In the first in our blogs looking at RAF trailblazers in the run-up to International Women’s Day, Caroline Paige tells us what it was like to be the first transgender officer to transition openly while serving in the UK Armed Forces in 1999. As well as a hugely successful 35-year career, Caroline has spent the last 21 years championing diversity in the workplace.
I was five years old when I became aware that my identity did not match the expectations of everybody else and my body. When I was growing up gender was very much pink or blue, and for a long time I suppressed my true identity, because I was too afraid of all I would or could lose should I show my true self to the world.
A childhood love of helicopters led me to a career in the Royal Air Force and I loved it. But I was really torn. Day to day I was leaving my house and going to do this really amazing job but at home I was someone else – I was Caroline. I was living two lives.
Then the RAF changed their rules on the roles open to women serving in the RAF and I began to feel hopeful that if I could somehow transition gender I’d still have a job. I knew I may lose my parents and I may lose my friends so I didn’t want to leave the RAF to transition as I would lose my career and my home as well.
Finally in February 1999, after coming out to the RAF, I began to serve openly as a woman. But despite my vast experience as a fast-jet navigator and expertise as a helicopter warfare tactician, there were some around me who could not see my value to the RAF. I did experience bullying and harassment, but I was determined to continue. I went on to become the first openly transgender woman to serve on frontline operations in Iraq, and then Afghanistan.
I received awards for exceptional service on ops, which sent a message to all my critics that I was fit to be in the military, and in fact colleagues were asking me to deploy with them.
For me it has always been important to talk about these issues as it’s talking which helps people understand themselves and the people around them.
Caroline has recently contributed to an anthology Fighting with Pride, which tells the story of LGBT+ members of the Armed Forces and is working with colleagues to establish a charity of the same name this year. Her own autobiography True Colours was published in March 2017.