Exploring LGBT+ stories at the RAF Museum

Young woman
It was illegal to be LGBT+ in the British military until 2000. One project is capturing the stories of diverse people who serve - and have served - in the RAF.

On 1 May 2019, the Royal Air Force Museum London added an event marker to its RAF History Timeline. It was to celebrate the achievements of Flight Lieutenant (Retired) Caroline Paige.

Twenty years ago, Caroline became the first transgender officer to serve openly in the British Armed Forces. This event marker is just one of the ways the museum has begun to collect and share the diverse stories of those who serve in the RAF.

Three people
Danny Holt, Caroline Paige and Catherine Lawson

 

Celebrating LGBT+ stories

Our RAF Stories online platform is a key way that we're telling stories like Caroline's. 

Thanks to The National Lottery Heritage Fund, for the past two years we've been recording and sharing the personal experiences and memories of anyone with any connection to the Royal Air Force.

There are now over 500 stories from a wide variety of people on the platform. which people can find via the website, social media and through kiosks within exhibitions across the museum.

Helicopter
Ayla Holdom, former RAF Search and Rescue Pilot, displayed as a life-sized silhouette next to the Sea King Helicopter she flew.

 

Today we pride ourselves on our ever-growing inclusivity and diversity. However, being LGBT+ in the British Military was illegal until 2000.

It was important for the RAF Museum to reflect on this, capturing the experiences of those who were affected by this policy, whilst also capturing viewpoints and actions going forwards to develop support for LGBT+ serving personnel.

Carl Austin-Behan

Before a European Court of Human Rights ruling in 2000, gay personnel could be dismissed or sent to military prison. Carl Austin-Behan, a former RAF firefighter, had previously been awarded a medal for saving the life of a colleague. However, when Carl’s sexuality was discovered he was instantly dismissed.

Find out more:

Caroline Paige

Caroline Paige led the way when it came to changing attitudes towards LGBT+ personnel. She proved she could remain serving in the RAF when she began living as her authentic self in February 1999, after 19 years of service. A further 16 years as a female aviator saw her service highly commended.

Find out more:

 

Ayla Holdom

Former RAF Search & Rescue Pilot Ayla Holdom caused a stir on the RAF Museum social media accounts when she declared President Donald Trump’s attitudes towards transgender serving personnel to be wrong.

Find out more:

Catherine Lawson

Looking into the future, RAF LGBT + Freedom Network Co-Chair and Trans Lead, Squadron Leader Catherine Lawson is shaping policies and helping to improve service life for LGBT+ serving personnel.

Find out more:

What's next for RAF Stories?

The RAF Stories project has allowed the museum to explore the LGBT+ history of the Royal Air Force by sharing these first-hand personal experiences. It is showcasing the vast change in attitudes towards and acceptance of LGBT+ serving personnel.

We know this will only keep growing, as we continue to showcase the diversity of the Royal Air Force.