Summoning the steely strength of classic American muscle, then-Lieutenant Commander Kimberly Young-McLear slipped into a leather jacket and pulled her prized 1972 Oldsmobile Cutlass from the garage. The ebony-cloaked steel frame was armor; the candy-red racing stripes, war paint; and the synthpop track piping through the sound system – Elton John’s “I’m Still Standing” – the battle cry.
The tank of a muscle car carved a thunderous path through the coastal byways of Connecticut as Young-McLear made her morning commute. From the outside, Young-McLear was the picture of fortitude as she rounded the gates of the U.S. Coast Guard Academy where she taught.
“My students thought I’m just the coolest professor,” Young-McLear laughed. “They didn’t know that I was doing that on the hard days, when I felt the least secure.”
The beloved Cutlass, her tailored leather jacket, a curated playlist of power ballads: The external broadcast was a psychological tool. When her cries for help fell upon deaf ears, and her abusers escalated their tactics, Young-McLear projected power.
“It said to them: I’m still here, I’m still standing,” she recalled.
Young-McLear, who identifies as a Black lesbian, turned military whistleblower in January of 2017. She suffered years of ongoing workplace abuse after joining the USCGA’s permanent faculty in 2014. Relentless bullying, harassment, and discrimination extinguished her enthusiasm for the prestigious assignment. Her superiors undermined her work, criticized her contributions, and made degrading comments about her sexuality, identity, and marriage.
She filed internal complaints about the abuse as early as 2015, but the responding investigations were carried out by her perpetrators and those connected to them.
Daily intimidation from leadership, including from admirals, drove Young-McLear to the brink of suicide.
“A large number of people had this attitude of, ‘but they’re so high ranking, there’s nothing we can do about it,’” she said. “I felt trapped. What compounded that psychologically, is that I was struggling to see a way out of that situation. I had already been escalating it for two years at that point.”
Her physician placed Young-McLear on limited duty status in response to her declining mental health. During this temporary reprieve, Young-McLear found hope for the future rooted in the past.
In their home living room, Young-McLear and her wife – also a veteran – display a collection of signed historical memorabilia. The collection covers the spectrum of artistic expression. Important works of literature, art, photography, and music present a living history of Black America from the pre-Civil Rights Era to the present day. A highlight reel of Young-McLear’s favorites evoke triumph over suffering:
• An autographed copy of Aretha Franklin’s historic and best-selling “Amazing Grace” live set, performed at New Temple Missionary Baptist Church in Los Angeles in 1972.
• An original event pamphlet, signed by the keynote speaker – Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
• An inscribed first-edition book authored by prominent Black historian Carter G. Woodson.
• A rare photograph of Nina Simone signed by the entire band.
As Young-McLear pondered her life and her future within the U.S. military, the collection offered a historical lens.
“It may sound cheesy, but just knowing that at one point in time, Aretha Franklin touched this item is a grounding process,” Young McLear said. “It’s a reminder that there were so many people before me that have experienced things, and it reminds me that I am strong enough to face my situation.”
That grounding process allowed Young-McLear to reclaim her power.
She spoke her truth, representing countless other military members suffering in silence, facing abuses which Young-McLear knew to include assault and rape. Victimhood was degrading. Fighting back was dignified.
Young-McLear cast aside all concern for outcomes. The purpose of this battle was simply to fight.
She stood up.
She sounded the alarm bells. Loudly. On January 28, 2017, she filed for administrative leave for bullying within the Coast Guard process, filed a full U.S. Equal Opportunity Employment Commission complaint as a member of a protected class with the Coast Guard Civil Rights Director, and filed a whistleblower complaint with the Department of Homeland Security Office of the Inspector General.
A subsequent 2018 DHS OIG investigation, as well as a 2019 Congressional hearing, substantiated Young-McLear’s allegations of harassment, discrimination, gross abuses of power, and retaliation within the USCG. As a direct result of her whistleblowing, policy reform swept through the Department of Defense, benefitting USCG members and all federally employed civilians. The USCG manual was updated to reflect instruction on how to file for whistleblower protection, and Young-McLear even served as consultant on a new policy defining and prohibiting workplace bullying within the USCG. She was also the first to invoke its protections.
Young-McLear is proud of what her whistleblowing has revealed and the resulting reform, though she notes there is still much work to be done.
“I know the truth of what happened, and speaking that truth is what matters,” she said.
Young-McLear fought a long and hard battle and continues to stand her ground. Though she’s yet to receive it, she’s asked for a formal written apology from the USCG, as well as a meeting with the commandant to talk about what can be learned from her case. She hopes that her message of endurance will inspire others to speak their truth.
Her advice for would-be whistleblowers: “Find what grounds you. Find that connection and hold onto it. Then get loud.”
Recalling earlier years, Young-McLear notes an unlikely whistleblowing practice arena: the karaoke stage.
More than merriment, karaoke is for Young-McLear an exercise in facing her fears, and a method for grounding. Through the lyrics of her favorite ballads, Young-McLear allows herself to share in the experience of the artist. Among her favorite karaoke songs are those that tell stories of trials and tribulations, but ultimately of triumph. Songs by Bonnie Raitt, Aretha Franklin, and Adelle. Oh, and also one by Elton.
To those who had their doubts: She’s still standing.
Commander Kimberly Young-McLear, Ph.D. and PMP, is a highly decorated military officer and repeat whistleblower. She remains employed by the U.S. Coast Guard where she was promoted to commander on October 1, 2021. She is currently on assignment with the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency under DHS.
She continues her reform work in the nonprofit sector, through the National Whistleblower Center, and DHS Spectrum, an antiracist and inclusive employee organization she co-founded in 2019 to promote healthy workplace environments.
Young-McLear and her wife have their immediate sights on the American dream of land ownership. They hope to find a quiet, countryside abode, where their toy poodle can chase birds, and where Young-McLear can take the Cutlass in search of a little watering hole with a karaoke night.