Caroline Paige was a Royal Air Force aviator for 19 years before she decided to come out as transgender, in 1999. It was no easy decision. There wasn’t a single openly trans officer in the British armed forces at the time, and the law forbidding LGBT people from serving in the military was still a year away from being repealed.
To say there was a transphobic workplace culture would be an understatement. But, despite often considerable opposition, Paige stayed in the RAF for the next 16 years as Caroline, earning commendations for exceptional work in Iraq and Afghanistan.
She recently told Management Today’s Inclusion Matters conference about her experiences and what advice she has for businesses on how to be more inclusive.
"I first remember being different at the age of five, when my dad found me wearing my sister’s clothes. My parents weren’t open minded in terms of gender – everything was pink or blue to them. But the thing about gender identity is that it wasn’t a choice for me, it was just there.
"So when he shouted at me and made it absolutely clear that this was totally unacceptable behaviour, that it wasn’t okay for me to do this, I just felt broken inside. My dad thought he had fixed me, but these feelings didn’t go away – it was who I was, it was in my soul.
"I became shy and reclusive, and struggled to fit in at school. I just wanted to understand why I was like this, but there was no one I could turn to. There were releases, when the house was empty and I could wear my sister’s clothes and just be Caroline, but I was always worried someone would find out.
"Dad was in the army, so we moved around a lot. When we were living in Malaysia, our house backed onto a field where helicopters used to land and I became fascinated by them. So years later when I saw a sign on the school wall about the air cadets, I gave it a go.
"In flying, I found something that took away all my pain. At 2,000ft, at 15 years old, in the open cockpit of a glider, just me and the sky and a silent breeze of wind passing my ears, I started to believe in myself.
"I joined the RAF in January 1980 and became a navigator on F4 Phantoms, which were involved in air defence during the Cold War. It was Top Gun stuff – in fact, the movie came out around that time – except we were much more professional. The world saw me doing this amazing job, with a nice house, happy with my life, but it was all masquerade.
Paige in 2005
"I had to hide who I was. When I finished work, I went from this macho Top Gun image to Caroline, relaxing in the peace and quiet of her own home, behind closed curtains, behind closed doors. But I never had the courage to step outside and be seen, because I was scared stiff someone would see me and report me.
"It was illegal to be gay in the armed forces, let alone trans. I didn’t feel I could engage in relationships the way I was, but it only took a rumour that you weren’t dating the opposite sex to reach the wrong person and you’d be the object of a quite horrendous and invasive investigation.
"If they raided my house, which they would have done, and found my wardrobe, that would be it, that day I’d be gone, out of the Air Force.
"It was beginning to get too much for me. I had some really dark thoughts, and my mental health was... well let’s say it was far from its peak.
"In 1999, I finally decided to transition gender. I realised it was going to break my family up – one of the reasons I held on so long was because I didn’t want to bring their world crashing down – but I finally realised it was my life and I had to live it for me, not for someone else.
"The first person I told was my sister. We talked long into the early hours, and she was so wonderfully supportive. I knew then that when I went to tell the air force, at least there’d be somebody who was there for me.
"Originally I had planned to leave the RAF, because I expected there was no way they’d let me stay, but I realised that if I didn’t try, I’d lose everything anyway – my job and my house as well as my family and my life. If you don’t press test and say this is who I am, you’ll never find out how it would have gone.
"The RAF’s response surprised me. I’d already been seeing medical professionals outside the military, and had built up a portfolio of information that I showed to my Medical Officer. I said: ‘I’m transgender and I’m going to transition come what may, but I want to stay in the air force and continue doing my job. Help.’
"She was wonderful, fantastic, handling all the legal, medical and management questions. My commanders wanted me to stay, which was absolutely amazing for me because it was still technically illegal to be LGBT in the military.
"But it’s one thing for your commanders or managers to turn round and say yes you can stay, and quite another for everyone else on the ‘shop floor’ who’ve been indoctrinated for 50 years that we don’t want LGBT people, no way, get out.
"Like in any big organisation, there were people who didn’t get it and who didn’t want to get it. People felt that because I’d transitioned gender, my brain had fallen out. All the comments were negative, on the TV, in the papers, everywhere. How can you work in that environment?
"I pushed really hard so I could prove myself in Iraq and Afghanistan, teaching people skills that minimised their risk of being shot down. It didn’t matter that I was trans, I had this useful skill set, and eventually it won me an ‘exceptional service’ commendation in the Queen’s New Year’s Honours list.
"I wouldn’t have got anywhere without allies and advocates, people standing up for me. It was only after a while when people said ‘no, Caroline doesn’t have a problem, you do’, that all these people came out and welcomed me, they just hadn’t felt able to say it before.
"So it’s very important to put in place inclusive policies, which the military didn’t do back then. The key in any workspace is not to be reactive, which was what happened to me, but for managers to make sure it is inclusive before that happens, a place where people feel comfortable to be themselves and have someone to talk to, like an LGBT network, so they don’t have to go through this alone."
Caroline Paige is author of True Colours: My Life as the First Openly Transgender Officer in the British Armed Forces. This is an edited transcript of her interview at Management Today’s Inclusion Matters conference.
Body: Caroline Paige