Leading Royal Air Force Diversity and Inclusion

Wing Commander Andrea Macfarlane

“Diversity and Inclusion is fundamental to our everyday lives in the RAF”

The Royal Air Force prides itself on a reputation for excellence and a proud history of defending our nation. Our aircraft and technology enable us to stay at the forefront of Air and Space Defence, but it is our highly skilled and talented people who work hard to keep our aircraft flying and our systems working.

It is our richly diverse and inclusive workforce, which makes us a stronger and resilient organisation. The RAF encourages people from all backgrounds and cultures in the UK to rise to the challenges of life in light blue uniform. We provide expert training with valuable qualifications and the opportunities to be part of some of the most exciting projects in the Air and Space business. 

Diversity and Inclusion is fundamental to our everyday lives in the RAF. Our strategy aims to enable everyone, who is part of our organisational family to feel included and to reach their full potential. We value our people for their talent, abilities and contribution and embrace all our differences. The effect of increasing diversity in our workforce means that we have a richer understanding and better insight to help us achieve our global operational tasks. Our CEO, Air Chief Marshal Sir Mike Wigston, leads by example and wrote our industry standards with ambitious recommendations for inclusion, such as: active role model programmes; positive action recruitment targets; behavioral reporting tools; anti-bullying helplines; supportive climate assessments; and cultural insight projects. 

The RAF has 10 staff networks, which all get together every few months in a forum led by the Diversity and Inclusion Team to work collaboratively and share the lived experiences of our members. Our LGBT+ co-chair, Cpl Char Davies, has shared her story and her dedication to supporting RAF personnel, and her work as an engineer has earned her a Rising Star Award this year as part of the “We Are the City” awards. Working with Squadron Leader Jen Braysher, she leads the Network to provide a platform for under-represented voices from the LGBT+ community, as well as connecting members to peer support, and developing projects with other Networks such as disability, mental health and BAME. 

Supporting the networks is our Diversity Champion, Air Marshal Andrew Turner, who is a passionate and strong advocate. He leads the drive and sets the direction for the networks as well as directing a team of Senior Leader Advocates to seek out and reward positive behaviours as role models in order to inspire others and raise awareness of successes. He is dedicated to ensuring that across the nation Royal Air Force Diversity and Inclusion is a leading, inspirational beacon.

In our veteran community, we are supported by Caroline Page, who is a former RAF navigator on fast-jet aircraft who now runs the charity Fighting with Pride to support the health and wellbeing of LGBT+ Veterans, serving personnel and their families. Caroline has shared her story of gender transition whilst serving in the RAF to support personnel and their families and to build awareness of inclusion. 

Diversity & Inclusion are essential for the current next generation Royal Air Force. By nurturing inclusion of people from all backgrounds and cultures, we increase insight and deepen our understanding of the world today. This improves our decision-making and enhances our combat effectiveness as we confront the challenges arrayed ahead of us. We actively support greater diversity so that our Service personnel can succeed throughout their careers then to enable them to flourish as veterans as part of an inclusive society. 

RAF Diversity Champion

Air Marshal Andrew Turner

“It is about a culture… that embraces everyone, no matter their sexual orientation, gender, ethnicity, religion or beliefs, age or disability”

Ijoined the Royal Air Force in 1985 from school, became a battlefield helicopter pilot and have operated across the world including in Northern Ireland, Europe, the Arctic, Central America, Saudi Arabia, Iraq, Kuwait, Bosnia, Kosovo, India, Albania, Pakistan and Afghanistan. I am one of two Deputy Heads of the Royal Air Force and am responsible for strategy delivery - looking after our people, our equipment, training, estate and infrastructure and finance to ensure the service can deliver air and space power for the nation and project power and influence around the World. But I really love my role as the Service’s Diversity Champion engaging with all of our networks to ensure that the Royal Air Force reflects the society we are drawn from and protect and that everyone matters, everyday and everywhere. Improving our inclusivity and broadening our diversity – cognitive and physical – is vital to the success of the Royal Air Force and the security of our nation.

The greatest satisfaction in my work as Diversity Champion is that we are really making a difference – really uplifting. The Royal Air Force has deep and strong roots and a rich and diverse history, but we also have a great deal to do. We are on a journey to dramatically change the women and BAME balance in all of our professions – from flying fighters, to steering satellites, protecting our nation in cyberspace or fixing some of the world’s leading combat technology. The shortage of girls going into STEM subjects at school and university has made some of this more challenging, but no less important. 

I am also absolutely driven to make the Royal Air Force a more cognitively diverse team. I need people who think differently, come from different backgrounds, who have had different life experiences and perhaps different values (in some areas). These “differences” are powerful but largely invisible and offer us challenge in areas where we might otherwise get comfortable consensus, alternative views of the world and what our options might be, new operational choices for the use of air and space power and ways where we can be more efficient and effective with the same hardware, software and people. There is so much for us all to learn from one another and a diverse organisation offers greater opportunities for richer discussion with a breadth of viewpoints. It gives me great satisfaction to celebrate our differences and harness strengths. Diversity is the key to operational and boardroom success. We are on an exciting journey and I relish the opportunity to welcome greater diversity into the organisation. 

A clear sense, from the very top of the organisation, on Diversity and Inclusion is crucial. Crucial for those within to know that they are deeply valued, that they have a material and positive contribution to make, that their views are more powerful, the more diverse they are and that we celebrate differences and not quash them. Crucial to those not yet in to understand that we are an open-armed and forward-thinking employer and that we have place for all and a need for all. That we make space and time to discuss difficult issues and close down those who show unacceptable behaviours. Clarity from the leadership is essential. But this is about so much more than that. It is about a culture from within that embraces everyone, no matter their sexual orientation, gender, ethnicity, religion or beliefs, age or disability. That we offer a clear framework to support everyone, everywhere, everyday is vital. This matters, because if we cannot show this and lead from the very top, we will fall short of the expectations placed upon on us by the public, government and our people. This is a promise that we are fulfilling. 

My proudest achievement as the RAF Diversity Champion was leading the Royal Air Force contingent at London Pride in 2019, of course! It was the genuine and unparalleled privilege of being associated with and having the opportunity to lead and engage the richly diverse and inspiring young people in the Royal Air Force. Whether it is the amazing Royal Air Force Air cadets, 42,000 young people who pull on our uniform, the young recruits who have boundless energy and fabulous ideas, the aviators across the world tonight keeping us safe and enabling our lives to continue unaffected by terrorists and hostile states, or the public that show such great support for us. Being in the Royal Air Force is not a job, it is #NoOrdinaryJob, it is a way of life and one where I have great PRIDE to have committed my entire working life to.

RAF LGBT+ Network Co-Chair

Sgt Char Davies

“Being visible and an active role model has helped me as it means I can be my whole self, every day”

Growing up I didn’t have anyone to identify with as I didn’t know anyone who was gay. Although I had support from my family and friends when I came out, I feel if there had been a role model visible to me, I would have come out sooner and accepted my true self sooner. I hope by being a visible role model within the RAF this will give others the opportunity to help identify themselves and to know there are people they can talk to.

 I joined the RAF in 2001, a year after the ban was lifted and was openly gay before I joined. I have faced challenges over the years but nothing from the service but from people’s beliefs and ignorance. I used to get angry and upset. Now I see it as an opportunity to educate people and ensure the correct information is out there.

As a staff network, we are always looking at the wellbeing of our members and the wider community. Something as simple as a cup of coffee with someone (both in person or virtually) and listening can help so much, especially with the unusual times we are living in. We have nominated health and wellbeing representatives, who are approachable and are constantly looking at topics to communicate to keep our network members informed of where help and support is available. We connect with the Defence Mental Health Network, whose co-chair is a member of the LGBT+ community, which provides a great resource so that we feel reassured that the community’s context is being included from an intersectional perspective. We are all volunteers in the Network who have primary military duties to uphold so we focus on delivering a couple of events each year, such as an annual conference and, of course, Pride! One of the key roles we provide is working with the recruitment team so that our members are visible and approachable at as many events as possible to give the public a chance to explore what being part of the LGBT+ community and serving in the RAF is like. 

Without openness, I think it could feel like I’d be living two separate lives, which would become exhausting to keep up with the lies and stories to cover up your real self. Personally, being visible and an active role model has helped me as it means I can be my whole self, every day. The RAF includes and empowers me to be myself, which means that I can concentrate on my job and day to day tasks. Being open about sexuality or gender identity is down to the individual and a very personal thing, not only in the RAF but in the wider community and in all aspects of life.

RAF LGBT+ Network Advocate

Flight Lieutenant Megan Rowlands

“I want all of my new recruits… to know that they are joining an organisation that values them for who they are”

As a military organisation that is over 100 years old, we have many traditions and customs in the RAF. Lots of these customs stem from dark times in our nation’s history, when (predominantly) men went to war and sometimes didn’t come back. Part of our remembrance of them is through upholding these customs. Some of the traditional cultural and social views that were dominant at the time still persist, such as: men pour port for women at formal dinners; there are single-sex accommodation blocks; and the fact that we still have traditions known as “Mr Vice” where someone leads the ceremonial aspects of formal dinners. These things aren’t there to deliberately exclude and discriminate; they are simply there because we hold tradition in very high regard as an act of remembrance. They aren’t overt, but these traditions subtly permeate through our day to day lives and spell out a prevailing attitude of heteronormativity and conservative gender binarism. We are challenging this and, the network positively influences this change by providing a platform for its members’ voices.

I joined the RAF when it was legal and generally accepted to be LGBT+. However, because of the quiet noise of tradition, I felt as though I had to perform a role of heterosexuality and stereotypical femininity in order to fit in with my new life. I went to my girlfriend’s work party as her friend, I wore heels at work because I wanted to appear more typically feminine, and I refused to use my girlfriend’s name in conversation as it would give her gender away. I was worried that if I didn’t fit in with the norm, I would be known purely because of my sexual identity rather than for my abilities. I was 20% myself, and 80% someone else. I didn’t thrive at work because I put so much pressure on myself to keep quiet about who I really was. Undoubtedly this had a negative impact on my mental health. I’m also certain that this was all self-induced pressure, and that it was my perception that held me back, not any tangible discrimination – because I never actually experienced any, thankfully. 

Now, I am a Flight Commander at Basic Training, where I have courses of 120 new recruits, who have just joined the RAF, in my care. As I matured and became more comfortable in my own skin, I grew in confidence as a gay woman and am now fully out at work. It’s very important to me to be visible as I want all of my new recruits, most of whom are under the age of 25, to know that they are joining an organisation that values them for who they are. I don’t want them to feel as though they have to hide themselves away like I thought I had to. By being a visible role model, I hope to lead by example and show people that they can be successful and excel in our organisation, for being them, exactly as they are. 

RAF LGBT+ Trans Advocate

Rachel Trimble

“When I moved jobs… there was no need to inform my new boss about me being trans, there was no need to have a chat with my new boss about my transition”

My name is Cpl Rachel Trimble, I am 28 years old and I joined the military at 17, and then at 23 I started my transition. Coming out as trans within the military at the time seemed hard. I had made so many friends over the years who knew me as a typical guy, even though I had put that persona on as a cover-up of who I really was. The sudden change did seem daunting with the main thought in my mind being, will people accept me? I gave my boss two months’ notice of my transition start date and all my work colleagues two weeks’ notice. Prior to the two weeks’ notice, none of my friends knew a thing. My fears of not being accepted, though, were quickly quashed by the acceptance of everyone at my work.

It has now been over five years since I started my transition and, to date, I have never had any issues. The RAF has been more than accepting throughout my whole transition, I feel very grateful of how my process has gone within my career. To give you an example, when I moved jobs from Air Traffic Control at RAF Northolt to the Red Arrows Operations, there was no need to inform my new boss about me being trans. There was no need to have a chat with my new boss about my transition. I had no issues in being allocated a room within female accommodation; the whole process was just the same as everyone else starting their new role. I showed up to work as normal and did the job as normal without feeling singled out. The only time I needed to speak with my boss about my transition was when I was given a date for Gender Reassignment Surgery. I didn’t feel uncomfortable at all speaking with them about it, both during and after the surgery. My work was making sure everything was going well and more than willing to help with any issues I might have had. 

I believe one of the things that helps towards this accepting environment is the Diversity and Inclusion training which everyone in the RAF takes part in every year. The sessions provide the opportunity to discuss and educate on a vast number of topics, using lived experiences, in a safe space, facilitated by a trained practitioner. Having the opportunity to talk about inclusion and challenge our biases is so valuable and helps our personnel understand topics such as why the UK Equality Act exists to support those with Protected Characteristics.

AF LGBT+ Advocate

Air Commodore Tony Keeling

“This is a journey about respecting difference, unlocking human potential, and enabling individual and organisational success”

Ijoined the Royal Air Force in the late 1980s, well before the ban on LGB personnel serving in the Armed Forces was lifted, and witnessed the overt homophobia and prejudice caused by a discriminatory culture reinforced by non-inclusive personnel policies.

Like many military families, my wife used to be in uniform and our children attended boarding school, as it was the only way we could balance continuity of education with family life – it was hard for all of us, but it worked. In 2015 my son came out by text message to my wife and me as he was travelling back to boarding school after a weekend at home. I was immediately struck by his bravery but was also very conscious that I had no reference point for the many challenges that lay ahead for him as a gay young man. I reached out to the RAF LGBT+ Freedom Network for advice, as I wanted to be the best father and friend I could possibly be.

The Freedom Network gave me lots of helpful advice and signposts to some useful resources, but I never found myself in a conversation with someone who looked like me – a cis heterosexual man with an LGBT+ dependent. This realisation brought with it a strong desire to provide allyship, which coincided with my appointment as the station commander of one of the RAF’s main operating bases. Now I had the privilege of a platform from which I could try to make a real difference, and my role in helping set up the RAF Diversity Allies is perhaps a good example of where I enjoyed some success.

I became the RAF’s LGBT+ Deputy Advocate in 2017 and stepped into the lead role in late 2019. Through this position I am a member of the RAF’s Diversity & Inclusion Steering Group, so I can represent the concerns, frustrations and policy imperfections identified by the Freedom Network on behalf of LGBT+ personnel right across the service. The role also provides access to the RAF’s senior leadership, which unlocks opportunities for their engagement with the LGBT+ community in order to grow support and improve understanding.

This role opened up the opportunity for me to join the Royal Academy of Engineering’s Diversity & Inclusion Leadership Group, where I work with a growing network of engineering employers interested in sharing best practice and working collaboratively to improve diversity and inclusion across the engineering profession. This forum has already seen the RAF forge strong network links with companies like BAE Systems, as well as drawing on some valuable resources such as the recent Gender Pay Gap report.

The RAF has changed considerably since the LGB ban was lifted 20 years ago, and I am heartened that LGBT+ friends and colleagues increasingly find that the Service is a safe place to be and they can be their authentic selves. 

Of course, there is much more to be done as, unfortunately, pockets of prejudice and discrimination still exist, and there are still some improvements needed in our personnel policies. But I am hopeful, very hopeful, that we have turned a corner, evidenced by the commitment now visible across the RAF’s senior leadership. 

We all recognise that this is a journey about respecting difference, unlocking human potential, and enabling individual and organisational success.

RAF Pride

Caroline Paige, Veteran

“The RAF and her sister services today are openly proud of the diversity of their people, whether LGBTQ+ or BAME, or both”

I was drawn to the RAF by a childhood fascination with aircraft. At the age of fifteen I flew gliders solo with the Air Cadets, and at seventeen I won an RAF Flying Scholarship leading to a Private Pilot’s Licence. I had no money but really wanted a career in aviation and that took me to the RAF. I had grown up in a military family with my dad being a sergeant in the Army. I became a navigator on fast-jet aircraft, flying the F4 Phantom air-defence fighter during the Cold War, protecting the UK and the Falkland Islands throughout the 80s, intercepting Soviet long-range bombers at all times of the day and night as they probed and tested the UK’s air defence systems. During a subsequent tour flying Hawk aircraft in a Tactical Weapons Unit training role, I deployed with just a few hours’ notice to a Tactical Air Operations Centre in Saudi Arabia, preparing for the first Gulf War. In 1992 I answered a call for a volunteer fast jet aircrew posting to tactical trooping helicopters, initially flying Wessex in support of the Army, with deployments to Northern Ireland and on the ground with a United Nations Rapid Reaction Force in Bosnia during the war there in 1995. In 1997 I joined the Rotary Wing Operational Evaluation and Training Unit, to provide operational advice on developing the brand-new Merlin troop-carrying helicopter and help bring it into service, but my life was becoming complicated by an intensifying gender identity confliction I’d had to keep concealed since early childhood.

After my request to transition gender was unexpectedly accepted, I completed a short ground-based tour to transition and then returned to full flying duties, helping set up and form the first RAF squadron to receive the Merlin. As the squadron’s lead tactics and platform protection specialist I led crew training for tactical operations, ultimately flying missions in Bosnia, Iraq and then Afghanistan. Each Merlin carried up to five tons including four crew, twenty-four troops, cargo, weapons and fuel, and our role was supporting the multinational forces on operations, including: inserting and extracting troops on task; Medical Immediate Response Team standby, recovering casualties to critical care with an onboard medical trauma team; personnel and VIP moves within theatre; resupply of outposts; long range recce; escorting road convoys; Airborne Rapid Reaction Force standby; arrest operations, and much more. Operating in some of the most dangerous skies in the world, my role as the tactics specialist was to help ensure aircraft, crews and troops on board, were protected in the best possible way from the multitude of threats that existed. I did that for sixteen years as an openly serving transgender woman, and it is a role I continue today in teaching European military helicopter crews in the European Defence Agency’s Helicopter Exercise Programme.

I transitioned gender at the beginning of 1999, and this was still a time when the military banned LGBT+ personnel from service. The ban, known colloquially as the “gay ban”, was targeted at gay men but used against lesbian, bi and transgender personnel too. Being transgender then was little understood or even known of publicly and was usually seen or misrepresented as being gay, or as equally “unacceptable conduct” for military acceptance anyway. Service personnel accused of being LGBT+ were investigated, outed and punished, before being immediately thrown out of the military, without any kind of care for consequences. They instantly lost their career, income, accommodation, and dignity, and often the support of family and friends too, so the risk of being outed placed incredible stresses on serving individuals. The “gay ban” was eventually lifted in Jan 2000, but the road to inclusion took several more years as it’s not easy to quickly change 40-plus years of cultivated hostility. 

After I was allowed to remain in service, my transition was initially kept on a “need to know” basis, for medical and administrative personnel and line managers, allowing me a period of grace to at least adjust my own life. But things soon began to change as news spread. I lost good friends from long-standing friendships, but I also gained authentic friendships with people who only knew me as Caroline. Initial reactions were usually questioning or neutral, but eighteen months later I was outed on the front page of a national newspaper and then all I heard was negative opinion. Public and military voices called for my resignation or to be thrown out. They said I was a liability to colleagues, a danger on operations and had no place in the military. Eventually I began to hear voices of support, and that made a huge difference to my confidence, though I knew I now had to prove myself again as a military aviator. There was a huge responsibility on my shoulders to anyone following in my footsteps, as failing would give my critics the evidence they desperately sought to prove trans people weren’t compatible with military service.

I worked hard to become the lead tactics instructor and gain intimate knowledge and expertise on the aircraft’s self-defence systems. After operational deployments in Bosnia, my skills meant I was selected to be in the first of four crews and aircraft to deploy to Iraq, where that experience and knowledge became critical to the safe operation of the aircraft. The same skills were equally in demand when we moved to Afghanistan and I received several commendations for exceptional service in both theatres, with credit for enhancing the safety of aircraft, crews and troops onboard, during operational tasking. My final commendation was awarded in the 2012 Queen’s New Year’s Honours List. Colleagues deploying to these theatres promptly began asking for me to join their detachment and of the eight times I deployed there, five were voluntary, because I was asked and because there was urgent work needed in the operational environment that required someone with my qualification. Any argument at all that being transgender meant being a liability or a danger on operations was totally destroyed!

Being allowed to remain in service was the most incredible positive reaction that I could ever have hoped for. Likewise, the team who supported my in-service transition were wonderful, and many became good friends, but the wider reactions that followed weren’t so positive to begin with. Public awareness of gender identity wasn’t so advanced in those days, and adverse reactions were an enduring part of every-day life for transgender people, as much as they still can be today. It was my experience generally that people who held positive opinions didn’t usually feel a need to express them, but those with negative opinions can’t wait to be heard. And I certainly heard them! Wanting to know “why I was in their Air Force”, demanding that I resign or calling for my dismissal. If you don’t hear the positive voices it is easy to assume that everyone has negative opinions, but they don’t. Bigots and bullies are in the minority. It took me a while to work that out, but they are just a very loud and vocal minority that is given space when it shouldn’t be tolerated. When positive support began to break through my confidence grew too. It would have been impossible to work in an environment that looked openly and comprehensively hostile. 

Although I benefitted from the amazing support of friends and colleagues and was valued by those personnel who knew me or my work, harassment was still never far away. Even in Bosnia, Iraq and Afghanistan, intimidating stares were common in mixed-unit communal areas, with glares tracking me until I moved out of sight. Finger-pointing, sniggering, and judgmental challenges, comments or quips were equally common, subtly and only loud enough for the benefit of their associates and me to hear, not for my crew or other colleagues, because they knew how my crew especially would react, and the armed forces has a zero tolerance policy on harassment. Invariably I faced it alone, but I was strong enough to do so. I took strength knowing I was stronger-willed than they were. This wasn’t banter, that line was undeniably crossed. Positive comments were quite rare but brought invaluable boosts of energy. I later learned from many different sources that positive observations were actually quite common, just not expressed openly to me at the time. But change was happening, diversity and inclusion in the military was evolving. 

When I had the opportunity to share my experiences it helped facilitate understanding, and many of those I spoke with apologised for basing their first reactions on rumour and stereotypical expectations, rather than fact. Some even became incredibly good friends. It was this that inspired me to widen that education, by visiting military units and participating in conferences, speaking about my experiences and what it meant to be transgender, and the outcomes were heart-warming. It was the unanticipated strength of being a visible positive role model, and I have used that experience to raise awareness, educate and advocate diversity and inclusion ever since. 

The RAF and her sister services today are openly proud of the diversity of their people, whether LGBTQ+ or BAME, or both. The need for support and inclusion of BAME origin personnel has however taken longer to acknowledge than it did for the LGBTQ+ community. LGBTQ+ personnel have been proudly marching in London Pride since the mid-noughties and all three services have gained placings in the top 100 of Stonewall’s Work Experience Index. Although each service recognises diversity, equality and inclusion as essential core values, they do accept there is work still needed to ensure that all their people feel fully included. There are always individuals who have no respect for diversity or equality, let alone inclusion, and they feel this empowers them somehow. They are very much a minority, but nonetheless any such damaging and unwanted behaviour is not acceptable, and impacts negatively on the whole force, which is why the RAF still provides awareness training and a diversity and inclusion focus. If I was starting over again now, I would be proud to join the RAF.

My proudest achievement in the RAF was being awarded a Commander-in-Chief Air Command’s Commendation in the 2012 Queen’s New Year’s Honours List and sharing that moment with my sister and my friends. Although my incredible career triggers many moments of pride today, my commendation was because I was there for my colleagues when they needed me to be, as they were there for me. I did my job, and in difficult circumstances I did it very well. I just happen to be a transgender woman.

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