Royal Air Force veteran Caroline Paige has served in nearly every significant conflict of the past 35 years. But her incredible career is notable for more than her military achievements alone, because Caroline was also the first openly transgender aviator to serve in the RAF.
She’s toured in Iraq and Afghanistan, flown in the Gulf War and Bosnia Conflict, and intercepted Soviet bomber planes during the Cold War. The first time she flew a plane, Caroline was still at school, having earned her pilot’s license through the Air Cadets. “It was just really, really cool. I was flying the gliders when I was 15 or 16 and I remember talking to myself all the way around. I wasn’t scared. I found it exhilarating. It was in my blood I think.”
Caroline puts her lack of fear during those first few flights down to the private strength she drew from keeping her gender identity secret from her artillery soldier father.
“I’d known that I had a gender identity crisis from when I was about four or five, but I grew up in a family that wasn’t very tolerant to difference. When I hinted about how I felt to them, it was made clear to me that it wasn’t acceptable.”
The harder Caroline fought to suppress her desire to live as a woman, the stronger the sense of herself as a woman became. “I struggled through the first half of my career thinking maybe I could live through it, but I couldn’t. The feeling that life was flashing by got stronger and stronger. It took me a long time to realise it, but eventually, I saw that if people loved me then they would follow me and if they didn’t then I had to go my own way.”
Caroline photographed on a desert mission in Iraq, 2005.
In 1995, aged 35, Caroline found access to hormones, and began to slowly change her life and identity. The more she changed, however, the more apparent it became that she needed to tell her colleagues. “I was expecting to be thrown out because that was just how the world was then. When I did have the courage to tell people, I was really shocked that I could keep my job.”
Fast forward to August, 2000. Caroline had been serving as a female officer for 16 months when she was outed on the front page of a tabloid newspaper. “The paper had been told about me through an anonymous tip-off. They asked the MOD for any comment on a draft article they intended to print and fortunately they warned my boss.”
"People were saying I should be kicked out because there was "Something wrong with my head""
As Caroline was already serving successfully as a female aviator, she was taken back by the sudden media interest. “I naïvely thought I’d escaped the public humiliation of a ‘trial by media’. The draft article didn’t appear to be a very kind one and was apparently written in the mocking style expected of that paper at the time, so I was really disheartened. I thought it was totally unreasonable to invade someone’s privacy and print a story like that without the subject even being consulted on whether what was being said was correct or appropriate.”
Working with the MOD, Caroline managed to arrange a meeting with the tabloid’s chief reporter. “After a short while, he decided to abandon his original draft and begin the interview again, this time focusing on it as a human interest story… To my shock, the article appeared on the front page a few days later with the title ‘Sex Change for RAF Top Gun’ in big black capitals. My feelings about my life being broken into in this way, and the experiences resulting from it were mixed, to say the least.”
In the cockpit en route to Iraq
Whenever progress is made within an organisation as large and prominent as the Armed Forces, criticism is never far behind. In the early days, they were the loudest voices Caroline could hear.
“A lot of ‘experts’ suddenly appeared, saying it was disgusting that I was able to stay in the military. Other people were saying I should be kicked out because there was ‘something wrong with my head.’” Many would have found this onslaught of prejudice overwhelming, but it seems it has only made Caroline stronger.
“I realised that the minority of the people were doing all the shouting and telling me to get out [of the RAF] and actually the majority had this ethos of ‘if you can do your job, then that’s fine, you’re part of the team.’”
“I did do my job, and I did it well, in fact, I flew operationally for a further 16 years and earned several commendations for 'exceptional service' to the front-line.”
"My only regret is that it wasn’t better when I was young and I couldn’t enjoy life the way I wanted in my younger years"
Caroline now works as a mentor and motivational speaker and those prejudiced attitudes she met with in her first days of public transition are often the same ones she fights to overturn today.
“I found that when I went round and spoke to people, they listened and they understood. So I went off and I did training and conferences and workshops and told my story, and I won a lot of people around that way.”
Now retired from the Air Force, does Caroline think that the armed forces have made progress towards equality for the transgender community?
“Significantly. It’s far more inclusive and accepting. Trans people can now serve free of the risk of harassment or losing their job. They don’t have to put up with what I did for the first 18 years, hiding who they are or living in fear of being thrown out.”
Caroline at home in 2013
“The military reflects society so you’re always going to have people who aren’t tolerant and then people who are really supportive and then a big chunk in the middle, because that’s the way it is outside as well. It’s just going to take time. My only regret is that it wasn’t better when I was young and I couldn’t enjoy life the way I wanted in my younger years.”
“In America, they still don’t allow transgender people to serve openly in the armed forces… The hope was that it was going to happen this month [May, 2016] because all the right people were saying yes, but of course the focus is on the run up to the election now. There’s a big worry that if the other party [the Republicans] get in, they might reverse the progress again. But they’re the closest they’ve ever been.”
"The idea of someone like me going into a school when I was a youngster was absolutely off the wall"
As well as mentoring and telling her story, Caroline still works freelance training European military aircrew and tours schools as a school role model with Stonewall. She giggles when I suggest that perhaps ‘retired’ isn’t quite the right word.
“I go into schools and speak to the youngsters now and the feedback I get afterwards makes it all worthwhile. It’s so nice to see these different attitudes. The idea of someone like me going into a school when I was a youngster was absolutely off the wall.”
“Through all my experiences in the military and out, I’ve found it’s all about understanding. If you can give that to youngsters, then further down the line you’re going to have a different generation who are far more open minded and respectful of difference.”
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