Our journey – two major milestones

Dr Noah Riseman – Australian Catholic University takes a look at two major milestones between World War II and today in the journey toward LGBTI inclusion in the modern Defence Force.

His initial research reveals has uncovered information not previously known about removal of the ban in 1992 and the Gay Ex-Servicemens Association 1982-1984. Read his initial findings in this report.

In late 2012 I read a small article in the Star Observer that mentioned the 20th anniversary of Australia repealing the ban on lesbian and gay service. It intrigued me. Like most Australians, I knew more about the United States’ infamous ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’ policy than about Australia’s own approach to LGBTI military service. As I looked into it further, I found that there was very little written about Australia’s LGBTI Defence history.

In the last ten years, Australia has arguably been a world leader in this area. Even the decision in 1992 to permit lesbian and gay service put Australia ahead of its closest allies: the United States, the United Kingdom and New Zealand (Canada beat us by a month). LGBTI people have been serving in the ADF and its predecessors for over a hundred years, yet little has been documented or written about them. Our project aims to rectify that.

Partnering with DEFGLIS’ “Reflections” project, “Serving in Silence? LGBTI Military Service in Australia since 1945” aims to produce the first overview history of Australian LGBTI military service. We are interested in the policies, practices and lived experiences of LGBTI personnel and how they have changed over time. The research team is led by myself – Dr Noah Riseman of Australian Catholic University – Dr Shirleene Robinson of Macquarie University and Dr Graham Willett of the University of Melbourne and President of the Australian Lesbian and Gay Archives. We all bring different backgrounds researching aspects of Defence and LGBTI history, and Graham has already published about gay service in the Second World War Click here for more details.

The 1992 debates

The research into the 1992 debates has been especially interesting. To give a brief chronology: in late 1990 Anita Van Der Meer, a lesbian dismissed from the Navy, challenged her dismissal in the Human Rights and Equal Opportunities Commission (HREOC). The HREOC did not have the legal authority to compel her reinstatement, but did enter into negotiations with the Department of Defence to adopt a new policy on unacceptable sexual behaviour. When the Minister for Defence, Senator Robert Ray, announced the new policy in June 1992, he indicated that the ban on gay and lesbian service would remain.

Within days it was clear that there were divisions in the Keating Labor Government. Leading the charge to repeal the ban was Attorney General Michael Duffy, while Ray led the camp to retain the ban. Keating set up a Caucus Joint Working Group to investigate the ban, chaired by Senator Terry Aulich.

The group delivered its report in September 1992; in a 4-2 split, they recommended repealing the ban. Finally the issue went to Cabinet; after a heated debate, on 23 November 1992 the Keating Government announced the repeal of Defence Instruction 15-3, meaning gays, lesbians and bisexuals could serve openly in the ADF (transgender and intersex service were not addressed until 2010).

When looking at the official ‘legal’ reasons given to lift the ban, they were always framed around violations of international law. When interviewing Duffy, though, it became clear that invoking international law was really about changing the decision-making process. The ban theoretically rested in the Defence Minister’s jurisdiction. By invoking international law, it now came under multiple portfolios and therefore was a matter for Cabinet. Of course there was a legitimate international law argument, but for Duffy and others this was a moral issue about ending discrimination.

What is also interesting is the timing of the decision, being a few weeks after the US election of Bill Clinton. Duffy, Aulich and Keating advisor Anne Summers argue that this one of the few times that Australia consciously broke from the US in Defence planning.

Summers even says that on the night of Clinton’s election, Keating said something to the effect of “Well, we don’t want to let him get in first.”

The 1982 incident at the Melbourne Shrine of Remembrance

The research into the 1982 incident at the Shrine of Remembrance has been primarily based on media reports (both mainstream and LGBTI press) and an interview with Gay Ex Services Association (GESA) member Max Campbell. GESA formed in Melbourne in early 1982 as a group of between seven and twelve members (reports conflict). The group was strictly apolitical and aimed to commemorate the contributions of lesbian and gay military service in Australia.

On Anzac Day 1982, five members of GESA went to the Shrine of Remembrance to lay a wreath with a card that read “For all our brothers and sisters who died during the wars. Gay-Ex Services Association.” Victorian RSL President Bruce Ruxton stopped the group from entering the Shrine. After a short confrontation with Ruxton and the Shrine commissionaire, the police shepherded the men away.

Ruxton was quoted in The Age as saying “I don’t mind poofters in the march but they must march with their units. We didn’t want them to lay a wreath because we didn’t want to have anything to do with them. We certainly don’t recognise them and they are just another start to the denigration of Anzac Day.”

In 1983 and 1984, Campbell returned to the Shrine on behalf of GESA; though Ruxton again tried to interfere, on this occasion he was eventually able to lay the wreaths.

What is interesting about GESA is its apolitical stance. This was an era when the ban on gays and lesbians serving was occasionally debated, such as when the Commonwealth Parliament introduced the Defence Force Discipline Act in 1982 or when Defence Instruction 15-3 came out in 1985. Even so, GESA remained primarily a social group that organised gatherings at the pub and the Anzac Day wreath-layings. They never got involved in the political process. Notwithstanding regular announcements in Melbourne’s gay press, their membership never grew substantially. The group disbanded shortly after Anzac Day 1984 due to general lack of interest.

It would not be until 1994 that members of the ADF founded G-Force as the first support group for lesbian, gay and bisexual service personnel. DEFGLIS was founded in 2002 and is the successor to both G-Force and GESA, and the Anzac Day wreath-laying this year brings the story full circle thirty-three years later.

Contribute to further research

As we continue this research, we are keen to interview both former and current members of the ADF who identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender or intersex. We are interested in your life stories and your personal experiences within the ADF, both positive and negative. For those who prefer to remain anonymous, we can offer you a pseudonym. We have ADHREC and Command Approval from the Vice Chief of Defence Force to conduct these interviews. If you are interested in being interviewed or just want more information, please contact research@defglis.com.au or individually: Noah.Riseman@acu.edu.aushirleene.robinson@mq.edu.au or gwillett@unimelb.edu.au.