The Right Man for the Job
APD welcomes its first openly trans officer
In a just world, Senior Police Officer Greg Abbink's story wouldn't be newsworthy, but commonplace. A respected member of the Austin Police Department since 2004, Abbink recently became APD's first openly transgender officer.
The issue of trans rights, formerly a marginal debate, in recent years has moved into the mainstream. As awareness of trans people increases, more people have gained the confidence to publicly acknowledge being trans, and to begin the process of transitioning. Abbink had known since he was a child that he felt more like a boy than a girl. But he grew up in a conservative, Christian family in a small town in upstate New York. "Growing up, I was forced to think and act like the other little girls around me; all my mannerisms and interests were different from my female classmates, and I knew I was different. I loathed having to wear dresses or anything that identified me as female, because on the inside, I was screaming for someone to hear me; that I was a boy," he would later write in a letter to his colleagues. "And then came middle school and high school. Let's just say I played a lot of sports, and never went to my senior prom. But all the while, year after year, I never felt that I could trust anyone enough to tell them the secret that I had been living with. There was nobody for me to turn to in order for me to know that I was normal ... that everything was going to be okay."
Unsure of how to describe himself, he decided he must be a lesbian; after all, he was attracted to girls. After graduating high school he got an associate degree in criminal justice, worked for a while as a corrections officer, and then joined the Army, where he served for four years. After discharge, he joined the Austin Police Department; he had always wanted to be a police officer.
The Odd One Out
When Abbink joined the force in 2004, he still identified as a lesbian. Had he joined APD as recently as the early Eighties, it would have been impossible for him to work as an openly gay police officer. Detective Mike Crumrine, currently the Lesbian & Gay Peace Officer's Association president, is about 10 years older than Abbink, and remembers that when he was growing up in San Antonio, high school boys, for fun, would beat up men they suspected were gay. The police always looked the other way.
When Crumrine first became a police officer, he denied being gay – even to himself. When he eventually decided to come out, he left his job at a police department in a small town near San Antonio, and applied to a handful of Texas police departments, disclosing his sexuality to each of them over the course of the interview process. APD was the only department that extended a hiring offer, in 2001. Crumrine's experience as an openly gay officer wasn't without its frustrations; his fellow officers would often act surprised when they found out, telling him, "You don't seem gay."
Retired Sergeant Mary Hesalroad, Commander Julie O'Brien, and Assistant Chief Jessica Robledo all joined the force in the late Eighties. They remember there being few openly gay officers, as well as far fewer women. Like Crumrine, they encountered a "few horrible people wearing badges," as O'Brien puts it, such as the officer who joked to Hesalroad – not realizing she was gay – about O'Brien being her partner's "live-in licker." However, Hesalroad had no problem putting him in his place.
More seriously, in 2007 Hesalroad filed a lawsuit against Commander Calvin Smith, after he wondered aloud to a colleague about "what kind of message the department would be sending" if Hesalroad was allowed to transfer to the police academy when there were already two lesbian police offcers working there, and then denied Hesalroad's request to transfer. Not only did Smith's behavior compel Hesalroad to make a formal complaint, but it was the motivation for the LGPOA's formation in 2009. The lawsuit was settled in 2011. Hesalroad recalls that she got about $1,000 after the lawyers were paid; she donated it to the LGPOA.
Things have gone far more smoothly for Abbink, but many gay and lesbian officers credit Art Acevedo, who became chief in 2007, with making a priority APD's support of both its queer officers and the gay community as a whole. Acevedo, who before coming to Austin was a division chief with the California Highway Patrol, has long believed in the importance of supporting gay rights. He remembers his experience as a child immigrant from Cuba, and what it felt like to be the odd one out. "I want to send a message that we stand with all communities. People can be who they want to be," he says. "Inclusion starts at the top."
When Acevedo first marched in a California Pride parade, he was ostracized by some of his fellow officers. Unfazed, when he became APD chief, he allowed his officers to march in Austin's Pride parade in uniform and with their police cars, to show "support and solidarity." Crumrine still remembers the first year he marched in uniform. "There was an outpouring from the crowd. They saw us as equals." He says he's encountered people all over the country who are moved by APD's public support of the LGBTQ community, and who still encounter bigotry from some members of law enforcement. Acevedo thinks the parade is an important experience for the officers as well. Officers are accustomed to hearing criticism from the citizens they arrest and ticket, so marching in the parade also gives them the chance to see the "support and love and admiration" the community has for APD.
Beyond these visible actions, Acevedo instituted LGBTQ sensitivity training, joined the LGPOA as a straight ally, and helped create the position of community liaison, which is currently filled by Charles Loosen. In 2012, members of the LGPOA (including Abbink, Crumrine, and Acevedo) made an "It Gets Better" video on behalf of APD.
Making the Change
It was in this supportive environment that Abbink came out as trans. He had finally come to terms with it last year, after his teenage nephew told the family he was trans. He says, "I thought, if he can do it, I can do it." In the time since Abbink had joined the force, he had become a continuing education instructor, teaching such courses as "Survival Spanish" to his fellow officers. Abbink had always enjoyed teaching, so the position was perfect for him. He had also gotten married. In 2010, while he still identified as a woman, he married his wife in New York, where gay marriage is legal.
One of the most striking things about Abbink is how polite and friendly he is, giving the impression of being deeply concerned about the feelings and comfort of others. So once he knew for certain that he wanted to transition from female to male, he turned to his LGPOA colleagues and Loosen for advice. Then he sought out Acevedo. Acevedo offered his support, and also looked for guidance from the San Francisco Police Department, which he knew had some openly trans officers on staff.
"I feel blessed to have the opportunity to witness his experience," Acevedo says. "We'll all end up being better people" because of it. He continues, "I don't think God makes mistakes. Greg will be just as beautiful, caring, endearing, gentle, committed, and professional as ever."
Abbink was granted leave to have reconstructive surgery on his chest, and he began taking testosterone. In order to explain his transition, he composed a letter to some of his coworkers. In it, he wrote, "I am more than happy to send any other information if you'd like. I pray that this doesn't change our friendship as you all mean the world to me! As this transition will take a little while, I totally understand that it will be an adjustment for everyone. ... I am always here for you guys! Don't hesitate to talk to me about this or ask any questions!"
So far, Abbink says, his experience has been largely positive. He's been "blown away by the response and support" he's received. To anyone who might be surprised that APD would be an especially welcoming place for a trans person, Crumrine explains that, first of all, Abbink is extremely well-respected by his fellow officers. "One of the highest compliments an officer can pay another officer is, 'I'd be proud to go through any door with you,' and that's how I feel about Greg," Crumrine says. "He's a consummate professional." Abbink's affable personality belies his toughness as an officer. His job, which requires him to command the attention of other officers and influence their behavior, "is not an easy position," Crumrine points out. "You have to be able to perform to stay there." Crumrine adds that being on the force is like being part of a family, and that while family members might not always agree, they still defend one another from outside criticism.
Allies and Complications
Abbink's still working out his health care options with his insurance company – the city of Austin doesn't currently offer transgender-inclusive health care – but Acevedo and APD's Human Resources have helped confirm that Abbink's testosterone is covered. (He paid for his surgery from his retirement savings.) He continues to be held in the same high regard by the officers he teaches, and he's been winding his way through the complex bureaucratic process of changing his name and gender on all official documents.
Additionally, he's been in touch with San Francisco PD Officer Broderick Elton, member of SFPD's special investigations unit. Elton acts as the department's transgender liaison, teaching a required class on trans sensitivity to cadets in the police academy. In San Francisco, openly trans officers are no longer novel. Sergeant Stephan Thorne, whom Elton succeeded as trans liaison, transitioned on the job in 1994, and created the class Elton now teaches.
Having officers who are both openly trans and advocates for trans rights helps a police department better serve its community. SFPD officers are instructed to "address all transgender individuals with names, titles, pronouns, and other terms appropriate to their identity ... by their chosen names, whether or not the individual has previously had a different name or gender designation. ... If members are uncertain which pronouns are appropriate, ... respectfully ask the individual for clarification." This might sound like overly basic advice to some, but, unfortunately, it's common for trans people to be "misgendered," whether it's due to ignorance or hostility on the part of their interlocutors.
There's an additional factor: The number of trans people who are victims of violent crimes is disproportionately high (see "Transgender Day of Remembrance"), so it's especially important that a police department make clear that it will take trans people's complaints seriously and will treat them respectfully. Abbink hopes to travel to San Francisco soon and meet with Elton, in order to develop a class for APD that focuses on trans issues. Abbink's transition, and his willingness to answer questions about it, mean that for the time being, he's the proof of APD's commitment to trans inclusivity.
Abbink knows that not everyone in Austin will be thrilled to learn about him, but he's eager to educate the force and the greater community about what it actually means to be trans, and to show other people in similar situations that it is possible to be happy and successful. With his combination of firm resolve and patience for others, Abbink appears to be a natural fit for the job.
"The Right Man for the Job" is published in collaboration with KUT News 90.5FM, which is simultaneously broadcasting "A Marriage in Transition" by Joy Diaz.