A Marriage in Transition

Nov 20, 2014

Tonight, in cities all around the world, people will gather together to remember those from the transgender community who have died. It's called the Transgender Day of Remembrance. Austin's memorial will be at 6:30 p.m. at City Hall.

Tonight's speaker is Greg Abbink, the first transgender police officer in the Austin Police Department. He joined the force after serving in the Army. Back then, his name was Emily Abbink. This summer, Emily decided to transition her appearance to that of a male.

"Because even at five years old, I vividly remember asking my parents, 'Why did God make me a girl?'" he says. "I used to pray at night that I would wake up as a boy."

Through this period of transition, Greg has only received love and support from those around him. For many who are transgender, that's an anomaly.

The latest study from the National Center for Transgender Equality found that one in four people in transition lose their jobs. Greg’s family, his co-workers and his wife Joan Henke are standing by him.

"Emily, at the time, was my first real, real relationship," Henke says.

She and Greg got married two years ago in the state of New York, where same sex marriage has been legal since 2011. It was a simple wedding.

"It was pretty cool; just family, your side, not my side," she says, sitting across from Abbink. "My side [of the family] doesn't know too much." 

That's a heavy burden on Henke's shoulders.

"That part's hard," she says, holding back tears. She's the youngest of seven kids. She grew up Catholic. So far, Joan has managed to live a very private adult life. She has not told her parents about her marriage.

"I wish I could tell them. I've wanted to tell them, but I think they know," she says. "I can see them pushing away when I want to say something. So, I've just kind of let it be."

Now, Henke's parents are elderly. Her father is in his early 90s and her mother in her late 80s. She tries to spend as much time as possible with them, visiting every other weekend.

"I spend a couple of days; my rings come off," Henke says. "[I] put them in a little case."

She hides every piece of evidence that would hint to her parents that she's married to a woman; a woman who is now becoming a man. But, as the transition continues and Abbink's testosterone treatment kicks in, both he and Henke have noticed some changes.

"The biggest thing is I've noticed my voice getting deeper, some peach fuzz facial hair," he chuckles.

Although he's giddy about his new self, Greg's changes have been painful. He recently underwent a double mastectomy and chest reconstruction surgery. It's been emotionally difficult for Greg and his wife. 

"And, I can't do anything about it because I am fighting my own battles," Henke says.

The couple has decided to go to counseling. Henke, in particular, is struggling with the transition, in part because the lesbian identity she's never told her parents about is now gone.

"It's a good thing I didn't [tell them] actually; because, if I did, I'd have to go back and say, 'Well, surprise! I'm not [lesbian] anymore. Now, I am straight?' I guess, in a sense," she says. 

Though Greg and Joan have promised to be together, this period of transition is particularly difficult. One thing that soothes them is their love promise. Joan carries it engraved on a necklace.
Credit Filipa Rodrigues for KUT

Talking about the unknowns with their counselor has helped, they say. It's brought them comfort.

Few people in transition are as lucky as Abbink and Henke. They both have good-paying jobs and health insurance. The rates for unemployment, poverty and homelessness among transgender people are much higher than those in the general population. Death seems to follow many who are in transition. About 41 percent have attempted suicide, and every year, some are murdered.

Henke says it's been tough to let go of Emily, but Greg is the same person she fell in love with years ago,  just in a different package. She wears a necklace engraved with their love promise:  "If you live to be 100, I hope to live to be 100 minus one day, so I never have to live without you."

Abbink's transition will take between two and five years to complete, and he can't wait. When he's done, he wants to go before a judge to legally become a male and to one day remarry Henke at home in Texas, where, right now, marriage is recognized only as a union between a man and a woman.

When all is said and done, they both hope to go to church as a couple without facing the stares. They long to be reunited with their faith.

This story is a companion to a piece by the Austin Chronicle's Amy Kamp entitled “The Right Man for the Job." You can view that story on the Chronicle's website or find it in print.