The first official opportunity for LGBT+ veterans to attend the National Service of Remembrance is a “proud moment”, according to the first transgender officer to serve openly in Britain’s Armed Forces.
Caroline Paige, who served in the Royal Air Force for 35 years as a navigator on fast jets and battlefield helicopters, will be one of 21 LGBT+ veterans marching together at the Cenotaph in central London on Sunday.
She told the PA news agency: “It’s going to be a proud moment, it’s going to be an emotional one as well.
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“It will be fantastic to see all the veterans together marching for the first time, bearing in mind that many of them were dismissed from the service, and it’s just so nice to see them as part of the military family.
“It’s going to be a moment of reflection on friends I’ve lost, as well as the people that we’ve lost throughout the ages in wars; it’s going to be a mix of emotions.”
Ms Paige is the joint chief executive of the charity Fighting With Pride, which has been given places at the ceremony.
She said the charity was formed last year to bring together LGBT+ service personnel who were dismissed before the so-called “gay ban” in the UK armed forces was lifted in 2000, and “show them that times have changed and their service is respected and support is out there”.
“It’s shocking that nothing had been done previously,” she said.
Of the 21 veterans marching as part of the charity’s contingent on Sunday, 16 were dismissed from service.
Tomorrow will be a proud and poignant occasion for us all, as we march to the Cenotaph in a solemn act of remembrance to honour the fallen.
We will remember them.#RemembranceDay #RemembranceSunday #LestWeForget pic.twitter.com/soVRufssz3
— fightingwithpride (@fightingwpride) November 13, 2021
Ms Paige served for more than 18 years “having to hide who I was”, before deciding that “I needed to be true to myself”.
In 1999, the flight lieutenant became the first openly-serving transgender officer in the Armed Forces – a year before the “gay ban” ended.
She said she was “lucky” not to be dismissed, as less fortunate LGBT+ personnel were imprisoned, stripped of their medals or forced to resign.
But Ms Paige faced hostility at the start.
“People were asking for me to be thrown out and coming up to me and saying ‘get out, you don’t belong here, you’re a liability’,” she said.
But she overcame the obstacles and served for another 16 years, becoming a tactics specialist and receiving multiple commendations for exceptional service in Iraq and Afghanistan.
She flew air defence fighters during the Cold War, was deployed in the Gulf War and switched to helicopters in Bosnia and Northern Ireland.
Ms Paige said: “It took a while for people to eventually realise that I could do my job well.
“Slowly, I saw the military go from a really hostile place to a period where it was quite difficult for three, four years or more, and then it got better until obviously now it’s really inclusive”.
Craig Jones MBE, Fighting With Pride’s other joint chief executive who was a lieutenant commander in the Royal Navy said: “It’s with immense pride that we will see LGBT+ veterans remember the service and sacrifice of members of our Armed Forces who gave their lives for our peace and freedom at the National Cenotaph.
“Standing alongside fellow veterans means a great deal to our community and being able to play a role in the day is a great honour for us all.”
The invitation to the event comes as the Ministry of Defence has promised to return medals to all veterans who had them stripped because of their sexual orientation or gender identity in time for Sunday.
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