By Caroline Paige
The UK military’s ‘gay ban’ was finally lifted on 12 January 2000 in the House of Commons. The Sexual Offences Act 1967 had ‘decriminalised homosexual acts, in private between two men’ over 21 years old, but it had provided the Armed Forces with an exemption, through their own single-service discipline Acts. It was used indiscriminately against anyone perceived to be gay, regardless of gender or gender identity, even though gay and transgender people had served in the military since time immemorial; albeit in hiding!
A blind eye might be turned if someone was respected by their colleagues. However, someone else deciding otherwise, (maybe a colleague of aggrieved ex-partner), an anonymous phone call tip-off, or a discovered letter would summon investigation by the Special Investigations Branch, a military police force that hunted down those suspected, outed, or even rumoured as being LGBT.
There were many reasons the military did not accept transgender people. Society’s understanding of gender diversity in the second half of the 20th Century was confused by imagined stereotypical representations, and fear born through ignorance. Transgender was not a term used as widely then, but the term ‘transsexual’ was commonly misrepresented as defining sexuality rather than gender identity. It’s no wonder when newspaper articles usually depicted bearded muscular gay men in a dress and took every opportunity to ridicule or to portray gender diversity as a mental health affliction.
None of this fitted the military’s heterosexual masculine image and ‘a man lowering themselves to a female status’ seemed to be the biggest affront of all time. Presenting as the opposite sex was not something that would go unnoticed! Transgender service personnel therefore suffered the same fate as their gay colleagues.
Most LGBT+ personnel were dismissed immediately, though until 1996 male personnel also faced time in a military jail. Some gained the criminal record of a sex offence, for having a consensual relationship. They were outed to friends and family, bullied, harassed and assaulted, and commonly court-martialled, forced to resign, or left the services ‘voluntarily’ because of the hostile environment. Medals were ripped from uniforms, people with exceptional service records became nameless, homeless, jobless, and told to never associate with the military again.
My father was a soldier and his own values unfortunately reflected the military of the time. So by the age of five I had discovered that identifying female when visibly male was offensive to those who loved me, beginning a life-long struggle that would ultimately tear my family apart. When I joined the RAF in January 1980, I knew I had to maintain that secrecy, living openly only within the security of my own house.
Confiding in anyone risked a mistaken trust that would lose me my job, income, house, family, friends, and dignity. I had a fantastic job, but I realised my own life was rapidly slipping by and decided to do something about it. After years of preparing my argument for retention in service, I made my case to my unit medical officer, fully expecting to be dismissed. But I wasn’t! On 4 February 1999, I was granted permission to stay, and transition gender.
An Army engineer sergeant-major, Joanne Wingate, had transitioned too in January, but of course it was never going to be that easy. The gay ban was still in place and we faced incredible challenges. Public and service voices called for my immediate dismissal, as ‘a liability and danger to personnel on operations’ and I knew I had to prove them wrong. When mindsets have been influenced negatively for decades, they can’t be changed overnight. Acceptance needs understanding and inclusion needs teamwork.
Military people ask that, above anything else, ‘you are able to do your job’, and perceptions were that transitioning gender somehow meant I could not. I worked incredibly hard to prove them wrong and earning commendations for exceptional service in Iraq and Afghanistan achieved that.
But change does not happen without allies and advocates stepping up. With their invaluable support, I used my story to show the value of positive inclusion, enjoying a further 16 years as a highly respected female aviator, and as an advisor, mentor, trainer, playing my part in helping the Armed Forces transform to where it is today, openly proud of its LGBT+ personnel. Now we just need to go back and pick up the Veterans.
True Colours: My Life as The First Openly Transgender Officer in the British Armed Forces, by Caroline Paige (2017)
Fighting with Pride: LGBT in the Armed Forces, edited by Craig Jones (2019)
This Queer Angel, by Elaine Chambers (2019)
We Can’t Even March Straight, by Edmund Hall (1995)
About the Author:
Caroline Paige is Joint CEO of Fighting With Pride, a military LGBT+ charity launched in January 2020. She served 35 years as a navigator on fast jets and battlefield helicopters, completing 18 operational tours and over 5,000 hours of operational flying.
In February 1999 she became the first openly-serving transgender officer in the British Armed Forces and completed ten flying tours in Bosnia, Iraq, and Afghanistan, earning three commendations for exceptional service including one in the 2012 Queen’s New Year’s Honours List. In 2011 she received a Permanent-Under-Secretary of Defence award for her trailblazing service and dedication to evolving tri-service transgender inclusion policy and support.
After retiring from the RAF, she formed her own company, helping teach tactics skills to European Defence Agency military helicopter crews, and as an inspirational speaker, talking to schools, universities, businesses, and other organisations. Her autobiography True Colours was published in 2017 (Biteback Publishing) and she is a co-author of the military LGBT+ anthology Fighting With Pride (Pen and Sword).