Three stories of transgender trailblazers

Anna Walker

These are the stories of three British transgender role models whose activism has helped to make the world a more accepting place.

RAF Veteran Caroline Paige

caroline paige raf

Royal Air Force veteran Caroline Paige59, has served in nearly every significant conflict of the past 35 years. In 1999 she became the first openly transgender officer in the British Armed Forces. This year marks the 20th anniversary of trans inclusion in the RAF. 

The first time I flew, I was 15 or 16. I wasn’t scared. I found it exhilarating. Flying was in my blood, I think. 

Before I transitioned, the military was well-known for its homophobia and it was still illegal to be gay and serve. Being transgender, I knew I wasn’t gay, my identity was female, but nobody else understood—they assumed I was a gay man who wanted to “catch” another man by taking the role of a woman. 

If anybody was seen to be LGBT, they were reported. And once you were outed, you were out of the door and out of your job that same day. You’d probably had years of service, doing incredible things for Queen and country, but all of a sudden, your record was irrelevant. 

I’d reached the point in my life where I just couldn’t hide anymore—I had to be me. I’d struggled through the first half of my career thinking I could live through it, but I couldn’t. The feeling that life was flashing by got stronger and stronger and that left me with two options—leave and transition or stay and transition. 

The first official person I told was my medical officer. I was scared but she was brilliant. She said, “Go back to work and I’ll make all of the inquiries on your behalf.” 

It was all off my chest. She spoke to legal; she spoke to medical, she spoke to personnel management, and once she’d made those inquiries, we were able to see whether I could stay in service or not. When the decision came down to say yes, it was a huge relief. I was so grateful. 

People only really started to learn I was transgender when I was outed by The Sun, in 2000. I naïvely thought I’d escaped the public humiliation of a “trial by media”. To my shock, the article appeared on the front page with the title ‘Sex Change for RAF Top Gun’ in big
black capitals.  

Caroline Paige

The negative opinions gave me the idea that people didn’t want me. I felt had to prove all of them wrong, and the only way I could do that was to get back to the front-line. So, I did my job, and I did it well—in fact, I flew operationally for 16 years and earned commendations for ‘exceptional service’.

[The Sun front page] wasn’t the best thing to happen to me, but it did help others. I’ve met people over the years who have said, ‘I remember seeing that article and it gave me courage’.

I realised I need to step up as a role model while I was serving in Iraq. I was flying Medical Immediate Response Team missions, getting critically injured people out of hostile environments. Yet in return to base, I would be harassed in the food tent. They’d say, ‘Don’t touch him, you’ll catch it.’ 

"I’d reached the point in my life where I just couldn’t hide anymore"

I realised there had been no process to educate people. Yes, there was a policy of zero tolerance to harassment, but there was nothing about helping people understand what being different meant. When I got home, I approached the diversity and inclusion training centre and they said, ‘Right, we’re going to do a road trip around the UK and we’d like you to join us to speak about your life as a trans person within the military.’

I get so much lovely feedback from people who say [my story] helped them become allies. Some admit they were among the voices that said, ‘We don’t want trans people in the military,’ and now they say, ‘I’m sorry. I didn’t know any better.’

The military reflects society so you’re always going to have a minority of people who aren’t tolerant and then people who are really supportive and then a big chunk in the middle. [True change] is just going to take time. My only regret is that I couldn’t enjoy life the way I wanted in my younger years.

Caroline has written a book about her life, True Colours, Biteback Publishing, £15.99

 

 

Detective Sergeant Christian Owens

Christian Owens

Detective Sergeant Christian Owens, 48, is approaching a milestone 25 years of service with Merseyside Police Force. But his time with the force—and in life—wasn’t always plain sailing…

Growing up in Runcorn in the 70s and 80s, transgender wasn’t a word I heard. I just knew that I was different. When puberty hit, I tried to blend in, but it felt strange, like living someone else’s life. 

In 1988—the year of Section 28 [which banned the discussion of homosexuality in schools]—I was feeling completely lost, both from a gender and a sexuality point of view. I was attracted to men, but that attraction was something I felt as a man. Thankfully, my German teacher recognised that I was struggling. He sat me down and asked what the matter was. I couldn’t verbalise it. I didn’t know what to say—am I gay? Is there something wrong with my body? In the end, he said “Are you thinking you’re gay? If that’s it, then you’re not the only gay person in this room.” 

I just remember thinking, oh my word. He had risked his career for me, and it was the beginning of a lifelong friendship—he and his husband took me to my first gender reassignment surgery appointment. 

When I joined Merseyside Police at 23, I was identifying as a gay woman. Those were the worst few years of my life. In the 90s, the police force wasn’t an accepting place and I experienced misogyny and homophobia. But there was a turning point in 1998 when I moved stations. I felt a bit more accepted and thought, I can do this

In 2000 my former partner and I were interviewed by DIVA [Europe’s largest lesbian magazine] while attending Manchester Pride. A colleague got hold of a copy and put photocopies across four or five police stations. What it really brought home was fear, because if this was happening to me as a gay person, what was I going to do about my gender identity? The easiest way for me to deal with it was to throw myself into work.

detective sergeant christian owen

By 2009, I’d become a successful detective. Behind closed doors I was [my male identity] “Christian” and that feeling of Oh my god, this is what I’ve been waiting for all of my life was taken away from me each morning. I was getting dressed to go to work as a woman and fighting through shifts to drive home to be Christian. 

When I was promoted to detective sergeant in 2010 my days grew really busy and when I wasn’t able to get home after my shift, I stopped coping. 

One day a murder investigation came in. As a detective sergeant, when a job like that comes in you’re certainly not going home. I went into meltdown and walked out knowing I had to get home to be me, Christian, a man. I realised that if I didn’t do something it would lead to a mental breakdown. The next day I walked into HR and we started the process of my transition. 

"The easiest way for me to deal with it was to throw myself into work"

Transitioning has changed my priorities. I want to make the organisation a better place before I retire, and I’ve sacrificed my own promotion for that. It’s been difficult at times as the first serving officer to transition in Merseyside Police, and a steep learning curve for all, but I strive to raise trans visibility and inclusion on a daily basis. If I was still in the detective world, I wouldn’t be able to be open as Christian every day and I’ve gone through too much not to be who
I am at work. 

My twin sister often asks me, “When are you just going to be Christian the man, and not trans” and I’m torn. There’s so much I can do in terms of education, awareness and mentoring and if I didn’t have that label, people wouldn’t know how to reach me. But one day I’m sure that I will just live my life as Christian, just a man, and a very happy man, with no labels, knowing that I have made a difference and played my part in improving trans awareness and education in our society. 

 

 

Commercial Director Samantha West 

samantha west

Samantha West, 51, is the commercial director of Vinci Construction. Having come out as transgender in 2017, she’s focused on making her industry a more welcoming place for the LGBT community. 

Growing up I had no reference points for what it meant to be transgender. There was no information, no internet. It was all very undercover, and you thought there was something wrong with you. 

There’s an influx of our age group, transgender people who’ve suppressed for years, and even had children and gotten married like me. But the world has started to change. The right noises are being made and transitioning is becoming more acceptable. 

I burst into tears the day I told my wife. I was worried that I’d come out and then end up on the street. I still get worried about that when elements go wrong—if my daughters get upset or something goes wrong at work—all that anxiety comes rushing back. 

My marriage breakdown was hard. We’re still friends though, and my daughters are great. The eldest [19] finds it harder than the youngest [17], but they’re teenagers and they don’t want to be with their parents, whether they’re transgender or not! When you announce your intention to transition, people around you start grieving for the loss of the person they had. When they’re upset and saying things that you don’t want to hear, it’s really because they love you. 

I moved out of the family home—leaving my kids was the most awful time ever—in order to live as a woman full time. I was only looking for a six-month lease at first, but it turned into the rest of my life!

I work as the commercial director of a facilities management company and I’ve got 30 years of continuous service. Transitioning was difficult because my role is very public. Even though I’d started living as “her”, I still had to be “him” at work. 

samantha

One day I stayed in Lincoln for work and changed back to being Samantha at the end of the day. I’d had such a lovely night that the next day I drove all the way back as Samantha. When I reached a gas station near work, I changed into a corporate suit ready for the office. When I arrived, I sat in a meeting about fairness, inclusion and respecting diversity— I thought to myself, What am I doing?

The decision was made. I started telling key people in the business. My MD came to visit me, having heard of my separation, and when I explained, he said, “This is great, don’t worry.” 

I sent out 400 emails before my surgery, including a picture and explaining the upcoming changes. I got around 250 responses. Some of them were really honest—one colleague who’s known me for 27 years said he couldn’t pretend to understand, but he wished me the best of luck. 

"I was worried that I’d come out and then end up on the street"

When I returned to work, I noticed some people avoiding me. People worry about getting it wrong and it makes them nervous, but you can’t expect people to get it right straight away. All people need to do is be kind. 

Now I want to help other people. I started an LGBT+ in facilities management group and our first meeting was at a London pub called The Perseverance in April 2017. It went so well that I did another six months later, with groups in Birmingham, Manchester and London all connected via Skype. We named our group LGBT+ in Facilities Management and we have a whole strategy and vision—we want to make our industry the most inclusive, attractive and happy for LGBT employees in the UK. 

I think activism helps me. And my community has been so supportive. Ahead of my major surgery, even my dry-cleaning lady said, “Don’t worry Samantha, I’ll bring you your shopping if you need me to.”

Transitioning has made me come out of myself by necessity. But I like living openly and honestly, it’s nice to finally be able to do that.

 

Read more:

What does it mean if someone is transgender?

The gender glossary