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In the Armed Forces: how institutions can change and move on from bigoted news stories.

“You have to win hearts and minds over. The only way you can do that is to positively show them”

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Thanks in no small part to the bravery and advocacy from military personnel like Caroline Paige, a great deal has changed when it comes to how the UK Armed Forces deal with members who identify as gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender. She spent 35 years in the Armed Forces and served during the Cold War and the Gulf War, and became the first openly trans officer who served.

In a relatively short period of time, LGBT 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.

Her initial course of action was to go outside the Air Force and build up a medical portfolio and work to present her transition as a medical issue that had a solution. When Caroline felt ready, the first person she came out to in the airforce was a medical officer, who was very supportive and helped her present her case.

“I think that’s why I was allowed to stay in even though the ban was still in place. It was about weighing up the risks and I decided I’m gonna fight it out.”

“Because I’ve got nothing to lose. If they throw me out, that’s what I was expecting them to do anyway,” she adds.

“From 2000, it took a good five or six years before people started to understand the value of inclusion and being able to let people get on, live their lives and do their job – and that they weren’t any kind of danger or liability,” she says.

Serving in both Iraq and Afghanistan was important to 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.”

Change in attitudes

Today, Caroline believes the military’s approach towards its trans members is brilliant, if not perfect. “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, okay.” 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.”

We are stronger together. 

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