For days, Austin police officer Abbink was rewriting an email, searching for the right words, thinking through every single sentence. It would be one of the most important emails in her life so far.
After 10 years at the department, she would no longer be a policewoman but a policeman: senior officer Gregory Abbink.
Sitting in his office, Abbink was dreading the responses.
But, he recalls, “I never got a single email that was negative or derogatory. That meant a lot to me.” Colleagues were sending congratulations, some admiring his bravery to take this last step and transitioning to a man.
That was in 2014. In the summer of 2017 it would be hard to guess Abbink’s past. He has a deep voice, wears a mustache and short hair. He’s changed the gender on his birth certificate.
But three years after Abbink’s email, he and other transgender people in Texas find themselves in the middle of a heated debate about their right to use the bathroom of their gender identity.
The Texas Senate passed a bill during this summer’s special legislative session that would prohibit public schools and local governments from adopting policies that allow people to use multiple-occupancy restrooms and other private facilities that don’t match the sex listed on their birth certificate or as listed on a driver’s license or Texas handgun license. A similar bill in the House has stalled and isn’t expected to come to the floor for a vote before the session ends Wednesday.
Still, Austin interim Police Chief Brian Manley is concerned about the effort among social conservatives to prohibit transgender-friendly bathroom policies, which would extend to his department’s facilities.
Supporters of the bill say it will protect the safety and privacy of women.
“We have no proof that transgender individuals in bathrooms are causing all these problems,” said Abbink, a continuing education instructor at the Austin Police Department Training Academy.
For Abbink it is an anti-transgender bill, putting transgender people in painful and humiliating situations. “It is telling us: You are not the same as anybody else and because you are different, we are afraid of you and we are not willing to get to know you,” he said.
Manley said he’s concerned that a transgender bathroom law would harm safety in Austin. This “unnecessary bill” would target an already marginalized population in the community, he said.
When Abbink discusses the bill with his trainees, he always gives them a question to think about: “Registered sex offenders who have been convicted or have a propensity to be predators sexually or violently – which bathroom do we tell them to use? We don’t.”
If a transgender person commits a crime in any bathroom there would be already a law against it, he said.
Under provisions of the bill, the state attorney general would investigate complaints of violations. Still, Manley said, “if we were to get called to the scene of someone wanting to allege that an individual is using the wrong restroom, how is an officer to determine whether or not this is the fact?”
First transgender officer
As a child Abbink already was wrestling with his gender identity. On the inside of the pantry door in his parents’ house in New York his doubts are still documented. His mother used to measure her three daughters on the inside door of the pantry and put the years down with their names. ‘In 1980 I was 5 years old,’ Abbink said,” and next to the year in permanent marker was the name, Greg, and my given name at birth was in parenthesis.” Gregory is the name his parents picked for him in case he had been born as a boy.
In family photo albums, Abbink is riding motorcycles, playing sports, dressing up in his dad’s clothes. At the same time, he was struggling with his female name, with the expectations placed on him by society.
One of the last family members he told about his decision to transition to a man was his father – and one of his most challenging moments. What if his father were disappointed? What if his own father would reject him? “When I told him, he said, ‘I think I kind of knew,’” Abbink said, grinning.
Based on his own experiences, Abbink created a special class for cadets and field officers: Interacting with transgender individuals. As the department’s first openly transgender officer, Abbink also tries to improve the image of the police within in the transgender community.
“Historically, the police have not always been fair to minority groups or marginalized groups. So I think a lot of folks still carry that with them and maybe still don’t trust that the police will treat them fairly and equally,” he said. Some people also might be afraid they won’t be believed or taken seriously.
It took law enforcement a while to catch up to understanding the LGBT-community, Abbink said. “We had to actually revise our policies on how to search an individual who is transgender, because we’ve only ever had man or female,” he said.