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.
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.
‘I’d already hidden for all my life, and I couldn’t see a way forward’
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 LGBTQ+ 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.
She was told she’d be a danger or liability to her colleagues. But serving in both Iraq and Afghanistan, she “went out there and proved the opposite”.
‘I would defy anybody to say anywhere has perfect inclusion’
In a relatively short period of time, LGBTQ+ service-people have gone from not being allowed to serve openly to seeing discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation being forbidden in the Armed Forces. Now, all three branches of the UK Armed Forces, namely the Royal Navy, British Army and Royal Air Force, can march in full uniform at Gay Pride marches.
“I would defy anybody to say anywhere has perfect inclusion. But it’s so much better now. People don’t have to go to work thinking, ‘what if somebody asked me or if I tell somebody that I’m in a same-sex relationship, or I tell somebody, I’m transitioning gender?’. The support is there.”
Using her experiences, Caroline began to tell her story at military roadshows and bases to raise awareness. “You have to win hearts and minds over. The only way you can do that is to positively show them. That’s why it was easier to do this in my own unit, because people saw me and they kind of reacted like ‘Oh, OK.’ We carried on.”
The impact of these events, Caroline says, was significant. Years ago, many people in the military didn’t even know what a trans person was and may have had stereotypical ideas about this community or had formed their own opinions based on bigoted news stories.
“Whereas if they listen to somebody who speaks from their own shoes, it’s more informative,” concludes Caroline. “It helps them to understand and that’s why I saw attitudes change, especially as more and more LGBT people started stepping up and doing really good things.”