I’m Cat Burton, a British Airways pilot and a transitioned woman.
I was very much a late developer in that I only transitioned at work 2 years ago, at the age of
61. I should have known at about age 14, but negative experiences encouraged me to go
into denial, even from myself, and I locked that side of myself in a very tightly closed box
marked do not open at the back of my mind. The box got unlocked in the online game,
Second Life, where inhibitions become looser. Pretty soon, I’d realised that we only get one
life and this last best chance I’d been given had better be moved into real life so I had a
friend visit to make me over (not too scary) then went to a professional trans makeover
service, which showed me what was possible. My next experience was an entire weekend as
myself, in Glasgow, which showed me that anything is possible.
Several Sparkle events later and I was grounded from flying, temporarily, for cardiac
investigations. I told British Airways and the CAA that I was also trans and they were both
helpful and supportive. I thought, initially, that I’d come back to work as him and transition
in retirement but, after months as myself, I just couldn’t do that. The final decision was
made on 22 nd August 2014 when I changed my name by statutory declaration and told my
line manager that it was Cat who’d be resuming work. Then began the flurry of paperwork
to change driver’s license, passport, US crewman’s visa, pilot’s license, bank accounts, credit
cards, mortgage, house deeds, tax records, credit references, disclosure and barring
clearance and airside ID card.
Coming out to my pilot colleagues was carefully orchestrated. An official notice was
released. Short and to the point and reminding everyone that they’d been given diversity
training and that any trouble would result in disciplinary action. Very much an iron fist in a
velvet glove. But, by arrangement, at the exact same time as my line manager released that
notice, I made a much longer post on BALPA, the pilots’ union’s forum, introducing myself.
I anticipated a mixed response. Some supportive. Some questioning. Some hostile. In the 10
days that thread was visible, it got 2000 replies and 10000 views, none of which were even
vaguely hostile and most of which, even the questioning ones, were openly supportive. But
only visible for 10 days? We pulled it when the British Airways Press Office phoned me to
warn me that the Sunday Mirror was about to contact me. The assumption was that they
had access to the thread (later disproved).
The Mirror did indeed contact me. It would have been possible for me to spike the story.
Did you know that the UK Press has an agreement, negotiated in the wake of the Kate Stone
story (Cambridge Professor gored by stag in Scottish Highlands). That story included
reference to Kate being trans. The agreement was that is the person being trans was not
relevant to the story, the UK press would no longer out the person gratuitously. The
corollary is that is there is no story if the person was not trans, then there is no story. I
decided on the other course of action, though. I made two unbending stipulations. No
mention that I even have a family and sight of both the original article as it stood and the
finished article. Reluctantly, they agreed to both. I then rewrote the article to get across
some pro-trans points and they published it pretty much as I wrote it. It remains the top
Google result for Cat Burton and is here http://www.mirror.co.uk/news/uk-news/transgender-british- airways-pilot- flying-4255502
The final hurdles for my return to work were my new uniform and some simulator retraining
after six months on the ground.
Shortly after my return to work, my chief pilot asked me to come to see him. My initial
thought was to wonder what I’d done but it was simply to tell me he’d had a stream of
colleagues telling him how much nicer I was to fly with since my return and to invite me to
join the Flight Ops Diversity and Inclusion Team. A year later, I became the Diversity
I continue to fly full time, but add to that my diversity role in house and also work for
charities. I’m on the board of Race Equality First and Trans Media Watch and very active as a
Diversity Role Model. I also lead the STEMNET initiative for the British Women Pilots’
Association and visit schools for them, The Aviatrix Project and British Airways to encourage
young women to become pilots. I also work for All About Trans and GIRES and write
freelance articles to encourage diversity.
When we finish our Diversity Role Models talks in schools, we give a personal message.
You only get one life, so live it authentically, but even more importantly, never stop anyone else from being their authentic self.