The Orange County Register, June 7, 2016
By NATHAN PERCY / STAFF WRITER
Michelle Evans is willing – almost eager – to share from her deep well of life stories.
The 60-year-old Lake Forest resident is full of them – some that involve her love of space and others that recount struggles in her personal life that went on until 2006.
Evans found an outlet for her storytelling in her 2013 book, The X-15 Rocket Plane, Flying the First Wings into Space. It was the culmination of about 70 interviews with professionals involved with the hypersonic rocket-powered aircraft that set speed and altitude records in the 1960s.
The book took her 30 years to complete. And the reason for that is tied to another story about her years of fear and confusion and how they ultimately gave way to acceptance and love.
Evans is transgender, and has struggled with her identity for much of her life. She hid her true self until about 10 years ago, when her affirmation of being female allowed her to transition.
“I’m tall, I’m big, I have this crappy voice and I stand out in a crowd,” Evans said, light-heartedly. “There’s no way in the world I ever believed I could transition, and that was one of the reasons I stayed in hiding.”
Following her transition, she finished her book and started a new project – the support group TG Rainbow – to show other individuals who identify as transgender that they are not alone.
Last month, Evans was celebrated by the O.C. Human Relations Committee at its AWARDS 45 ceremony at the Grove in Anaheim for her work in providing support for the transgender community.
“The award is hard to put into words, which is a really dumb thing for a writer to say,” Evans quipped. “It’s a validation of what we’re doing.
“To this day, I still can’t believe it. There’s people out there building homes for the homeless. What am I doing here? But I am so utterly honored.”
RETELLING THE SPACE RACE
Evans’ stories about space go back as far as kindergarten, when her father, R. Bryce Evans, pulled her from school one day to show her Edwards Air Force Base, where he worked as an aerospace engineer.
Her father had to work, so Evans got a tour of the base from other employees. On one occasion, Evans stopped to watch a pilot exit from an X-15 simulator.
“He could have just walked away, but he comes over and introduces himself to a kid who is just standing there,” she recalled. “It was Neil Armstrong. This was back before anyone really knew who he was, but it left a profound impact on me.”
Evans entered the Air Force after high school and was stationed in Washington, working on missile systems.
Her passion for the X-15 returned when she moved to California and began working as an aerospace engineer. In 1993, she started Mach 25 Media, a gateway for education and display services for astronaut appearances and other space-related events.
“I always wanted to be a writer, but never put two and two together until one day I read an introduction to a book about X-Planes in general and it said that each one of them deserved its own book,” she said. “It was like a light switch went off. That’s it!”
The next day, Evans was back at Edwards Air Force Base, looking through old records and photos. Dr. Richard Hallion, the base historian, introduced Evans to one of the X-15 pilots who was still with NASA as its chief engineer.
Evans’ interviews included a trip to Ohio to interview Armstrong in an ice cream parlor.
“Michelle was one of the first people Neil allowed to interview him and it was because her questions were not about Apollo 11,” said Cherie Rabideau, Evans’ wife.
Pilots, engineers and builders of the X-15 rocket plane are included in the book, part of a project called Outward Odyssey Series: The People’s History of Space Flight, headed by the University of Nebraska Press.
Buzz Aldrin, Ron Howard and Tom Hanks are among those who have the book, Evans said.
“If they’d only buy the rights we could get a bigger place,” she quipped.
AN UNCONDITIONAL LOVE
Evans said she was 2 or 3 years old when she knew something wasn’t right.
“My mind and my body didn’t work together,” she recalled.
When she was younger, she felt more comfortable around girls and thought it was something everyone experienced. It wasn’t until she was in her 20s that she heard the term “transgender.”
In 1980 she moved from Washington back to California, and not long after that, met Rabideau at a small gathering thrown by mutual friends in Hollywood.
They instantly connected. And Evans confided in her.
“For whatever reason it was, the biggest, darkest secret I had in my life, I told her the very first day we met,” she said. “I don’t know how she got it out of me, but there was a connection there and I could not lie to her.”
Despite Rabideau’s support, Evans suffered from a crippling depression. In 2002, she tried to commit suicide.
Fearing for her safety, Rabideau called the police.
“I was just done with it, I couldn’t do it anymore,” Evans said. “She saved my life.”
According to a study by the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, 41 percent of transgender individuals will attempt suicide at one point in their lives.
Four years later, Evans began her transition. It wasn’t always easy for Rabideau.
“As I started to become happy, (Cherie) started thinking, ‘What did I get myself into?’” Evans said. “Then … it came to her that she didn’t care what others thought and that’s what made it all possible.”
She and Rabideau have been together 34 years, living in Lake Forest for 30 of them.
In August 2011, Evans put the finishing touches on her book.
Longtime friend Debbi Bennett, who nominated Evans for the OCHRC award, said Evans’ book and the turmoil of her personal life worked together.
“The need to create paved the way for her to transition,” Bennett said. “In turn, the transition cleared her mind to finish what she started.”
With each step of her transition, Evans said she found more happiness. And as the years went on, she discovered she had more support than she could have imagined.
Now, she and Rabideau help others dealing with similar issues. Six years ago, Evans was asked to speak at Church of the Foothills in Tustin, where she met the Rev. Mike Holland, who was looking for resources and guidance for a young member of his church who is transgender.
“We set up a time for Michelle and some others to do a panel for our church,” Holland said. “It was a very enlightening, wonderful thing that happened.”
After that talk Evans’ support group, TG Rainbow, moved to the church.
“I thought I was alone,” she said “Now we’re finding kids come out younger and younger because they’re finding out they’re normal and it’s great to see that.”
In addition to her support group, Evans spends time with Orange County Sheriff’s deputies during their diversity training, talking about the issues with the transgender community.
She tells them that until she got a driver’s license identifying her as female, she wouldn’t drive one mile-per-hour over the speed limit for fear of being arrested and put in a men’s prison.
Evans, who keeps track of all the talks she gives about being transgender, recently gave her 200th at Santa Ana College on May 3.
Two days later, she was honored by O.C. Human Relations for her work with her support group and sheriff’s deputies.
“I can’t imagine all that she’s been through in her life,” the Rev. Holland said. “She puts people at ease and has a wonderful way about her. I’m just so thankful that our church made the connection. It made us more conscious of how to act toward those who are transgender.”
Contact the writer: 714-796-2247 or [email protected]