The RAF’s only openly transgender plane pilot, Flight Lieutenant Ayla Holdom, has given a moving interview to the Mail on Sunday in which she discusses her life – and was full of praise for the way in which her colleagues in Britain’s Royal Air Force accepted her transition.
Holdom, now aged 34, says that she knew she was different from around the age of four, but that the pressure to fit in almost drove her to suicide.
‘From being a teenager I felt a void inside me. It drove me to achieve, to join the military, to fly, to qualify as a search-and-rescue pilot, but it was never, ever enough, because my essential self didn’t correspond to my external image and who could live that kind of lie?
‘I knew I wasn’t a gay man, I couldn’t tick that box. But it is a huge step to ask yourself if you might be transgender because of the stigma attached to it.
‘You know you risk being ostracized, ridiculed, belittled and made to feel somehow less human. You are the punchline in a big joke, or worse, still deemed to have a psychological condition.
‘You are considered a freak and you put your career, your family ties and your friendships on the line. That’s why you deny it, why you deny it even to yourself until the need to do something about it is so overwhelming it makes life impossible – truly impossible.’
Instead of suicide, Holdom instead decided to transition – a move supported by her family, and her wife, Wren, with whom she continues to live at RAF Chivenor in North Devon.
The two now live in a lesbian relationship and plan to try and start a family, as Holdom had some of her sperm frozen from when she was living as a man.
Deciding to undergo transition meant explaining the decision to her RAF colleagues, including Prince William. The two served together on search and rescue when the Prince was a member of the small, tight-knit team of 20 at RAF Valley.
She says that William showed support and understanding, and subsequently invited Holdom and Wren to his own wedding to Kate Middleton in 2011. It was one of Holdom’s first public outings after undergoing surgery.
‘All my RAF colleagues were brilliant … I think they were surprised because I was pretty adept at pretending to be a man. I walked macho, I sat macho, I worked out hard and I like a bit of banter.
‘But when I came back as a woman there was complete acceptance and empathy. Even old and bold warrant officers who had grown up in the days when people like me would have been taken behind the bike sheds for a kicking, came to congratulate me.
‘I can see why someone might think it’s been difficult. Men go to war, women stay at home and mind the children – that’s the traditional military narrative. But being transgender in the RAF has been, in some ways, easier than in civilian life.
‘The military has a policy and there are rules and what we do is adhere to them. It keeps things simple. Even this.’
Holdom and Wren both describe themselves as bisexual. They met when Holdom, who grew up in Somerset, was studying ecology at university in Plymouth.
They were together for eight years before marring six years ago in a civil ceremony. At the time, Holdom had already begun to live life as a woman outside of work.
‘Being transgender is one of the last areas of prejudice,’ she says.
‘It’s like race or homosexuality a generation ago and I hope that transgender people can elicit the same change in society today.’
As well as giving the newspaper interview, Holdom was recently interviewed for a short film about her life, in which she discusses some of the issues that she has come up against, and the support that she has received from her family and colleagues.
The film is part of a series called Patchwork: digital storytelling project that looks at the lives of transgender people around the UK.
‘Everything that I loved about her from “before”, was still there afterwards, because it was an essential part of her personality,’ says Wren, who works as a doctor at the Royal Devon and Exeter hospital.
‘There is a fundamental, external shift in the visual appearance of the person you’re with but that’s a very small part of who they are … it’s not what cements a relationship together.’
You can watch the short film below: