True Colours – Trailblazing Transgender Visibility in the British Armed Forces
Transgender Day of Visibility (TDOV) takes place annually, on 31st March, to celebrate the achievements of trans people across the globe, by making them visible, and heard. I first became visible in 1998, when I finally became strong enough to live my true life and transition gender. It wasn’t an easy step to take, I was in the military at the time, and it barred LGBT service then. I had already spent my young life being invisible, living in fear of discovery, rejection and hate, believing I was alone. My dream was always to be myself, to live my life, to fit in to society as the woman I knew myself to be, not to stand out as different. It is scary, even dangerous, to stand out in a world that doesn’t understand such difference, a world that still demonstrates discrimination, harassment, and even hate; so why would someone like me want to make themselves visible? Because, if nobody did, then how would understanding take place, and without that, how could positive change come? Life stories reveal that, given the chance, trans people can, and do, live successful lives, as inclusive and productive members in all roles and parts of society; but, that transphobia and discrimination remain issues that all too often deny this basic human right. On TDOV, trans people around the world, and allies too, proudly stand, for themselves, and for those who can’t yet be seen, and show their place in this world, this is visibility on a global scale.
I had seen the power of visibility on a smaller scale. My father was a military man, a non-commissioned soldier, sadly he happened to be a bigoted man. I knew how the military regarded LGBT people, how they persecuted them and dismissed them from service, without honour. So why did I join the RAF after leaving school? Hiding my identity wasn’t new to me, but, barely 18 years old, I had gained a pilot’s licence, through a cadet flying scholarship, and it had transformed my life. It gave me ambition, self-respect and hope, things denied by a childhood of confusion and despair. Surviving in the military meant me living two lives, the one everyone expected, and saw, and the one I kept carefully, and nervously, hidden. Confiding in someone risked the danger of being outed, I couldn’t take that risk, exposure would lose me my family, my friends, my job, my income, everything. My job was rewarding, I became a navigator on fighter jets, defending the UK, and the Falkland Islands, during the Cold War, and Saudi Arabia from Saddam Hussein’s threat, and then, after switching to battlefield helicopters, a counter-terrorism role in Northern Ireland, and a peace-enforcing task in war-torn Bosnia; all missions that protected people, and defended freedom and right. But what of my own liberty? As I got older, I slowly learned to value my own life, until, aged 38, I realised I needed to live it openly, and accept the consequences. I told people I was transitioning gender; now I became visible.
Becoming the first openly transgender officer, serving in the British Armed Forces, presented a roller coaster of acceptance and rejection. My sister stood by my side, but my parents and brothers couldn’t. Astonishingly, the RAF decided to retain me in service but, after being outed on the front page of a tabloid, opinions within and outside the military became divided. Negative voices outshouted the growing positive ones, declaring me ‘unfit to be in the military’, ‘a liability to colleagues on the frontline, a danger to their safety’! It wasn’t enough to be ‘permitted to serve’ anymore, I had to prove that being transgender didn’t influence those risks, and then war happened, again. I went to Bosnia, Iraq, and Afghanistan, flying battlefield helicopters, and as a specialist on aircraft survivability. I became respected, wanted, needed, on the frontline, earning commendations for ‘Exceptional Service’, countering the critics who’d spoken against the validity of transgender personnel in frontline service. Harassment, and outspoken opinions never strayed far though; seemingly fuelled by ignorant opinion. Visibility was important, but it wasn’t enough, people still needed to understand. I volunteered my story publicly, revealing the good and the bad, and people listened, they understood, they appreciated being given the awareness and opportunity to respect difference. The military evolved, in fact it became a leader in diversity and inclusion, a safer place to be openly transgender, or gay, or just different. This is the power of visibility and revealing lived experience, the power of seeing, of understanding, of change. This is the purpose of TDOV.
Caroline Paige retired from the RAF in Nov 2014, following a 35-year flying career. As director of her own company, she now teaches battlefield skills to European military helicopter crews. She contributed her story to seven Festival Hubs as part of LGBT History Month 2017, and shares it as a School Role Model and public speaker, to inspire others and raise awareness of transgender inclusion. Her autobiography, ‘True Colours: My life as the First Openly Transgender Officer in the British Armed Forces’, was released on 06 Mar 17. Links to a selection of recent Radio, TV and news interviews with Caroline can be found below:
Radio 4 Women’s Hour – http://bit.ly/R4_WH
Good Morning Britain ITV – http://bit.ly/ITV_GMB_Paige
Homotopia Video – Dry Your Eyes Princess http://bit.ly/Homotopia_DYEP_MoL
Daily Mail – http://bit.ly/DailyMail_Paige
Readers Digest Article – http://bit.ly/ReadersDigest_Paige
Talk Radio – http://bit.ly/TalkRadio_Paige
Daily Mail Follow-on article – http://bit.ly/DailyMail_Femail
CNN Op-Ed – http://bit.ly/Op-Ed_Paige
Radio Five Live – http://bit.ly/Radio5Live_Paige