Meet the Police Officer Who Came Out as Transgender—and Found Support
Police Officer Gregory Abbink teaches cops how to be cops. It’s a tough job, some of his fellow officers note, one that especially demands the respect and trust of the veterans on the Austin, Texas, force. Most of the courses Abbink teaches are required for officers to keep their training up-to-date, stay sharp on their beats, and maintain their peace officer licenses year after year.
A year ago, the 10-year veteran, who came to the Austin Police Department after working as a Russian-language specialist with the Army—maintaining a top-secret clearance as a voice interceptor with the joint operations task force at Fort Hood in Texas—was known as Emily.
Abbink is the first openly transgender cop on the Austin force. He’s been transitioning to become a male since April 2014. But he’s not much of a “labels guy,” he says, and his main focus is staying sharp as he teaches other cops how to drive during emergencies and write technical reports, as well as overcome the enormous amount of physical and emotional stress the job can bring.
“I want to reignite their passion for their calling to be public servants,” Abbink says, noting how difficult the past year has been for police officers after the deaths of unarmed black men in Ferguson, Missouri; New York; and other cities. “Police officers tend to get a bad rap, or maybe the public doesn’t always have the full story, and they’re quick to make judgments on how we do things and why we do things—so I designed this course to try to encourage officers to see the bigger picture.”
So far, Abbink says, his fellow officers have returned the encouragement during his transition. “I am more than happy to send any other information if you’d like,” he wrote in a letter to his colleagues announcing the changes in his life. “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!”
A decade ago, Abbink might not have been able to count on the support he’s received since coming out as transgender. Many credit Austin Police Chief Art Acevedo, who came to the United States as a child escaping from Cuba, for helping to transform the culture of the department since he took over the leadership in 2007.
“I want to send a message that we stand with all communities,” he told The Austin Chronicle. “People can be who they want to be—inclusion starts at the top.”
For his part, Abbink says he has felt like a male since he was five years old. He grew up in a conservative community in New York’s Finger Lakes and, as Emily, was considered a typical “tomboy” who loved to play basketball and softball. “It was awkward, being on an all-girls team. I didn’t quite fit in, but I loved the sports, so that’s what kept me going,” he says.
Abbink always dreamed of being a cop. He studied criminal justice and became a corrections officer in upstate New York. Then he joined the Army and began to study Russian. “It was a very intensive course of study,” he says. “Made wonderful friends, had great experiences, and most important, I was just very proud to serve my country in that capacity.”
In 2009, Abbink fell in love with Joan Henke, and in 2012 they traveled to New York to wed as a same-sex couple. “She is one of those phenomenal and rare individuals who is able to love unconditionally, to love me for who I am,” he says, noting that his transition has been a struggle for her, too, as she adjusts to being in a heterosexual relationship.
Abbink, who’s in his 40s, decided to transition after his nephew, born a biological female, came out as transgender. Inspired by his courage, Abbink decided to do the same.
“I would get by as I got older, but there were reminders almost daily about the unfairness of not being able to be who I wanted to be,” he says. “I would just suppress it. I didn’t want to make waves. But yeah, I guess I maybe just went through my life’s experience and matured, and I realized, ‘You know what, I can handle this now. I can deal with it.’ ”