In 2000, after fifteen months of serving as a female officer in the Royal Air Force, I was publicly outed on the front page of The Sun newspaper, 'Sex-change for RAF Top Gun'. In 1999 I had become the first transgender officer to transition and serve openly in the military. If you read the papers today though you would be forgiven for thinking it was a new thing; rising stars being lauded as 'trailblazers of military transgender service,' 'leading influencers in making the Armed Forces a better place for transgender people,' 'the first officer,' 'the first to ever do this'!
Actually the truth is it all began sixteen years ago in the UK military. Two transgender women took on the weight of the Armed Forces; engineer Warrant Officer Joanne Wingate in the Army, and myself a Flight Lieutenant Navigator in the Air Force. Joanne won her battle to serve before reaching her natural retirement point. I remained for a further sixteen years. How did I survive? How difficult was it to trailblaze this path in a male-dominated environment?
Initially all hell broke loose. The contempt for me wanting to serve my country was shouted from every corner. "There's no place for people like you in my military," critics said. "How dare you do this!"
The loudest voices at the start of anything new always seem to be the persecutors, the bullies, those that just can't accept that people are not all born the same. But the strongest voices are those that start quietly, with reason not spite. The strongest voices would come from more understanding advocates.
Military people are truly the most adaptable, loyal and supportive people you will ever meet. They have to be, it goes with the job. They tend to have one criteria of judgement; can you do your job? That means can they rely on you, or will you let the team down in the face of the enemy. I not only had to do my job well, I had to excel if I had any chance of winning hearts and minds for something previously unacceptable in the Armed Forces.
Early 'expert opinion' claimed I was "no use to the military because I would be a liability on combat operations". Because I was transgender I "couldn't be relied on". Why?
There was no reason why, but it meant I had to prove them wrong, prove myself to everyone, not just for myself but for anyone following in my footsteps, for the transgender community as a whole, and for my gender. If I failed it gave further ammunition to those who professed themselves 'experts' on gender and transgender issues. People who have never had to tread in those shoes, to live that life, a young life of 'why?' and distress, contrasted with naive dreams of change; a teenage life of crashed dreams and self-loathing; an adult life of fear, depression, anxiety and repugnance. All because other people tell you who you should be, tell you who you are, force you to be who they want you to be.
Ironically, when people do actually decide to live their own lives they become happier, more content with life, healthy in disposition, the total opposite of what the self-proclaimed experts say. It meant I was more relaxed as myself, I didn't just become good at my job, I became great at my job. I did that in the face of the enemy too! I became a highly regarded battlefield helicopter tactics instructor, in demand internationally. I was central to preparing my Squadron for combat operations and flew on two tours of duty in Bosnia, four in Iraq and four in Afghanistan. The only openly serving transgender woman to achieve so many operational tours on the front-line. In fact I went still better than that, I won several commendations for exceptional service, one in the 2012 New Year's Honours List, and I was credited with safeguarding lives - some say 'saving' but I think safeguarding is more accurate.
The key to understanding something unknown is education, so I decided to help people understand. I became an adviser and mentor, enlightening policy managers and senior commanders, as much as colleagues and friends. The rewards were incredible. Hard line antagonists listened and learned, and understood. Many became supporters, some became very good friends. In reality few people knew what being transgender meant. So they were susceptible to stereotypical images and misconceptions portrayed by a harsh media of the past, fed upon by bullies, and yes, those 'self-proclaimed experts'.
It wasn't easy transitioning gender in the military, it wasn't easy being a trailblazer or role model, but I am proud of all I did, and I am honoured to have served alongside the amazing people who helped get me there.