Voices & Stories

I may as well do it and challenge them and say “look, this is me”

Living authentically should never cost you your job.

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It goes without saying that joining the UK Armed Forces is a major commitment. Starting with gruelling physical fitness tests, becoming a soldier clearly requires both physical and mental fortitude. Yet, for Caroline Paige, who spent 35 years in the Armed Forces and served during the Cold War and the Gulf War, an additional obstacle needed to be overcome before she could be her true self: coming out as trans at a time when LGBTQ people could lose their job simply by being open about their sexuality or gender identity.

Before Caroline made the decision to transition in 1999 and become the first openly trans officer in the UK Armed Forces, she was fully expecting to be thrown out when they discovered she was trans. “I thoroughly considered resigning, transitioning and just living my life from there. But then I realised; why should I have to [quit] because this is a job I really enjoy doing – it’s a job I do well.”

She decided that if she transitions and resigns, she would lose her job as a Top Gun style RAF navigator anyway, as well as losing family and friends. “If I lose everything anyway, what have I got to lose if I’m going to transition while staying in the job? I may as well do it and challenge them and say “look, this is me”,” she adds.

“I had two lives”

Caroline had to hide a core part of her identity during her younger years, with her father, who was in the army, not approving when Caroline would try and talk about her gender identity.

Finding airplanes fascinating from an early age, Caroline applied for a glider course at just 15 and eventually obtained a pilot’s licence as a teenager.

Despite having a strong interest in flying, civilian commercial flying wasn’t an option due to lack of funding. “I looked around and the only option really was to join the military. The Air Force was the logical one for aeroplanes; that’s who took me in.” Growing up, she knew that the military was intolerant and pretty hostile to LGBT people. “But I’d already hidden that for all my life, and I couldn’t see a way forward. I just thought, I’ll join, do my job and muddle through.”

Yet, when Caroline shared her trans identity with the people she worked closest with, the reaction was generally understanding as they knew she could do her job well and that was the most important factor. But this wasn’t the experience throughout the whole military decades ago.

“The minute I stepped out of that kind of circle, there was a lot of hostility. People would come up to me and tell me to leave and to get out of the military. People were making judgments based on 20, 30 or 40 years of history saying these kinds of people aren’t worthy of being in the military,” Caroline adds.

That’s why serving in both Iraq and Afghanistan were significant moments for Caroline as some members of the Armed Forces were saying that she was a danger or a liability to her colleagues.

“But I went out there and proved the opposite.”

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