are supposed to do, lights my soul. If I can inspire one girl or woman that she can be something other than what society tells her to be, that soulful fire is stoked.

ORIGIN: What labels have been used to describe you and how do you use them for good?
As a Marine I was called “too violent,” “a bitch,” “evil,” and also “a whore.” Recovering from assault I was called both “weak” and “strong” and “cold” and “independent” and “calloused.” I have been called “unattractive,” “butch,” or “masculine.” On the one hand, I took these labels and made them my own in the “bitches get things done” kind of way. But I also took them as liberating. By not being described in the typical feminine way I was free to explore the dualities of our human nature. I was free to try hard things that pushed myself past my physical and emotional bonds. I was free to leave relationships, and ultimately find the one that was perfect for me.

But this has not always been easy. In the aftermath of sexual assault, the humiliation that ensued made me believe some of these labels. I was publicly called a whore by several of my professional peers for daring to have personal relationships after I had been assaulted.

I had one partner use my past trauma as reason to accuse me of not being “sexually open” enough to ever please him. I convinced myself that I deserved to have been assaulted. That I deserved the labels that resulted. That it was my fault for not being woman enough. That this is what women who broke the rules of girlhood got. I went into a dark place. Sometimes I literally hid in storage boxes while I was deployed, thinking that if I could make myself less strong, less independent … if I could become the feminine opposites of these things, maybe I could overcome the pain caused by my attackers.

But the most damaging of these labels has been being called “weak.” Weakness is the antithesis of everything that I created myself to be. As a child, I developed a persona around the idea of being strong. I wasn’t necessarily pretty. I wasn’t very social, so I was never was perceived as nurturing or kind. So I became strong. I excelled physically and academically, and became driven and self-assured. This strength would later be disparaged as masculine traits of “violence” or “butchness,” but for a long time I took it as a badge of honor. I crafted a strong persona and worked hard to maintain its appearance. Being sexually assaulted is the most violating thing one can experience. It strips an individual of the dignity and choice in the most intimate of ways. After the assault, my partner left me. He told me I was “too weak” to ever be attractive. Not only did I deserve to be assaulted for the choices that I had made, but I deserved to have been made weak because of them. However, it took time to understand that these things—these “masculine” qualities that women shouldn’t have—were the ones that I needed to become strong again.

In order to find myself as a woman again—to fully appreciate who I was and live my authentic life—I needed to fully internalize all those “non-womanly” things that I had done and use them to recover, and realize that being a woman is not inconsistent with being strong, independent, or even violent. By de-gendering words such as strong, or cold, or calloused, I have been able to realize who I am. Strong is how I survived. And cold and calloused are not descriptions. They are responses to situations that we don’t always know how to process immediately. They have also allowed me to be cautious in my future decisions. I now prefer to say that I am “cautiously optimistic.” Being called calloused for so long made me feel that I was cut off from the world or incapable of love. But what I realized was that it made me value the people close to me more. It made me love with more depth and passion when it was time to love.

Kyleanne Hunter

ORIGIN: Any relating to your body or appearance? How did you transform them?
About a year ago I had a bilateral mastectomy and chose not to reconstruct. This was a very personal decision for me, and I never regret it. However, I hear murmurs and whispers in locker rooms of being “freakish,” “mannish,” “grotesque,” and “ugly.” In survivor and support groups I have been questioned as “butch.” In conversations I have been told that I am “clearly a trans man” and that my opinion on my womanhood “doesn’t matter,” since I present more androgynously than I did when I had boobs. Reconciling my post-mastectomy body with femininity has been difficult. It is difficult to see scars—they are a sign of weakness, a sign that something in my body needed to be “fixed.” However, I view them as a sign of power as well. I had the ability to be the architect of my future, and not let a disease control me. Perhaps this is a freakish view of oneself. Perhaps focusing on scars as a positive is grotesque. But it is also who I am now. In survivorship circles and support groups, there is also concern about losing breasts and sexuality. Yes, breasts are erogenous, and I had quite ample ones. The common assumption, from doctors, support partners, and concerned loved ones, was that I would reconstruct. This assumption became such a part of my life that I started to question my own decisions, and later my own identity as a woman.

This all came crashing to a head in a locker room conversation. Changing from my work clothes, I was approached by a woman. “You don’t belong in here!” she screamed. She pointed to my scars and said, “I don’t care what you think you are, but you are clearly a man trying to pervert this space reserved for women!” I was stunned. And I didn’t know how to respond. But I made a conscious decision to never again question my womanhood—many other people would already do that for me. Reclaiming my femininity is an ongoing process. I will never create life. I will never nurture a child with breast milk. I will never fit the conventional buxom sense of beauty. I am grotesque, freakish, mannish. But I am a woman. I have the power to be in control of how I perceive myself, and how I present these perceptions to others. My strength as a woman is not dismissed by the changes in outward form. I can still be a lover, desire, and be desirable. These grotesque scars are a reminder that I am the author of my own ever-continuing story.

I have the power to be in control of how I perceive myself, and how I present these perceptions to others. My strength as a woman is not dismissed by the changes in outward form.

ORIGIN: Why is it so important that we empower women + girls right now?
It is time to de-gender gender. Women and girls need to stop being told that there is only one way to act. They need to be comfortable being both weak and strong, violent and compassionate, grotesque and sexual. In 2016 we are still teaching women that they should be meek, and that going against the grain will cause them pain and discomfort. It is time that each individual has the right to self-expression in their own way.

ORIGIN: What causes are you passionate about?
Veterans issues. Suicide. Gender identity.

Kyleanne Hunter is the co-founder and co-director of the Think Broader Foundation, a consulting firm aimed at eliminating gender bias in the news media. She is a Ph.D. student at the Josef Korbel School of International Studies at the University of Denver, where as a research fellow she focuses on gender construction and anti-government collective action. Kyleanne is a former U.S. Marine officer, the first female AH-1W Super Cobra pilot in her squadron, and one of the first helicopter pilots to fly combat missions in Iraq and Afghanistan.

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