'Talking is the best way to change things' - former RAF pilot Ayla Holdom on the war for transgender acceptance

“Talking to people and educating them is the best way to change things."


This article was first published in Attitude issue 259, July 2015.

Words: Paris Lees

Ayla Holdom is nervous. It’s the night before her cover shoot with Attitude and she is, in her own words, “shitting bricks”.

Ayla is a nice, softly spoken girl from Somerset, but who can blame her for a little pre-shoot anxiety? She’s never graced the cover of a magazine before.

“Whenever a camera shutter goes I swear I instantly turn into a gargoyle,” she says, “so I’m just hoping there’s going to be someone professional there to say ‘Stand there, hold this, do that’.”

I reassure her that there will indeed be a whole team of professionals and that she is certain to look beautiful because she is — inside and out. 34-year-old Ayla is a hero. 

Not only does she save lives (and fly) for a living as a helicopter pilot in the RAF’s Search and Rescue Force at RAF Chivenor in North Devon, but during a global movement towards transgender acceptance, she’s also proven to be a brilliant ambassador for the community.

In 2010 she was outed by The Sun during the early stages of her transition thanks to the fact that, at the time, one of her colleagues happened to be a certain Prince William.

“I think the headline was ‘Prince Will’s pal loses his chopper’, or something along those lines,” she recalls. She can smile about it now, but it was no laughing matter at the time.

“At first I hoped that I would avoid it, and that I would quietly be left alone to get on with my life and my job.”

No such luck.

“I felt vilified, and set upon by the world, almost. I felt alone. Whatever the media wanted to write about me, whatever caricature they wanted to portray, there was no way of fighting that and telling the truth. I had no voice.”

Colleagues told her not to “kick the hornet’s nest because if you do they’ll come back worse”. It was almost, she says, that “you’ve got to expect this.”

No wonder she stayed in the trans closet for so long. She knew she was a girl for as long as she can remember, although she “never had the language for it” until she reached her late teens. It was a far cry from the increasingly trans aware world we are starting to see, with high profile people like Laverne Cox and Caitlyn Jenner serving as role models for what it is possible for trans women to achieve.

Ayla grew up on a farm — with goats and chickens for friends — so it wasn’t until university that she felt pressure to conform: “I started to realise that I didn’t fit in, but I didn’t have any confidence that the way I felt innately could be true. I always knew trans people were ridiculed, ostracised, and I knew that wasn’t me. I knew I didn’t deserve that, I suppose, so I tried my best to avoid it.”

Funnily enough, the love of her parents made her desire to transition less urgent too: “I’m really close with my parents. And I suppose that was partly why I didn’t feel the need to question it for so many years, because I just sat back and thought, ‘things will work out in the end’.

I had a stable upbringing. It was only when I was in my late twenties that I figured that it wasn’t going to work out unless I did something about it.

“I guess I was finding my place in the world, a reason to like myself, a reason to respect myself. That’s what pushed me to go to university, to join the Air Force. So I’d ticked all those boxes of success and I still felt empty inside. I still felt this void. And there was nothing I could do that would make it right.”

Ayla regularly risks her life through her work in Search and Rescue, and this sense of mortality forced her to confront the truth: “There were a number of occasions in my career where I wondered ‘Is today the day?’ and I thought, it could be. My life could end today. And realising that people would never know me, all they would know is this character that I’d been building up for years, pretending to be someone else. I suppose I just realised that none of it was worth it without being myself.”

That black void, thankfully, is long gone. “Life’s not without it’s struggles. It’s not this panacea of sudden light and glory after you decide to come out as trans. Life has hurdles. But I’m me now.”

And she’s still saving lives for a living. You might be surprised to learn that the military is pretty up to speed with equality legislation because, as Ayla notes — “we’re good at following orders, so if the message comes down from high up that diversity is good, diversity is good.”

Good. This new culture of diversity was, unsurprisingly, a great source of comfort to Ayla when she came out: “At the back of my mind I knew that the Air Force was a good employer and had good policies in place for supporting trans people. And while that wasn’t in any way a deciding factor or anything else, it was definitely a massive support.”

Then came the phone call. Ayla was given 12 hours notice that she was to be splashed on the cover of the next day’s The Sun: “I had an absolute sinking feeling, I felt sick and scared to my stomach. I hadn’t come out to everyone at this stage, I was coming out in my own time and in my own words. I’d only just come out to wider family and my wife Wren’s family as well. And then suddenly, within half a day, we were forced to come out widely and rapidly to everyone in our family, and we weren’t ready to at that stage.”

She was terrified: “I was worried about the press coming to my door, I was reading all the comments that had gone up online, which were calling me selfish — they asked, how can someone so selfish be doing this job? How can someone so mentally deranged be allowed to fly a helicopter, putting other people’s lives at risk? And worse. ‘This sort of person shouldn’t exist’. And all the rubbish about ‘Oh I think I’m a banana, I must be a banana’. And suddenly you have to defend yourself, you have to defend your entire existence — when all I’m doing is being me. I was being honest for the first time in my life, and all I could see was negativity.”

It felt, she says, like a slap in the face from society.

“I started questioning everything. I started asking myself, what if they are right? What if I am mentally deranged? Maybe I shouldn’t be doing this. It took a long time and a lot of effort to get around that.”

Of course going back wasn’t an option. She doesn’t like to dwell on it, but the thought of suicide wasn’t a stranger before she transitioned: “When I say there was no choice, that’s exactly what I mean. Life wasn’t going to continue unless I could be myself. And that’s where the choice is. A box six feet under the ground or taking my chances with the world and saying ‘this is me’”.

Does Ayla think people who are not trans appreciate just how serious the need for trans people to be themselves is?

“I think people are starting to get it. I think people are starting to empathise. Elements of the old narrative remain where people still focus on the physiological changes. They can’t get past the external aesthetic and they can’t understand that it’s not about the physical presentation, it’s about presenting your internal sense of self in the bestpossible way.”

At work she just carried on getting the job done.

"I wasn’t the first trans person in the RAF, so I stand on the shoulders of giants. The policy to allow trans people to serve was formed in ‘99 and we’ve had people transition in the military — not masses, but a few people, in all services — since then. They paved the way so that when I transitioned people kind of knew what to expect. They saw that it was a really positive thing.”

She expected a bit of ribbing — there’s a culture of banter in the RAF, after all — but she says she never had any cruel jibes.

“We’re a small crew, we spend 24 hours together on shift. You can’t be disconnected from the team while you’re working. Trust is critical.”

If anything, she got closer to colleagues and better at her job after she allowed herself to be honest about who she is: “I was playing a game before, I spent so much time thinking ‘What would a guy do in this situation?’ And since I transitioned it just suddenly freed up all this capacity in my mind.”

Since then, along with working to celebrate diversity within the military and consulting with Stonewall as it prepared to go trans inclusive, she’s been steadily building her media profile and flying the flag for trans people.

“It goes back to that lack of voice. When I was outed by the tabloids it felt so unjust. I thought I don’t have power to combat this. Every element of my being wanted to challenge that and change it, because it was fundamentally wrong.”

A few years back she came across All About Trans on Facebook, a project I helped set up that works to improve media representation of trans people: “I thought, ‘These people are going to change the world’. I said I’d like to be part of what they were doing and I attended an event at Channel 4 and I did a little talk about the articles in the paper and what it was like for me.”

It was through All About Trans that Ayla found herself somewhere she never thought she would be — not kicking it, but inside the hornet’s nest.

“Dr Kate Stone was there, who’d also found herself on the wrong side of the tabloids after she was gored by a stag and nearly died. I got to meet up with [Managing Editor] Stig Abell and other senior editors.”

Was she nervous then, too?

“A little, if I’m being honest. I felt a bit of fear from The Sun, that they thought we were going to stand on a platform and shout at them, which we could have easily done. But that wouldn’t have helped anyone.” Well, quite.

One of the most important projects that All About Trans runs is a scheme to introduce media movers and shakers to real life trans people — because, like the rest of the population, many journalists have simply never met a trans person. And the simple act of meeting a trans person face to face can have a surprisingly powerful effect: “I remember Stig sitting there and Googling me on his iPad. And then he just said, ‘Oh, this is terribly embarrassing. This should never have happened. I’ll have it removed straight away.’ And he did.”

So, if you Google Ayla today, the first thing you see won’t be a headline with a chopper gag in it. “They are changing,” says Ayla, “they are The Sun and they will get it wrong sometimes, but you can see they are trying. They’re not all bad people. They’ve gone from pointing and laughing at trans people to empathising with trans people to covering what trans people do without making a big deal about the fact that they are trans. And it’s happened in a short space of time.”

That change is down to people like Ayla. She’s part of a global push for greater awareness, and it’s thanks to bright, energetic activists like her that more and more people are starting to cotton on to the fact that trans people deserve dignity, respect and, well, basic human rights.

As she says, it’s not so very complicated. “Talking to people and educating them is the best way to change things.”