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RAF Top Gun became a woman - and kept her job

Shrewsbury | Featured articles | Published:

It was while stationed at RAF Shawbury near Shrewsbury that Caroline Paige had one of the scariest encounters on her difficult but ultimately heartwarming transgender journey.

She was renting a house in the village so that she could dress as a woman and experiment with hair and make-up in the privacy of her own home. But the military is a close-knit community and colleagues often called round.

One day she hastily pulled off her female clothes to answer the door to a friend from her squadron.

"He stared at my shoulders as he spoke - as soon as he'd gone, I raced to the mirror and was horrified to see the red lines that were evidence that my bra straps had been too tight," she said.

It was 1992 - nearly 30 years after she had first tried on one of her mother's dresses as a child and been severely reprimanded for it by her father, and another seven years before she transitioned.

At the time she was one of the RAF's Top Guns, a highly respected jet fighter pilot in the macho world of the military. She might have hated it but it was flying, she says, that 'saved' her. At 13, she had joined a glider club, loved it, and as her gender identity struggles continued, flying became her focus.

After finally coming out to her RAF bosses, she went on to fly battlefield helicopters for a further 16 years, serving in Bosnia, Iraq and Afghanistan as a transgender woman.

Her personal conflict over being a woman in a man's body are related in a newly published book, True Colours, about her life as the first openly transgender officer in the British Armed Forces.

Born Eric Cookson into a military family - her father was an army sergeant - she grew up in an atmosphere that was openly hostile to gays and drag artists. Her father dropped a longtime friend after he confessed to being homosexual.

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Puberty was an unhappy time as her body changed and her voice became deeper. And although life became infinitely better when she joined the RAF, insecurities about her gender deepened.

Friends began to notice she didn't have a girlfriend and she was set up on a date by one of them. Although uneasy, she looked on it, she says, as 'an opportunity to test myself'.

She went on a few dates with Sheelagh but was not sexually attracted to her and when her companion gave signs of wanting to take the relationship further, Caroline ended it. "But neither did I fancy guys," she added.

Although she had known since she was a child that she was in the wrong body, she was 40 by the time she transitioned. The desire to change had always been there but she held off through fear of being thrown out of the RAF and, more pressingly, because of strong wish not to hurt or embarrass her family.

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To her surprise, her aviation bosses gave her all the help and support she needed to accommodate the transition and remain in the service.

Predictably, however, her family took the news badly. She confided first in her sister Sandra, who was totally unfazed by the revelation but her parents and two brothers were horrified. Neither her father nor her brothers ever contacted her again.

Caroline, now 57, says: "I don't blame my family - it was the world they grew up in. I love them and that's why I held back for so long. I always knew it would destroy them."

Since retiring in 2014, she runs her own company teaching battlefield skills to European military helicopter crews. She also acts as a Stonewall inspirational role model, speaking at schools, colleges and at business events.

One of the misconceptions she shares in her talks is that transgender is a relatively recent phenomenon. "The perception is that it's a modern trend - it's not," she says.

It's a point also made by Councillor Anwen Muston, who became the Labour Party's first openly transgender person to be elected as a councillor when she won Wolverhampton's East Park ward seat in May last year.

Councillor Muston, who is a Facebook friend of Caroline Paige, was also in the military, serving in the Gulf War during a 23-year army career.

She said: "Being transgender is nothing new - they were in Nelson's Navy, and they fought in the American War of Independence and the First World War. It's just that now being transgender is more accepted.

"I applaud Caroline for writing the book. She shows that by doing her job well, transgender people are not freaks and should be seen simply for their ability to do their jobs."

Caroline Paige, who launched the Shrewbury LGBT Festival in February, will be back in the town on Saturday(20th) at 3:30pm to talk about and sign copies of True Colours, published by Backbite, at Pengwern Books in Fish Street.

Marion Brennan

By Marion Brennan
@Marion_EStar

News and features reporter, specialising in human interest and local history stories.

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