A Chat With: Caroline Paige from Fighting With Pride

Following her appointment as Joint Chief Executive at the UK’s only LGBT+ military charity, Fighting With Pride, we caught up with Caroline Paige, LCR Pride Foundation Patron and the first transgender officer to serve openly in the UK Armed Forces, to find out more about her role at the new organisation and why its role in supporting Veterans is vital.

Hi Caroline, lovely to catch up with you. It’s been a quieter year with COVID-19, but looks like you have been extremely busy establishing Fighting With Pride. Can you tell us more about how the organisation came about?

“Lovely to catch up with you too, Nikki. We established Fighting with Pride in January this year, specifically for LGBT+ Veterans, service personnel and families. It all started off as a book. This year is the 20th anniversary of the lifting of the ban on LGBT+ people being able to serve in the armed forces and I co-authored a book called Fighting With Pride which marked that milestone. It was a project begun by my co-Joint Chief Exec, Craig Jones, that collected 10 stories from Veterans from World War Two, right up to people still serving now across the Army, the Navy and the Air Force. 

“As we were writing it, we recognised that there were a lot of LGBT+ Veterans, from before the ban was lifted, who were thrown out and fell on really hard times. Even though the ban had long been lifted, nobody had gone back to help them, to find out what happened to them and to support them. So, together with another co-author, Patrick Lyster-Todd who is now Chair of Fighting With Pride, we decided to set up the charity, taking the name of the book that inspired it.”

What does your new role at the charity entail?

“Right now, because we are building it up from scratch, the charity is volunteer run. As well as the executive team, we have a board totalling 12 people. They come from all three services and across all ranks, unlike other military charities whose boards tend to be retired senior officers. 

“Some of our board members are still serving. Some of them are Veterans who were in the military in the 70s, 80s, 90s, noughties and 10s, so there’s a real wealth of professional and lived experience on the team. That includes people who were thrown out of the military for being LGBT+ (prior to 2000), people who managed to survive without being found out and who came out after the ban was lifted, and those who joined the services after 2000. 

“As Joint Chief Execs, Craig and I deal directly with our counterparts in all of the other service charities out there, such as the Royal British Legion and SSAFA. We also speak to the Government and executive levels within NHS England, who also form a big part of our support.”

For those who might not be aware, can you explain a little about the impact that the ban had on LGBT+ people in the armed forces?

“Before the ban was lifted, if people were found to be LGBT+ while serving they would be kicked out and all sorts of horrible things happened to them. They had invasive medical examinations, they were outed and they were harassed. Some were fined money and some went to military prison. Right up until 1996, if you were in the forces you could be sent to military prison for being LGBT+.

“If they were kicked out they would be thrown off the base, they would lose all their pay, their house and quite often their family, because in those times LGBT+ people were not as well accepted as today. 

“Another thing about the military is that it is like a family and it looks after its own. For those who were caught out though, they were cut out of that family too. They were told to never approach the military again, never to wear the uniform again, at the Cenotaph or other Remembrance events, especially their beret, a symbol of pride in their service. Some even had their medals ripped off and thrown away. They lost pension rights, and their service records were marked ‘dishonourable discharge’ or ‘unfit service’, making other employment difficult. A lot of this has yet to be redressed and the hurt endures.

“It’s things like that which have had an effect on their mental health. All of a sudden they were told that they’re not welcome and they had no-one to turn to for help, because the military charities at the time also often employed the same people who were kicking them out. So, back then, when they went to them in distress and struggling they were just told ‘you’re not welcome’ and were turned away.”

It’s shocking to think that this was happening so recently. Do service charities today take a more sympathetic and supportive approach? How do these organisations fit into Fighting With Pride’s plans?

“Today service and Veterans’ charities want to openly support LGBT+ Veterans and those currently serving. However, there is a trust gap to be bridged. Our primary focus at the moment is on LGBT+ Veterans. The forces these days are very openly inclusive. They’re very proud of their diversity and so the people who serve today don’t have to serve under the same conditions that people did before the ban was lifted. 

“But for many of the Veterans who were kicked out of the forces prior to the ban being lifted, the circumstances, methods and consequences of their dismissal precipitated debilitating mental health issues. Our aim is to provide help and support to these LGBT+ Veterans and resolve their enduring hurt.

“Working with existing single service and Armed Forces charities to achieve this is vital. We aim to join up these organisations and both veterans and serving personnel to ensure there’s communication and support even after you leave the military.

“Right now we’re getting people around the table to work out how Fighting With Pride can help these organisations and ensure they are providing appropriate support to their LGBT+ Veterans communities, but also to ascertain how they can best support us as well.” 

After making these connections, what are the organisation’s overarching aims?

“The aim of our charity is really to raise awareness and help people to understand the impacts and the needs and the history, so that they can be better placed to provide support. We speak to all the charities, speak to the Government and speak to the NHS and mental health trusts to help them understand LGBT+ Veterans better, so that they can focus their care and support in the best possible way, and address any enduring hurt.

“Our role is to ensure that the services and support networks that we signpost Veterans to have that full understanding. They do ‘get’ it and they want to understand, but they typically don’t have the necessary lived experience within their own organisation. We want them to be able to prove that they’re LGBT+ friendly. 

“It’s all very well somebody saying, ‘yes, we’re LGBT+ friendly’ and sticking a badge on a website somewhere. But what actually happens when an LGBT+ Veteran phones up their helpline? Do they really know how to deal with them appropriately or do they follow a line of questioning that might deter them from seeking support, just because the call handler doesn’t have that knowledge?

“That’s the test and that’s where we come in. We help the charities and support organisations show that they do care, that they do want to help and that they can be trusted. And we have to reach the Veterans and tell them that those services are there to support them and encourage them to speak to them. We also want to bring isolated LGBT+ Veterans back together, back into the military family that waits to welcome them.”

There is a significant breach of trust to fix there. How do you intend to do that?

“At the moment, we’re working on a standard. When we speak to these organisations they want to know how to measure the things they are doing, they want to know if they are doing things right and they want to see what else they need to address.

“At present we are the only LGBT+ military charity in the country. There isn’t yet a standard that they can measure themselves against, so we are working on that. It will be a clear way to show they are truly LGBT+ friendly. By adhering to a standard as well, we will be able to signpost Veterans’ and serving personnel to those organisations with confidence, knowing they meet the benchmark we have set.”

What other challenges to LGBT+ Veterans face today?

“Military people don’t tend to ask for help. When they are struggling – whether that’s with mental health issues, physical health issues or finance – they tend to think they can deal with it themselves. 

“That’s the way they try to deal with it. Our NHS partners also tell us that if Veterans do speak to them, they very rarely mention either that they’re a Veteran or they’re LGBT+. They think that they’ll lose that respect if they do. 

“As an organisation we need to highlight that there is no shame in asking for help and there is no need to conceal their military history, sexual orientation or gender identity, out of worry.”

What other things is the organisation working on?

“We’re also addressing the necessity of funding. To get the Government or big organisations to spend money on things, you need the hard evidence. We know the issues that exist. We speak to LGBT+ Veterans day in and day out. We know the impact on their mental health and their needs, and we know their enduring hurts. But we need to capture that through evidence-based research. 

“We have already instigated some world-leading research with a UK university into what happened to the veterans and what health and wellbeing care they need, but that will take a couple of years to complete. 

“However, we don’t want to wait a couple of years to get started, so we’re knocking on all the doors now. Saying ‘you need to sort this out now’. The evidence will come, but they need to start making changes now.”

How can people in the Liverpool City Region get involved with Fighting With Pride’s work?

“The Liverpool City Region has great connections to the military, from the Navy to the Army, with the King’s Regiment, and the Air Force as well. There’s a lot of veterans in Liverpool, and the best way that people can help is to raise awareness that Fighting With Pride exists.

“When LGBT+ Veterans were dismissed they disconnected from military circles, but many became part of the LGBT+ communities where they lived. That’s why working with organisations like LCR Pride Foundation is important, to reach out and reconnect with Veterans.

“Once we are able to, we plan to hold regional events – conferences, workshops, talks and community building – and we will definitely be coming to Liverpool. People can follow our social media channels (Fighting With Pride is on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram) to keep up-to-date on events and other things that we are working on.”

Taking your own experience into account, what would it have meant to you, having a charity like Fighting With Pride there to turn to?

“It would have made a massive difference obviously. I experienced the difficulties with serving before 2000. You didn’t know who to speak to you didn’t know who to confide in. If you spoke to the wrong person and you were outed –  deliberately or accidentally – it had such horrendous consequences that you had to be really, really careful. You wouldn’t confide in anybody within the services like the medical officer. You wouldn’t mention it to a service priest or anybody like that either, because you were worried that they would have a duty to report you because it was against the law to be LGBT+ in the service. There was no support in other words.

“The situation is different for people serving now. But having that support is still really crucial. Having that place to go to to speak to people – to a charity – that speaks your language. It knows the military. It knows the LGBT+ community. That’s really, really important and it would have been amazing for me. I want Fighting With Pride to be the support we didn’t have back then.”

Based on your experience, would you still recommend a career in the Armed Forces to young LGBT+ people?

“I’m probably biased, but I think it’s a great career path. It offers so many different jobs. You can be an engineer, you can be a dentist or medical officer, you can be a soldier, an aviator, an administrator, a chef, or so many more things. What’s more, you get the fun of being part of a great team too and all of the facilities that there are for sport and adventure and things like that. 

“I always have to laugh at the time I joined the military. The adverts said ‘join the military and see the world’ and I just happened to join the military when that world was shrinking, you know? Most of my postings were in England or Scotland! But it does still offer so many opportunities to explore.

“Now, it’s a really positive, open and inclusive environment to work in. The military has marched in London Pride since the mid-noughties. All three services are top performers in Stonewall’s Workplace Equality Index. 

“I wouldn’t say it was perfect, because it’s not. There’s always going to be people who have judgemental opinions in life, and who aren’t afraid to express them. But I wouldn’t let that small minority put me off joining if I had my time again, because you get them in any workplace. Also harassment isn’t tolerated in the military. Yeah, if I was young, I would still definitely join up.”


You can find out more at https://www.fightingwithpride.org.uk/ or follow Fighting With Pride on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram.


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LCR Pride Foundation is a registered charity in England & Wales, no 1185167. Registered Company 11754074.