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Trans soldier on Army's ‘women in leadership’ panel provokes backlash

Updated: Mar 14

Deborah “David” Penny, Britain's first transgender person to serve on the front line, took part in the talk Sandhurst

The Army is facing questions over a decision to feature a trans soldier on a panel at a “women in leadership” event.

Warrant Officer Class 2 Deborah Penny, who became the first transgender soldier to serve on the front line, took part in a discussion on “lived experience” of women in the forces during the event at Sandhurst this week.

The soldier, who has served in Northern Ireland, Iraq and Afghanistan during a career spanning more than 40 years, is the Warrant Officer for diversity and inclusion in Army engagement.

Campaigners have questioned why the bomb disposal expert was given a place on the five-person panel over a biological woman, saying that WO2 Penny’s experience was “irrelevant” to women as she joined the forces as a man and served in roles which barred female soldiers.

Women remain underrepresented in the Armed Forces, particularly in positions of leadership.

The latest government statistics show that in 2021 13.8 per cent of all officers in the forces were women.

The analysis by the House of Commons library adds: “However, there were just 24 women holding senior officer positions (rank OF-6 and above), making up 5.6 per cent of all officers.”

Guess which one is "Deborah"

While it has been met with some criticism, the decision to include WO2 Penny on the panel has been welcomed by senior Army figures.

Lord Dannatt, the former head of the Army, said that the event at Sandhurst had tried to be “progressive” by inviting a person from the trans community onto the panel.

“They have tried to be as progressive and inclusive as they can and by having someone who’s transitioned to being a woman, I think that that’s a good way of reflecting all dimensions of female point of view,” he told The Telegraph.

Defense faced a backlash after pictures were posted on social media by Hannah Colbeck, co-chairman of the Army Servicewomen’s Network.

“Great being [at Royal Military Academy Sandhurst] today to support the [Army engagement] team delivering a Women in Leadership event. Pomp and ceremony from the Commandant’s Parade, followed by a lived experience panel and questions,” she said.

Social media users pointed out that WO2 Penny’s career included a stint in the Commandos in 1986, which banned women from entering at the time. All Army combat roles were only opened to women in 2018.

‘Completely irrelevant to women’

Helen Joyce, the director of advocacy for campaign group Sex Matters, said the presentation was “completely irrelevant to women” as WO2 Penny “came into the Army as a man and as a man did things that women could not do”.

“It is enormously offensive to present this to women as something that is useful to their careers, they cannot do the same thing,” she said.

“It is insulting and really suggests that there aren’t any women who can be women in leadership. I think that they would have been better off not doing the event.”

WO2 Penny has previously revealed that her transition was a long process between 2004, when she came out, and 2010.

The ban on transgender people joining the military was lifted in 1999, a year before the ban was lifted for lesbian, gay and bisexual people.

Last year, WO2 Penny was shortlisted for a national diversity lifetime achiever award, which noted that she “actively delivers presentations to external audiences from schools, communities and businesses to break down barriers and dispel myths about being trans, LGBTQ+ and a woman in today’s Army” and has “pioneered diversity training”.

An Army spokesman said: “The comments posted on social media regarding this individual and any amplification of it are unacceptable, and does not reflect what the Army stands for, which is a place where everyone is welcome.

“We are an inclusive employer, where every single member of our personnel is valued and they all have the right to participate in network events to support each other’s personal experiences in our service.”

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