Christina Bentley in her RAF Police uniform
Earlier this year the British armed forces were ranked the second most gay-friendly in the world. That was good to hear, but these things are all relative; in February, a British soldier wrote Facebook updates claiming he was sick of "sperm sucking [wastes] of oxygen" posting photos of themselves online after suffering violent homophobic attacks. This was an isolated incident, of course, but it does dredge up that nasty reputation the military has of being a historically homophobic institution.
However, figuring that I was perhaps being unfair, I decided to find out what military life was like for the most underrepresented faction of the LGBT community.
Wellington Street is something of a lifeline for many of Leicester’s residents. A few yards is all that separates the Adult Learning Centre, Job Centre and the city’s LGBT Centre, where I meet Christina Bentley. From her early aspirations to work in some kind of vital service – the fire brigade, the police, or as a paramedic or doctor – 22-year-old Christina now splits her time between volunteering here and serving as the UK’s first transgender RAF Police Officer. Her decision to sign up to the forces was largely motivated – rather than stunted – by her teenage struggle with gender dysphoria.
“The idea was that I was trying to push myself out of myself, so I ended up joining the military and doing really well," she says. "I wanted to help people, but there was a background of ‘this is perceived as quite masculine’, and it all masked who I am. I did stupid things to hide myself and I never needed to.”
Christina came out to most of her friends and family just six weeks ago. After spending two years in the military, it was her first posting – to the Qualified Police Dogs unit on the Falkland Islands – and subsequent return that allowed her to get going on the path to self acceptance.
“The Falklands became my final push to get the woman out of me," recalls Christina. "I did all the boy stuff – I went drinking, I went to the gym every night. I ended up being about 86 kilos of muscle. I was a big boy. It was a good tour and I enjoyed it, but I didn't really have a chance out there to be myself. When I returned to the UK it all came flooding back and I started hating what I was seeing in the mirror – absolutely despising myself. I decided, 'Right, so this is what I've got to do.' And then I just started looking things up.”
It's difficult to overstate how long and daunting the process of transition can be for your average civvy. Facing all that while actively serving in the military can further complicate matters, both logistically and psychologically; Christina returned from the Falklands in November of 2012, but it wasn’t until January of this year that she first approached a doctor at the camp’s medical centre.
“In that time I'd lost a lot of weight. I started being myself more and more, but it took me a year to come to that conclusion. Everyone thought it was a very snap decision – a quick change – but it wasn't. I was slowly putting all my barriers down. Everyone started thinking I was gay because I was acting a lot more girly. Obviously that wasn't a problem – no one thought it was a bad thing,” she says.
Unfortunately for Christina, despite the RAF’s commitment to equality, her initial consultation was hindered thanks simply to the rarity of her request.
“The first doctor I approached had never ever dealt with anything like this," Christina tells me. "He said he needed to speak to the senior medical officer and work out what the process was. I knew, but they didn't. Around this time, through Proud2Serve [a social network for LGBT members of the British Armed Forces], I found out there was another transgender woman on unit with me, and through a third party we set up a meeting. This girl was amazing. She said, ‘You should go see my doctor, they know what they're doing.' So I went to the med centre, saw a different doctor and I immediately got referred to the right place.”
The next step is a "medical downgrade". It's a necessary action, but one that – as an outsider – is hard to view as anything but morale-destroying. Once the downgrade has been registered, the subject is unable to leave the camp for either domestic or international postings, and is removed from any night shifts. Handling weapons is also forbidden. Under military rules, dogs fall into the same category as loaded rifles, so Christina was shifted from the Qualified Police Dogs section to general police duties.
“No psychiatrist apart from a specialist can properly diagnose you with gender dysphoria," explains Christina. "Mine immediately said, ‘Yep, you definitely, a million percent have it, but I need to refer you to a gender specialist.' So because you can't get a proper diagnosis it's counted as a psychiatric downgrade, since they can't say what's actually going on with you. I was horrified that I wouldn't be able to work with my dog, but I still go up every day and I see him, and it's wonderful. So nothing's really changed, apart from the fact that I'm actually getting to explore police work a little bit more, which I’m genuinely happy to get the chance to do.”
Since 2000, all LGBT people have been permitted to serve openly in the UK’s armed forces. Early fears that lifting the ban would lead to a breakdown in discipline, resignations en masse and, presumably, a relentless fucking epidemic, were proved to be just as stupid as they sound. Its success also played an important role in the American military’s fight for equality. However, despite the repeal of Don’t Ask Don’t Tell in 2011, transgender people are still banned from serving in the US.
This current situation is bleak, but not without hope. In May, Defence Secretary Chuck Hagel suggested he would be open to lifting the ban – or, at the very least, that it “should be reviewed” continually. Hagel’s comments were prompted by news that shocked nobody with a rational view of humanity – a former surgeon general finding no “compelling medical rationale” behind the ban whatsoever. The only issue, Christina says, is “when you have your surgery, you're out of whack for about a year”.
“It's not that complicated," she adds. "Generally speaking, every trans person will still be able to do their job, whether or not they're going through transition or not. To go through transition – to have the strength of character to do that – probably shows that they're worthy of being in the military anyway. I had a lot of people telling me I was really brave. Someone said to me, ‘You've gotta have balls to do that.’ And I just replied: ‘Not for much longer.’
“When I got that downgrade, that's when me and my doctor approached my chain of command, and they were amazing. They just said, ‘As long as you can do your job, we don't care what gender you are – we'll treat you like everyone else.’ I gave them a time period of three months until ‘D-Day’, but it didn't work out like that at all. I went to a couple more appointments and I told a few friends at work, who were really supportive. I was going for some drinks with friends and I realised I didn’t really have much male clothing left, so one of them said just to wear girls' clothes, and I did. No one really noticed – they still thought I was gay – but I ended up telling people that evening.
“That night, I went on Facebook and put it on there – I'd already told my parents the week before. I wasn't even drunk; it was insane bravery. I don't know where I got it from because I'm not that brave. I just hit click, and then went to sleep because I was terrified. That was the first time in a year I slept properly. I woke up and it’d had this amazing reaction. My chain of command was a little bit upset because I'd agreed three months and I actually waited about three weeks before everything happened, but I just did it. And I don't regret it to this day, I've been so much happier since.”
Among the displays of initial disbelief, elation and courteous good-for-yous that made up the comments on that Facebook status, one stood out in particular. It came from a fellow serviceman, who wrote: “I won't pretend to understand but what I do know is, if it makes you happy then be who you want to be. Good coppers and mates aren't there to judge!”
The sentiment backed up everything Christina says about the military’s acceptance, but led me to question what kind of education troops receive on subjects like this.
“In the RAF, it's the same as in civvy street – everyone's sort of separated, everyone goes, 'Oh shit, there's a copper!' when they see you, so we learn to be very protective over our own," says Christina. "Initially when I told them I was put on leave so I could go and get my new uniform, get my name changed and stuff like that, and in that time the warrant officer briefed the entire police flight as to what was going on. There's a very specific brief that the RAF wants you to give if this happens – it's there in writing. I read it and thought, 'That's going to make people not want to speak to me – they're going to be avoiding me.' So I told them to add to it that I want people to ask me questions. Curiosity is not hatred; it's not dismissal; it's a good thing.
“I told them I also expected banter. I didn't want to give up my way of life, and that’s a part of that. There were a couple of people who asked me questions straight out, and it was hilarious. I told them, 'Honestly, don't be scared to ask me everything. If I'm not happy with what you're asking me, I'll tell you. And if you say it again, then I'll break your fucking nose,'” she laughs. “But otherwise, everyone's asked me questions and it's been spread around and everyone understands. The reason I took that stance is because I'm the first person – not in the entire RAF, but in the RAF Police – to come out as transgender. Most of them have never experienced it before at all. By me being open about everything, if one day these people then meet a less confident trans woman or trans man, they have a chance of understanding and not upsetting them in any way. If that helps them further down the line, it's brilliant.”
RAF search and rescue pilot Ayla Holdom
Satisfied that the armed forces really are as progressive as they claim to be, I suggest to Christina that the RAF’s acceptance simply reflects that of wider society. She disagrees. In fact, her own experience echoes that of search and rescue pilot Ayla Holdom, who questioned why the RAF was able to accept her, but not the media and general public.
“If anything, being in the military has protected me a thousand times more than if I was in civvy street," says Christina. "Stepping out of the car downstairs earlier, I got terrified. I do every time. After a minute the fear goes and I tell myself, ‘I'm a normal girl – no one cares.’ But in the military – over here – it's safe. People at work look, but in civvy street they look and they look and they look.”
After our interview, we take a walk together through the centre of town. Despite the sun managing to make Leicester look almost pretty for once, it's hard to romanticise the place. It may be one of the UK's more racially diverse cities, but ignorance is sadly still all too apparent, and, sure enough, people passing by look and they look and they look.
“I’ve realised the best thing to do is just stare right back,” says Christina, as a middle-aged woman with tattooed dots for eyebrows gawks in our direction. “And most of the time, I think, 'You’re far weirder than me.'”
More trans stories: