Sunday, 18 October 2015

Abigail Austen

If you could look at my hit counter, you would see that one of the most popular blog posts I ever wrote was the one concerning Jan Hamilton, the elite British soldier who underwent transition and was firmly in the public eye a few years ago. The documentary Sex Change Soldier, followed her journey through transition, and every time it airs somewhere around the world, I get a bump in the hit counter as people get online to try to find out the latest. But there hasn't been any for years.

You can also see (from the comments under that post) that lots of people are interested in making contact with Jan, and I even went so far as to contact the producers of the documentary to ask if they could put me in touch. Nothing.

Abigail Austen
Then, out of the blue last week I got an email from Jan herself-- except she isn't Jan, she is Abigail Austen ("Abi"). I knew that already, of course, but I hadn't published that info on my blog because I believed that Austen was trying to move on with her life and try to find some anonymity.

But since she got in touch, I couldn't pass up the opportunity to interview her, and she agreed. It turns out there is a lot to tell. As always, I was a bit nervous about what questions to ask: I have never before interviewed someone who has been thoroughly trained to resist the most probing of interrogations! Here is how we got on:

It's been 8 years since the documentary about your transition. Can you tell us briefly what's been happening in your life since then?

I decided to quietly get my life into order, away from what had become a very intrusive press. It got so bad, I had to move out of my home for a bit. Journalists were hiding out in my garden!

The Scottish Police were looking for people, so I joined there for a few years. I enjoyed being a cop, but my profile made it difficult to avoid a fight. I was causing more aggravated assaults by myself than the rest of my division put together, merely for being me.

After three years, I was offered a job with NATO in Afghanistan. I went to Kandahar with the US Army, right into the heartland of the Taliban. I stayed on combat operations continuously for three years, coming home late 2014. After that, I took some much-needed time off and wrote a book about it all, called Lord Roberts’ Valet. Then, I took off for the Ukraine, where I work in security operations.

Can you tell us why you changed your name to Abi Austen? Was that an attempt to become anonymous again after the negative publicity associated with the name Jan Hamilton?

No, it was because my family rejected me. I didn’t want that name anymore. My grandmother was an Austin, and I loved her very much, so I went with that, and added a little Jane Austen twist to the spelling.

You briefly pursued a career as a police officer. How did that pan out?

Mentioned a bit about that above. The senior management were supportive of me, but it was a hard gig with some of my fellow officers. I had a publicised spat with them over the pension fund when they insisted in enrolling me as a man, which I am patently not. By the end, it was all becoming waaay too stressful… So I swapped it out for going back to war!

After how badly the military treated you, it must have been very difficult to return to a career in the armed forces, however tangential. What made you decide to return?

I have always found military service enjoyable, rewarding and exciting. So it actually wasn’t that hard. I love Afghanistan. I’ve travelled there for over twenty years. The offer from NATO was a real opportunity to put my life into order, and it all came good. It’s all in the book. My move back to Afghanistan was as much because I wanted to go back there (I do love the place) as any desire to work with the military. I am not some sort of military nut. Far from it. In fact, the book is quite scathing about military culture

What sort of reaction did you have from your colleagues when you returned to the military? Were they accepting? Or is there still an undercurrent of transphobia?

Back to the action: Austen
Well, I didn’t arrive with a rep where the Americans were concerned. They just saw me as another chick: and I had skills they wanted. So the Yanks were just great. I really owe the United States. They are a country of second chances, and they really helped me change my life about. Kandahar turned into one of the great adventures of my life and I will always admire and respect America for the sacrifice they make for all our freedoms.

You worked for the US military, not the British. Is this because they were more accepting of you, or because you didn't want to work for the Brits, or some other reason?

There were some Brit special forces in Kandahar. Reaction was mixed, which reflects society. I don’t really stand out in any way, I’m just a chick, but some of them obviously knew who I am from all the media stuff in the UK. For people under 30, nobody really cared. In fact, many of the young ones wanted their picture taken with me. Over 30, and it was more mixed. The army is a big ball of testosterone and men somehow feel threatened by people like me. I don’t know why, but it can be difficult sometimes.

Do you think attitudes to transgender people in the military are changing? In what way?

The military are a reflection of the society they represent. However, it is also a conservative organisation, so attitudes lag. The military is beginning to understand that gender dysphoria is a medical, not a psycho-sexual issue, so they are beginning to discuss it in adult terms. However, I think it will be a generation before gender is openly discussed in wider society, and the military will always be behind that curve of popular opinion because of its own internal culture.

Do you think the changes have something to do with you personally?

In my own small way, I think I have helped change attitudes. However, there are others out there who have fought the good fight. I’m about to take part in an exhibition here in the UK, on transgendered service personnel, called Dry Your Eyes, Princess, which will tour Liverpool, Belfast and Manchester. I did a three-hour taped interview for that exhibition which covers many of the details of my life.

I do know that the US is currently lifting their own ban, and my example in serving in Kandahar helped alter concerns on operational robustness. I met several very senior officers and politicians on that very subject. But I’d also say, I regard that part of my life as something from the past. These days, I am just a chick.

Now you have a book out. Can you tell us a bit about it?

Got it covered: the book
Lord Roberts’ Valet is the story of my 1,000 days in Kandahar, at the eye of the storm. It’s the inside track on how the war was fought and all the mess-ups we made over there. I experienced everything from the frontline, to the politics of the White House: and it’s all there in the book. The historic context, the story of the war, the sacrifice, the tears, the laughter and the madness. I genuinely don’t think there’s been a book quite like this before on Afghanistan and I’m quite proud of it. There’s a fair amount on the web now on it. Check out the website here:  http://www.lordrobertsvalet.com

Did Kristin Beck's book Warrior Princess have anything to do with your decision to write it?

Kristin Beck? Nope, good luck to her, but this is a different story.

How did you choose the title?

Lord Roberts’ Valet is about my war and the war the West fought. The story behind the title is in the book, so I won’t spoil it. I have a follow-up coming out later this year called Sugar and Spice, which will chronicle my own journey to where I am now.

What are your next plans? More armed conflict? Or have you something else in mind?

I’d like to think I have one more mission in me. My time in Kandahar proved to me that my skills are just as sharp as ever, no matter what physical form I live in. I also know that being me has made me a much happier and better person to be around. I have never regretted a single day of my life as Abi. I have a few irons in the fire right now, but I’ll hang onto those dreams for now...

You've been "stealth" for years; what made you decide to re-emerge?

I don’t like that term. I just call this living life. I’m proud of all that I am and all I have achieved. I’ve never hidden away at all. Right now, I have a book (and soon two) that I think worthy of a read and I’m just doing what any author would do: telling folks about what’s on offer. I’ve never hidden away. If anybody wanted to speak to me, I’ve been there; and, over the years, I have talked to and helped many people on their own particular journeys. That part of life will always be with me, but I regard the ‘trans’ part as ‘transformation’ and ‘transitory’. It’s history, nothing more. I am a female, and a very happy one too. There comes a point where you don’t need to fight anymore, and I am at that point.

Can you tell us a little about your personal life these days? A relationship?

Yep, very happily in love. My partner and I have a lovely life and we intend getting married quite soon. It’s all good….

What interests or hobbies do you have?

Love Zumba, I actually have an instructor’s certificate in it. And I still go running, but I’m not really made for sprinting these days.

What famous person would you most like to meet and why?

Not all fighting: Afghanistan
To be honest, I’ve met an awful lot of famous people already. Some I’ve liked, some I have wondered what all the fuss was about. I don’t judge people on their fame. I just like genuine people for themselves. So; happy to meet anybody, they don’t have to be famous, just real people.

Do you have a message for people out there who have been thinking about you?

I’d like to say ‘thank-you’ to everybody who has written to me and sent good wishes through the years. My documentary is still in rotation around the world and I get notes from the most unlikely places. I think that there are a lot more folks affected by this issue than have ever been able to express their true selves. I wish everybody true happiness and love. I’ve been on my own particular road. If my own experience is any use, I know it can have a very happy ending.

I will be on Lorraine Kelly’s ITV show on 05 November, here in the UK. Could you also mention that I have a Facebook page and a YouTube video will be up this week. All folks have to do is Google "Lord Roberts’ Valet".

===

As with all my interviews, a little discussion and analysis now follows.

First, I admit I was concerned about Austen. Having heard nothing about her life, I naturally assumed that she had fallen into obscurity and perhaps misery. And let's face it, the documentary doesn't exactly end on a high note. So I was delighted to hear that she is not only doing OK, she is actually doing brilliantly. My first emailed question to her was: I just want to know you are OK.

Second, I was intrigued to find that she had gone back to working with the military. On the one hand, this must have been a tough decision. The military treated her extremely badly at the time of transition, and it must have been very painful to consider returning. And yet, by her own admission, she loves what she does. She is extremely highly trained, and has a lot of valuable experience to draw upon. And, from the excerpt from the book (available on the website) it's clear she has lost none of that traditional coolness under pressure.

As I have mentioned elsewhere on this blog, I view the military with very mixed feelings. On the one hand, I admire the job they do. On the other, I find most military types to be intimidating, and I find their rigidity and inflexibility of thought to be stifling at times. But I can imagine that, if the military is your thing, you might find nothing in civilian life quite hits the spot. And the opportunity to do that thing, the thing you are trained for and love most of all, while being accepted as your true self, must be a very powerful experience. The press-release for the book contains this quote from an unnamed senior US general:
I don’t care if you are a man, woman, Martian or dachshund. My only question is whether you can do the job required or not. Welcome to the team.
Third, I'm a little surprised at one particular word which Austen uses more than once: chick. It doesn't quite fit for someone who is so trained and so capable, to refer to herself as "just a chick". It's not a word that I personally would feel comfortable applying to any woman, whether I myself was presenting as a woman or a man. Likewise, if someone applied it to Vivienne, it would make me bristle slightly because of its connotations of sexism. So why does Austen use it in reference to herself?

Fourth, I came away from this interview feeling that, while Austen has told us a lot about her career, she has told us surprisingly little about herself. This tone also comes across in our email exchange. My questions were intended for the reader to get a sense of Abi the woman, Abi the person, and yet she gives us little to go on: very brief details about her grandmother, her partner, Zumba, and some hints of "irons in the fire". That makes it very hard to get any sense of Austen's real personality. I guess she might say: read the book!

I can understand why Austen may feel a little bit reluctant to let too much slip. I suppose it would be easy for some tabloid journalist, hungry for a story, to take some little detail out of context, and blow it up into an article to fill up some column inches. So I am not blaming her for her reticence, just a little disappointed. I suppose I had hoped that we (she and I) might click a little over some common ground. That may yet happen.

Meanwhile, I await the Sugar and Spice memoir with some anticipation, and I will be sure to let you know if I hear of anything.

===

My thanks to Abi for taking time to answer my questions and send me her photos. The website again is here. The contents of this post are copyright © Vivienne Marcus and Abigail Austen 2015. No reproduction of any part of the text is permitted, altered or unaltered, in printed or electronic form, without permission. All photographs are copyright © Abigail Austen and used by kind permission.

12 comments:

  1. The interview with Abi was outstanding. Thank you and Abi for sharing. Abi's life is a testimonial to all of us who live for more understanding and consideration. My sincere wishes to you and Abi for the best of everything life has to offer. You are beautiful people.

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    1. Thanks for dropping by to post your comment Nancy!

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  2. Hi Vivienne, I continue to love your site. I hope your time away from posting is you enjoying a little free time and that everything is OK. A lot of people out here love you.
    Geraldine

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  3. Thanks for your recent work on Channel 4. Hope life becomes easier for you. Ex REME myself.

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  4. Hi Viv,

    I came across your blog completely by accident after signing up to wordpress account and, unaccountably, getting spammed for a while. I followed a couple of dire links but, luckily, ended up finding your intelligent oasis, and discourse, on the subject of gender and transgender issues.
    I am, surprise...or not so surprisingly it seems, a former member of HM "finest" Armed Forces - Special Forces, no less.
    I lost my family, identity and role in life after deciding to try and explain my gender confusion to my ex-wife so can identify with many of the issues discussed.
    On a positive note, I became 10 times the human being I had been as a man.
    Looking forward to reading more of your blog V, and hopefully providing some helpful advice/perspective.


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    1. Thanks for dropping by, and for posting your very kind comments.

      I am sure you know already that if you click on the label (on the right of the page) entitled "the military" it brings up the other articles I have written which touch on this topic. I am always delighted to get new comments on my material, but it's helpful if you sign your posts with some sort of name, just to differentiate you from other anonymous commentators.

      I am sure there is plenty to talk about. Dig in!

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  5. I just love, admire and respect Abigail Austen for her life's work and choices and deserves the utmost respect and love.

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  6. As I was reading you latest post 'The End of Days' - hopefully just the end of a chapter - Abi had an hour long documentary on Channel 4 in the UK 'My Trans American Road Trip' essentially about the the NC bathroom law and I was reminded of this post. She told it well and bigotry and hypocrisy were in abundance but there good moments too. Abi has had a tough life in more ways than one but she is battling through and she had a couple of victories to show even last night. Be encouraged Vivienne.

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    1. Thanks Linda. I noticed a spike in my hits for Abigail, which usually happens whenever there is another airing of a documentary about her!

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  7. Hi, I was watching the C4 Donald Trump Documentary presented by Abi Austen. I was interested in the reporter's background and decided to look it up.

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    1. Nice to hear from you Jas. Please feel to take a look around!

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