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.
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?
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?
You briefly pursued a career as a police officer. How did that pan out?
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?
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|
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?
Do you think attitudes to transgender people in the military are changing? In what way?
Do you think the changes have something to do with you personally?
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|
Did Kristin Beck's book Warrior Princess have anything to do with your decision to write it?
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?
You've been "stealth" for years; what made you decide to re-emerge?
Can you tell us a little about your personal life these days? A relationship?
What interests or hobbies do you have?
What famous person would you most like to meet and why?
|Not all fighting: Afghanistan|
Do you have a message for people out there who have been thinking about you?
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.