Ayla Holdom is a helicopter pilot with the UK’s National Police Air Service. She was a flight lieutenant in the Royal Air Force for 13 years, serving in the search and rescue team with Prince William before she was outed as transgender by the tabloid media.
She’s in Australia with her wife Wren Holdom, whom she married prior to her transition, for the opening of Still Point Turning — a play about her friend, former Army speechwriter and transgender officer Catherine McGregor. Ayla shared her story with One Plus One’s Jane Hutcheon.
‘I didn’t feel like a little boy’
I loved my childhood, I really did. It’s a loving family. My brother is six years older than me, my sister is 10 years older than me so she was almost like a second mum.
Ayla Holdom as a child. She’s given the ABC permission to publish photographs taken prior to her transition. (Supplied)
My school friends lived quite some distance away but that didn’t worry me because my best friends were my goats.
I felt different from the age of about four. I didn’t feel like a little boy. I knew intellectually that I should be a boy but I felt different and disconnected from the world.
I was trying to find my place, but I assumed that everyone felt the same.
‘The hardest period of my life’
I built up a lot of protection mechanisms. The few times I let the mask slip as a young child, whether it was a dance around the kitchen table or whatever, I quickly learnt that was not acceptable behaviour.
In the 90s and early 2000s, being trans was the comedy story on Jerry Springer or the sob story on morning television and I absolutely fundamentally thought, that’s not me.
Even as a seven-year-old, I was picking up on all of this and filing it away.
Coming out to myself in my 20s was probably the hardest period of my life.
I imagined if I could just do the next thing … if I went to university, joined the military, became a pilot, ticking all these boxes, that would complete me, that would make me feel right and I could settle down and feel complete or happy.
Ayla Holdom served in the RAF for 13 years, working with the search and rescue team for seven years. (Supplied)
By 2008 or 2009, I started coming out in stages. I’d come out to my wife Wren in a small way.
She knew I had a feminine side and she was remarkably good about it. I tried very hard to make that work but what I learnt (after a few years) was that whole routine of pretending — of being a male character during the week and being something else at weekends — was as painful as hiding everything away entirely. All of it felt dishonest.
I worked in the search and rescue unit with Prince William and I was invited to his wedding. This was during my period of coming out to my friends and colleagues.
During that process, at some point, somebody — I don’t know who — went to The Sun newspaper and they ran this article.
The headline — thankfully it’s been removed from the internet now — was “Will’s Pal Loses his Chopper”.
Ayla Holdom said she wasn’t the first transgender person in the armed forces, “by any stretch”. (Supplied)
I felt attacked and vilified by people I’d never met and betrayed by whoever went to the press. Prince William was joining our unit. I was worried about the effect that this would have on him and the attention it would draw.
I was deliberately a very open book. What I really wanted to do was to sweep away the eggshells and say “there’s no taboo here”.
After the injustice of The Sun outing me, I met with a group of people. We pair up trans people from a variety of backgrounds with senior editors and journalists from newspapers including The Sun. Just having a conversation with them made a difference, not just a nuts and bolts conversation about what being trans means, but to talk about hobbies and our lives and the people around us and to have conversations that humanise trans people.
A role model
I had been lucky because the armed forces had policies in place since the turn of the century. I wasn’t the first transgender person in the armed forces by any stretch.
(One Plus One)
I actually heard about the Catherine McGregor story by watching One Plus One. I was in the Falklands at the time and it came up on my Facebook feed.
I had this fundamental desire to reach out and just say “thank you” to her.
What I saw was someone who was very high profile and very highly regarded, in the cricket world too. I instinctively knew how she was feeling and I just wanted to say thank you for doing all of that with immense dignity and as a role model for myself and many others.
Mourning the loss of a son
It wasn’t an immediate acceptance from my parents. I came out in small ways initially. I remember shaking like a leaf in their kitchen. I used the term “transvestite” as a way of protecting them. I knew in my heart that was wrong and it wasn’t explaining me honestly, but it was all I had at the time.
They responded with love and compassion. “You’re our child. We love you.” But I remember my mum then saying, “but let’s never talk about this again”. And I thought, ‘”Thanks mum that’s not exactly what I was hoping for.”
Actually, my dad was great. He went straight onto Google and I remember that first weekend I came out properly (18 months later), we were chatting on the phone he began to explain everything about being trans.
It’s a very dad thing to do whereas mum cried for about six months.
The way she describes it is she had to mourn the loss of a son and learn to love someone new.
But I don’t mourn the loss of my past self at all. If I mourn anything, I mourn not coming to this realisation and not coming out to myself and others sooner.
Ayla Holdom is on One Plus One on ABC at Friday at 1pm, repeated on News Channel over the weekend and iView.