It’s fair to say you’re not likely to ever meet anyone else quite like Abi Austen.
“I knew I was different,” she says – and to say that is quite an understatement is, well, quite an understatement.
And her story is different from the very beginning, first making news as the youngest person, at that time, to be accepted into officer candidate school in the British military.
“I first took the oath of loyalty to her majesty in 1980,” she says. But that’s where this story takes its first turn: It wasn’t “she” who joined Britain’s famed paratroopers. It was he – Ian Hamilton, which is how Abi was born.
She spent two decades in the British military before leaving because she wanted to follow through on what she always knew, to some degree, that she was meant to be a woman. But it’s not one of those simple things that you’re either born completely a woman or a man, just with the wrong genitalia. She says she’s discovered that there are about 12 or 14 “markers” that your genetics need to turn on or off, as any child transitions, in utero, from being female to male. It can be any or all of them that miss their mark, leaving someone feeling as if they were born in the wrong body.
“What I would suggest is — and the science would back me up, I think, on this,” says Abi, “is gender identity is a much more complicated chromosomal issue that, then, resulted when I was growing up in this fervent belief that I should have been a girl but society didn’t allow me to express myself in those terms, at that time.”
The varying degrees of those markers being met, says Abi, is why some people want a full transformation and some are willing to stop short.
“I would equate my particular journey to getting on a railway train,” she says. “Some people go all the way to their destination, right across the country, other people stop half way around.”
Abi’s journalistic journey brought her to North Carolina where the fight over the state’s infamous House Bill 2 caught her – and, it seems, much of the world’s – eye.
“The reality of the bathroom bill is that there has been this persecuted and much misunderstood section of society – the transgendered community – that are currently prevented from this basic human right of going to the bathroom,” says Abi.
But she sees plenty of fault on both sides of the fight.
“I think there’s been a lot of hot language on both sides. And what I’ve found is the situation is akin to trans warfare where there’s the LGBT community on one side and the legislature on the other and they’re both ducked down in their trenches and nobody’s speaking and that’s unfortunate,” she says. “What I think needs to happen is that we need to start a new narrative or new agenda, here, where we can take the emotive language out of this – and I respect feeling on both sides here – and start talking about the core issue.”
She’s seen what it can do, firsthand.
“I’ve had a couple of very unfortunate incidents including one at the state legislature where I was escorted by four police officers from the building merely for trying to use the women’s bathroom,” she says of an incident in Raleigh, part of which appears in this edition of the Buckley Report.
She helped report an hour-long documentary for England’s Channel 4 TV, some of which you’ll also see in this Buckley Report.
In the end, Abi is not looking for a confrontation but a solution that everyone can live with.
“I understand the discomfort some people have with transgendered people particularly in the early stages of their journey. But I also know from my own experience, being assaulted in the early stages of that, that there are people who require assistance, sympathy, understanding and help,” she says.