Article by Noah Riseman
With all of the attention around the marriage equality issue in November, a significant anniversary in Australia’s LGBTI history passed by without fanfare. November 23 marked the twenty-fifth anniversary of the Australian government lifting the ban on lesbians, gays and bisexuals serving in the Australian Defence Force (ADF). The decision back in 1992 came after a few months of deliberations within the Keating Labor Government. It was nineteen years before the United States, eight years before the United Kingdom and a little over six months before New Zealand lifted their bans (though Canada beat Australia by one month). Lifting the ban was only one step in the march towards LGBTI inclusion in the ADF. Same-sex couples were not recognised until 2005. Transgender people could not serve until 2010. And there are still inequalities in the gendered structures of the ADF that disadvantage non-binary, transgender and intersex personnel.
We also know that, of course, LGBTI Australians were serving in the ADF long before the ban was lifted. For the past three years, I have been coordinating a project with Associate Professor Shirleene Robinson (Macquarie Uni) and Dr Graham Willett (Australian Lesbian and Gay Archives) to document the histories of LGBTI military service in Australia. We have uncovered stories of secret lesbian relationships, witch-hunts targeting the women’s hockey teams, gay subcultures on particular Navy bases, military police surveillance, and the evolving culture of the ADF from an institution from one of exclusion to inclusion for LGBTI members. Our research has been a mixture of examining archival records, media reports, and oral history interviews with current and former LGBTI service personnel.
There was David who served in the Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF) in the Second World War, posted in Melbourne. He used to frequent several of Melbourne’s cafes that catered to a gay clientele, where at times he would meet other servicemen or civilians and head off for a bit of pleasure. He also sometimes visited one of Melbourne’s best beats at night: The Shrine of Remembrance.
Tom served in the Army during the Malayan Emergency. He had a fling with a Chinese-Malay man who was the son of an influential local villager. At one stage the young man dedicated a love song to Tom over the radio, and Tom’s entire platoon heard it. They merely laughed it off, as did Tom.
In Vietnam, a mate of Dr David’s on guard duty came to him at night unsure about what to do. The regimental sergeant major had brought an American private back to his tent and was having very loud sex with him. Dr David, himself a closeted gay man, convinced the guard not to report the regimental sergeant major because it would just cause more problems down the track.
Terri served in the RAAF from 1982-1987. She endured significant sexual harassment from her colleagues and immediate superior officer. One evening he even tried to sexually assault her, pinning her against the wall, before she kneed him in the balls and escaped. Terri’s boss then reported her to the RAAF Police for being a lesbian. She endured an interview that went all day without food and water before she finally confessed to being a lesbian. Confessing meant you could request an honourable administrative discharge, rather than a dishonourable one.
James enlisted as a woman in the Navy in 2003 and transferred to the RAAF in 2006. Unbeknownst to him, at one stage the RAAF began to investigate whether James was transgender, including referring him to psychologists when he was seeking treatment for medical conditions unrelated to gender dysphoria. After the transgender ban was lifted, James did indeed come out as transgender and has since begun the transition journey while still serving in the RAAF.
These are some of the hundreds of stories of LGBTI service personnel, past and present. They complement other historic moments like the Gay Ex Services Association attempting to lay a wreath on Anzac Day at Melbourne’s Shrine of Remembrance (1982), the first Defence presence at Sydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras (1996), and the inaugural Military Pride Ball (2015). The stories and archival records collectively paint a picture of this overlooked aspect of Australian history, and how LGBTI people navigated Defence policies and practices that restricted their very ability to serve their country.
Our project team continues to record these histories, and to commemorate the twenty-fifth anniversary of the LGB ban repeal we also are preparing a public exhibition that showcases some of this history. We invite members of the public to attend to learn more about Australia’s LGBTI service history, so that their stories will be silent no more.
Melbourne: Melbourne City Library, 253 Flinders Lane, 11 January – 3 February
Sydney: TAP Gallery, 259 Riley Street, Surry Hills, 27 February – 4 March
Canberra: foyer of the Russell Office Building (Defence HQ), May 2018 (dates tbc)