To celebrate transgender awareness week, 14 to 19 November, Katie Cornhill a firefighter at Hampshire Fire and Rescue Services talks about how the challenges that life has thrown at her have made her the role model she is today.
When I was younger I was lucky enough to develop a passion for exercise, running around and being generally very active. Before my teenage years I developed an interest in becoming a firefighter, no doubt stimulated in my younger years by my grandfather's stories of his time in the fire service. I struggled to fit in during most of my school years but was lucky enough to find and join the sea cadet corps.
At sea cadets I discovered the Royal Navy’s sea soldiers, Britain’s elite, the Royal Marine Commandos, which I joined at 17 years old in February 1990, not to run away from my gender identity, but to continue my active passion for life, leaving after six years to start a family with my ex wife. In February 1996 I was very fortunate to discover that Hampshire Fire & Rescue Service (HFRS) were recruiting part time firefighters which I eagerly applied for, and even more fortunate almost a year later to successfully apply for and get a full time firefighters role.
As a firefighter and former Royal Marine Commando I have rescued people from burning buildings and served with the military in a warzone, none of that fazed me. I didn’t feel so brave when it came to telling friends and colleagues that for years I had been struggling with my identity, that the person they knew as Peter was actually Katie - a trans person who was undergoing life changing social, medical and surgical changes to finally live in my true gender identity and become the woman I was born to be.
I needn’t have worried, I was amazed at the positive reaction from my close work friends at HFRS. Before telling my colleagues I reminded myself that I work for an organisation where people are dedicated to protecting people and making the community safer. My team were very supportive and quickly saw past my trans identity, and realised I was still fundamentally me and still able and competent to do the same job.
I have known I was different since the age of five, living my life in transition and now openly since March 2012, before going ahead with gender confirmation surgery in 2015. I now help to promote self, sexual and gender identity equality and equity, in part, as a trustee of Stonewall, which campaigns on issues affecting lesbian, gay, bisexual and trans people. I believe that too many workplaces, in both the public and private sector, have archaic cultural barriers that hold them back. Those who lead institutions must realise that they should reflect the demographic model of society that exists rather than attempt to dictate it, the world is not just binary. Like the NHS the fire service has an important role in leading on this issue, they too are an organisation that is held in high esteem by the public.
I’ve never sought to be a role model but I think it’s important to acknowledge that to some I am. I realised since the beginning of my fire service career that we cannot truly make our communities as safe as possible without working in partnership with many different people from both inside and outside our organisation. I enjoy working hard to make people’s lives safer, healthier and improve their wellbeing and I currently do this through a number of roles. This includes being a trustee and school role model with Stonewall, a progression mentor with the Princes Trust, a role model for Diversity Role Models and the chair of the fledgling UK Fire and Rescue Service sexual and/or gender identity support network, Quiltbag. I was humbled when HFRS nominated me for the most influential woman in the fire and rescue service, and I’m delighted to say the nomination has been shortlisted for the awards in December 2016.
I have now enjoyed a fulfilling 20 privileged years working for HFRS, an organisation led by (and that has an abundance of) truly accepting individuals. HFRS like many public service organisations has its challenges around the agenda of inclusion. But I am used to the challenges that life can throw at you. HFRS is a strong organisation that attempts to encourage each and every member of the workforce to display daily, the core values that every fire and rescue service should seek in their employees.
What I can safely say is that my journey started on the day I was conceived. I am a lesbian woman who just happens to have a trans history. This has provided me with challenges and barriers that I and those around me have had to overcome.
I am proud to be a firefighter, I am proud to be a lesbian, I am proud to be a woman and I am proud to be able to embrace and productively express my true gender identity within the emergency services environment.
For more information about transgender awareness month take a look at our celebrating diversity in the NHS web page