As we focus on the Trans community in the UK as part of our “Community Under Attack” series for LGBT+ History month, we have a chat with Caroline Paige, the first openly transgender officer to serve in the British Armed Forces, Chief Executive of the LGBT+ military charity, Fighting With Pride and Patron of LCR Pride Foundation.

For those who don’t know you Caroline, can you share a bit about your background?

“I was born in Wallasey and grew up in Moreton, until I joined the RAF in January 1980. I became a navigator flying air defence fighter aircraft for 12 years during the Cold War, and then tactical trooping helicopters until I retired from the RAF in November 2014. I was aware of my true gender identity from the age of five but I grew up in a military family and gender diversity wasn’t tolerated. 

“The military enforced a ‘gay ban’ on LGBT+ service, until it was deemed illegal by the European Court of Human Rights and lifted in January 2000, so, I had to hide my true self for a long time, and that was incredibly difficult to do. In the mid-90s I’d had enough of that and decided I needed to live my life truly. I began a journey that unbelievably led to me being permitted to transition gender in the military in February 1999, becoming the first openly transgender officer to serve in the British Armed Forces.”

“Today, the military is proudly and openly inclusive of LGBT+ personnel, but it was a hostile place to be LGBT+ back then and I met many challenges before I was fully accepted. I continued flying front-line aircraft though, for another 16 years, and became a specialist on tactics and platform protection systems earning commendations for exceptional service in Iraq and Afghanistan, disproving claims that I was a liability – because I happened to be transgender.”

What happened after you left the forces?

“After I left the RAF, I set up my own company and spoke about diversity and the benefits of inclusion, using my own lived experiences, and my autobiography True Colours was published in 2017. In 2020, we launched Fighting With Pride, becoming the UK’s only charity set up to support LGBT+ veterans, serving personnel and families. We recognised that LGBT+ Veterans who had been dismissed from the military before the ban was lifted were treated appallingly and shamefully, and they remained isolated from support and care. No-one had ever tried to understand or address the challenges they still endured as a consequence, even 20 years after the ban was lifted. We have made incredible progress over the past three years though, building community confidence and raising awareness and support throughout the UK, gaining many allies and prompting an LGBT+ Veterans’ Independent Review too, which will report its findings and recommendations to the Government by June this year, and then on to Parliament. We’re also proud to be a Finalist for Charity of the Year in the 2023 Gaydio Pride Awards, taking place on 10th February.”

For LGBT+ history month we are looking at current attacks on the LGBT+ now through the lens of history. Through your experience, what positive changes have you seen towards the Trans, Non-Binary and Intersex community?

I have seen incredibly positive changes over the past few decades and we were all going the right way until quite recently! The level of awareness, understanding and support for gender diverse people has grown significantly in the past 20 years, and despite the challenges of today we should be proud of how far we have come and our achievements as a community and as individuals. We should be proud of the allies and advocates that have grown around us and stood by us too, because changes never happen without such invaluable support. For my generation, acceptance was an unlikely hope, let alone the possibility of inclusion. It was a longed-for dream of what could be, that seemed impossibly out of reach, but it somehow came true in the end, generally. So how did it go wrong today?

“In terms of legal recognition and protection I think significant milestones along the way have certainly included amendment to the 1975 Sex Discrimination Act (in September 1999) protecting against discrimination for gender reassignment, whilst the Gender Recognition Act 2004 and the Equality Act 2010 speak for themselves. The legal challenge and lifting of the military ban in January 2000 actually had a largely uncredited positive impact on LGBT+ inclusion in the civilian world too. Another significant achievement, given less credit than it deserves I think, is the recognition of Gender Dysphoria over Gender Identity Disorder as a medical diagnosis and not an unwarranted mental health stigma. Dramatically improving the way transgender people presenting for medical or psychological support were/are regarded and treated. And of course, although they can be used for negative influences too, without the internet, World Wide Web and social media, we wouldn’t have the amazing levels of information, awareness, advice, support and community connection that we have now, hugely significant and positive influencers in their own right and providing assurance to those who would otherwise be isolated.”

How do you think the current narrative around Trans people, particularly online and in the media, is affecting the Trans community in the UK?

Without any doubt the current narrative in the media is harming and intimidating many within the trans community. They feel threatened and unwanted and it is testing their mental resilience. For the most vulnerable, that can have life threatening impacts. It needs to stop.”

What is your response to the Government’s recent decision to use Section 35 to block the Gender Recognition Reform (Scotland) Bill from gaining royal assent?

“However you look at it, it just comes across as a bully tactic doesn’t it? There were less confrontational options available. Only last year the Government was boasting on the international stage that it wanted the UK to be the best place in the world to be LGBT+. We look at the rest of the world, including the USA and the attacks and roll-backs of LGBT+ equalities and rights there, and think we’re in a better place, but are we? 

“Instead of challenging positive change, the UK Government had the opportunity to be leading it. Instead, a well-motivated reform has now once more become a political argument, and even a trigger of debate over Scottish independence now too! We’re all just waiting now for the trans community to be accused of causing the breakup of the United Kingdom! Sounds daft, but wait for it! 

“What this has again highlighted though, is the unbelievable amount of confusion over the Gender Recognition Act and the Equality Act, and the media is again expert at adding to that, whether naively or purposely mixing elements of both, it just empowers those who outspokenly contest trans identities and rights regardless of fact, and raises concern in others who don’t have the benefit of hearing reasoned discussion. As with most minority communities throughout history, they end up in the middle of debate over their future but don’t get heard themselves.”

Looking at broader LGBT+ history, do you think lessons have been learned from the past? 

“Yes, lessons have been learned, good and bad, but there’s a difference between learning lessons and understanding them, and using them. The important thing is not just to ‘learn the lesson’, but to properly understand it, action it, and to take it forward, build on it, and to remember it! Take the bad and learn from any mistakes, take the good and make it better. But we have a bad habit of ignoring or casually forgetting the past, and then we wonder why it comes around again. History gives us so much to build a better future, and that’s why it’s incredibly important. If we lose sight of the past and how we moved forward, we just stumble straight back into the worst bits, in the dark.” 

What key things do you think need to happen to improve the lives of the Trans community in the UK?

“There are many key things that should happen, but I have selected three to be brief. The press and media needs to understand accountability and how to not use old-fashioned sensationalism to sell numbers, sway opinion negatively, and destroy lives; the Government needs to take positive action to protect hard won equalities for vulnerable minority groups. One equality does not erode another equality, it means being equal! Finally, the silent majority needs to find its voice.

“The first two are mentioned above, so I’ll just add on the third if I may. The vast majority of people just want everyone to be able to live their lives within the law in a way that makes them happy. They don’t see a need to shout out opinions, because they see the law has changed and equality is there for all, and so, in theory, we all just move forward with our lives. But they don’t see the challenges that minority communities like the trans community face, because although they may see those lives, they don’t truly understand those lives. 

“On the other hand, those with generally irrational negative opinions have a need to shout them out. It hurts them if they can’t express their opinions loud enough, all too often whilst hiding behind anonymous social media identities to bravely condemn others. They only form a minority of the population, but their voices are disproportionately loud in any silence. Sadly, when vulnerable people are only hearing negative voices they can only assume that everyone feels the same way, and they fear then for their future, and for their lives. There is so much more good out there than bad though, and I hope young trans people in particular get to know that. The positive voices need to be heard too, in their wonderful majority.”

How can people support the Trans community at this time?

“People would be supporting the trans community if everyone was just kind to each other. Let people live and embrace the fact that we are all different in so many ways, and that’s the beauty of life. Sadly, that’s not the reality it should be, but there are many great ways people can support the trans community, from a simple friendly smile and starting an everyday conversation to a more proactive stand against observed bullying or harassment, to being an advocate for positive change and inclusion, whether at home, in the workplace, or through supporting campaigns; all are equally invaluable. 

“It’s a heart-warming human experience to be an ally. When anyone hears or reads a story about a trans person or about what being transgender means, they should look for a balanced lived-experience viewpoint. There are far too many ‘experts’ with no experience at all of what it means to be transgender who will tell you their ‘facts’, but there are so many accessible educational resources online and in print to learn more, better. Please do use them, learning is of course key to understanding.”

Image credit: Pete Carr

Related Posts

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