06 Feb 2017

Caroline Paige reveals the untold story of what it meant to be transgender in the British military before and after permissive LGBT service, the highs and the lows, in peacetime and in war.

by Caroline Paige

When I became the first officer to transition gender in the British Armed Forces, I had already served 19 years in the RAF, on fighter aircraft and battlefield helicopters. Following my transition, I completed a further 16 years, including several tours in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Caroline Paige, first British officer to transition gender
In the latter half of the 20th Century the military barred LGBT service, on the grounds of ‘inappropriate behaviour’, ‘morale’ and ‘susceptibility to blackmail.’ That didn’t stop LGBT people from wanting to serve, but secrecy was essential, and the consequences of being ‘outed’ were severe.  
Joining the RAF, I knew the secret I had carried since childhood could never be disclosed, but that became harder and harder to live with. In 1999, I informed my commanders that I had begun gender transition, and wished to remain in the military. Remarkably, I was given permission to do so. When the bar on LGBT service was repealed a year later, LGBT personnel could finally serve their country without the fear of persecution and dismissal; but open service didn’t guarantee acceptance or inclusion.
Caroline Paige
There were challenges to being LGBT in the military before permissive service was granted, but the years following my transition weren’t easy either. Opinions within and outside the military were divided, but the negative voices outshouted the positive. It presented complicated challenges, and a need to prove that being transgender wasn’t reason to be withheld from frontline operations. 
The legacy of an intolerant past revealed itself everywhere, including during operational deployments. Attitudes were changing for the better, they just needed a push. I saw that achievements inspired acceptance and support, and used my story to educate, my experience to advise, slowly helping to pave the way to the open and inclusive service enjoyed by today’s LGBT personnel.