Leaving the military can be tough for anyone, but for Danni the journey was made harder due to the hostility they experienced after coming out as non-binary. But thanks to their SSAFA Mentor Geoff, that journey was then made a lot easier.

Danni served 22 years in the RAF and had a fantastic career, that sadly became tainted after they came out as non-binary transgender.

The trauma faced during their last few years in service made the transition out of the military especially difficult for Danni.

In anguish, Danni was offered help by SSAFA’s mentoring service. Supported by their wife Tabitha, daughter Bella and SSAFA mentor Geoff, Danni is now thriving – studying for a PhD.  

I was throwing myself into the complete unknown

Danni joined the RAF as an Aircraft Electrician in 1999. Growing up in Lancashire, they felt it was their best opportunity to start a secure career, and to get out of the education system after they experienced bullying from a young age.

“I wasn't really interested in going to college because I hated school, I was bullied so much. I was an easy target because I was small, weak and people could attack me knowing I wouldn’t hurt them back. I wanted to get away from that environment and the military provided that opportunity.

“I wasn’t from a military background, and I didn't really know what the military did. I was throwing myself into the complete unknown. When I went for my interview for the Royal Air Force I was asked, 'Can you name three RAF aircraft?' And I could only name one. I didn't have a clue what I was letting myself in for or where I would be posted. All I knew was I was going to be an aircraft electrician.

“Fortunately, I went through training and everything went amazingly well. I didn't really enjoy basic training that much, but the trade training was really enjoyable, I enjoyed being at Cosford, but I felt uncomfortable in the living arrangements as we had multi-occupancy rooms.

“For me the lack of privacy was hard. I had to try and blank it out – but it felt exposing. There was no where to put anything private. Going all the way back to my childhood, I've always known I was slightly different in terms of my gender, and I've always liked my privacy, to hide myself.

“It seems odd to throw yourself into the military where you know you're going to have to live like you have to live, but it's one of them things where you think, 'Well, but I want a job, so I've got no choice other than to put up with it.'

“When I finished my training, I went off to Coltishall to work on Jaguars for a few years, then went back to Cosford for further training and was posted to Cottismore to work on Harriers.”

Operationally, Danni did a tour in Turkey and Afghanistan, and has been to numerous other places around the world.

“My Harrier squadron was the first to go into Afghanistan, so I was one of the first people out there as the war began.

“It was pretty barren when we got there. Though there was a big American contingent already in place, as far as the British facilities were concerned, there weren't any. We were living in all the American tents with American food and everything. I never really felt in danger there because we were behind a wire on the airfield, but it was a strange experience knowing you needed to keep your rifle on you at all times.”

I learnt so much from her about respect and understanding different people

As a child, Danni felt unable to open up to anyone in their life about their gender. For many years, they hid their true identity. It was joining the military, and crucially meeting their wife that made them confident enough to understand and accept who they are.

“As a child, it was impossible to tell anybody about anything like that. There was no one to tell because I knew that my parents had certain views about transgender people, even though I didn't really know what a transgender person was when I was a child because no one had told me.

“My parents knew somebody who was ‘different’ but they would refer to them in a derogatory way. They were very prejudice people, and I am ashamed to say, I did things I wasn’t comfortable with to try and fit in with them. 

“One thing I realised when I joined the military is that actually those types of views that my parents had weren't acceptable. I quickly learnt that it was okay not to side with my parents – and to be more loving and understanding than they were.

“I met my wife in 2001. She had really different views from my parents and she would challenge them. I learnt so much from her about respect and understanding different people and different cultures.”

Danni met their wife Tabitha through friends in 2001, and they married in 2006. Danni was in the military at the time, and Tabitha was studying at university, so their relationship was initially long distance, but it quickly developed, and they knew they wanted to be together.

“I met Tabitha when we went for a drink with mutual friends. She protected me from an Alsatian – I'm scared of dogs, and I knew she was the one. In honesty, the dog was just asleep on the floor but that was enough for me!

“We decided to move in together in 2003 when I'd finished my further training and was based at Cottesmore. We soon bought a house together, and I was posted to Waddington in 2006 for the rest of my career so we had a firm base.

“We got married and in 2009 we had our amazing daughter, Bella.”

Tabitha and Bella were going into the unknown with me.

Danni left the RAF on their 40th birthday in 2021. They’d served twenty two years and six months ‘for the Queen’. Though Danni feels the military provided them with a huge amount of opportunity, sadly there was some animosity towards the end of their career – especially after Danni had decided to publicly share their identity as non-binary transgender in 2016.

“I didn't know I was non-binary until two or three years before I came out. I didn’t know the term or know what it was. I thought I was alone, but then discovered there were others out there like me.

“I knew I wasn't a trans woman, I was not a man. I knew I couldn’t conform to being or living as either gender. I just couldn’t define exactly what I was.

“Now I know I am non-binary, transfeminine which means I have a more feminine than masculine appearance.

"It was unbelievable to finally work it out. I knew I couldn’t be in a box any longer. I had to tell people that I wanted to be treated differently by them.

“At first, I came out to Tabitha and Bella, and then shortly after I came out as a non-binary person to the military.

“I’d kept it inside for so long because I was really scared about Tabitha leaving me, I was anxious about that. But I felt really supported by both.

“Tabitha was scared about it; she was worried she would face a lot of prejudice and negative reactions. But ultimately, I felt completely loved by them both. My daughter really didn't mind at all she just gave me a great big hug when I told her about it.

“Tabitha and Bella were going into the unknown with me.”

They wouldn’t let me be me

Danni was a Sergeant in Air Force when they came out to people at work. 

“I was getting frustrated with keeping this secret, keeping it all private. I was getting frustrated with not being able to be myself, having to put on this masculine mask every day. I had to do something.

“But I was also terrified, and I had a lot of problems.

“In particular, I was scared of being bullied again – but I knew in the back of my mind that I wasn't going to be bullied by people in the military because you're not allowed to be. I had protection because I could report it and it would be dealt with. It still took all my courage.

“My colleagues were all very supportive, which was brilliant, but I had some issues, in that those more senior wouldn’t allow me to wear a female issue uniform or be referred to or administered in the way I wanted to be referred to. In essence, they wouldn’t let me be me. I was being blocked by a few individuals. 

“Waiting to access support from the gender clinic, and going through all the difficulties I faced at work, I did attempt to commit suicide. Fortunately, I didn’t succeed, but getting to that point did really shake me.

“The military medical system helped me a lot and I got some counselling and some psychology sessions to deal with all the negative thoughts I had about coming out and the negative things I experienced.

“Finally, after a year and a half of fighting my corner, eventually I was allowed to present in the female dress code, as the personnel in charge changed.

“However, after everything that happened, my work life changed completely. I couldn't carry a service weapon because of my mental health. I wasn't able to be deployed, I was essentially a civilian in uniform for the last five years. I didn't feel like I was in the military anymore. I had to obviously abide by the rules, but it wasn't the military I was in anymore it was just a very strict software engineering organisation.

“I took all the opportunities the RAF gave me, and I got a lot out of it so I am grateful, and I know I wouldn’t be doing a PhD now if it weren’t for the experience I got from the military. But I had quite a lot of negative feelings about the military when I left. There was quite a lot of anger.”

I've got nothing to lose

In April 2022 Danni was struggling with their transition out of the military, and the feelings they held towards the RAF since they came out. They were also becoming increasingly anxious about how transgender issues were being discussed in the media, and feared they may face problems as the ban on conversion therapy didn’t extend to transgender people. Danni was in constant distress, and unable to carry on working on their PhD. 

As a result of this mental turmoil, Danni decided to contact SSAFA for support.

“I was terrified that my medication (cross sex hormones) would be taken from me. I really quickly declined into a severely anxious state. I really wasn't well. I was constantly crying.

“I put a self-referral into Op COURAGE (an NHS mental health specialist service) because I knew all these feelings in my head weren't healthy.

“I was a civilian at this point, but I had an assessment, and I was really surprised how quick it all happened. I was really grateful for that because I knew that if I had gone to the GP I would be stuck on a waiting list for weeks.

“Through Op COURAGE, I was given some options for support. One of them was the mentoring programme run by SSAFA.

“I didn’t know if it would be right for me, I didn’t think I was their ‘typical client’, but then I thought, 'Well, I've got nothing to lose by doing it. Hopefully it'll be helpful.’ So, I said yes.”

In a short space of time, Danni was connected to their SSAFA mentor Geoff Wood. Though worried about meeting him for the first time, Danni credits Geoff as being crucial to shaping their future.

“I was quite anxious about meeting Geoff for the first time.

"There were so many differences between us. He's a lot older than I was, at retirement age, we were from different trades, different generations. I didn’t know if the process would work – and in a way I guess I was being prejudice towards him.

“In reality, he was great for me.

“We had an initial meeting over a cup of tea, but being inside felt a bit claustrophobic for me – so we decided to have sessions outside. We went on lots of walks for an hour or so each time.

“He gave me a really good opportunity to say the things that were bothering me. He was able to help me, by listening to me and not judging what I was saying. He was completely non-judgmental about it all. I felt comfortable talking to him.

“He was able to tell me about some of his experiences in the military and coming out the military and some of the experiences were similar to mine. For instance, I was worried about how to make friends out in the civilian world, and he had a similar experience and that was good to know.

“One of the things I said I wanted to get out of SSAFA’s mentoring programme was to make good my relationship with the Air Force. I don't think I've done that, but actually that's not important to me anymore.

“I’ve learnt that it is alright to have some hard feelings following what I’ve been through, but what matters is I can move on from it. I have a clear head.”

Tabitha's not having to come home from work to pick me up off the floor

Danni had private counselling sessions and was given medication from the doctors at the same time as having mentoring with SSAFA. They feel all three aspects were vital to them feeling more stable.

I think if you'd have taken one or more of those elements away from me, I would have struggled to get better. I would have slipped back a few times more than I did.

“Having the mentoring there, it really did provide a bit of stability and structure – knowing every couple of weeks I was able to go out, tell Geoff about what had changed, how I was feeling about things, and to reflect on how I was progressing. It gave me a good, solid foundation to get better on.

“I'm so much better than I was, so much better.

“I wasn't functioning in May last year. I wasn't functioning at all. I was not human. I was just this emotional mess all the time. It was awful.

“Now I'm able to control my emotions so much better. I'm back working again. I'm stable and happy.

“Tabitha's not having to come home from work to pick me up off the floor because I’m in distress anymore. That's how much life has changed. I think our family home is a lot happier place.

“The mentoring service has provided me with long term stability and I would recommend it to anyone who needs it.

“Regardless of your circumstances, if you are struggling with transition into civilian life then the mentoring service can provide a friendly face for you to talk to.

“It's not a counselling service, it's more practical. You learn how to help yourself and learn from someone who's been in your position.

“My mentor had left the military and so had I, there was common ground. They used military language which really made me smile because there was a connection and understanding through those words that you wouldn’t get elsewhere.

“To Geoff, all I can say is thank you for listening and walking with me. Geoff walked with me on my journey out of the military.”

I’m just humbled that I was able to help Danni

Geoff Wood commented: “After serving 28 years in the RAF Regiment I found that on Discharge in 1997 I received very little pre or post discharge assistance, fortunately I had spent the previous two years planning my transition.

“I volunteered as a Mentor with SSAFA 5 years ago with the soul purpose of helping others to avoid the mistakes I made and ensure that their move to civilian life is as seamless as possible.

“I also use lessons learnt with each individual to update my skills and improve my own approach with current and future Mentees.

“I’m just humbled that I was able to help Danni. I learned a lot from them during our walks, so I think they have improved my Mentoring ability.”