30 years of open service

Sydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras is one of the highlights of the DEFGLIS calendar. Participants often describe it as an amazing experience to hear the roar of the crowds as they march down Oxford Street (or, the past two years, through the SCG). Other LGBTIQ+ Defence members have spoken about how watching the Mardi Gras made them feel more comfortable being open about their sexuality or gender identity.

Among the LGBTIQ+ veterans I have interviewed, seeing ADF members marching at Mardi Gras sometimes conjures mixed emotions. Many veterans served during the eras of the LGB and trans bans when their sexuality or gender identity was grounds for discharge. Some describe watching Mardi Gras as bittersweet – a mix of joy that currently serving members can be so open, while melancholy about what happened to them. Others express sentiments akin to resentment – a sense that the current generation of LGBTIQ+ Defence members do not appreciate the suffering they endured. There are also plenty of veterans who feel only joy to see how far the ADF has come.

This 23 November, we celebrate 30 years since the Australian government lifted the ban on LGB service. I often say that one of the most remarkable things about the lifting of the ban was how unremarkable it was. Whereas in places like the United Kingdom and USA it took decades of activism, political wrangling and court cases, in Australia it happened like a blip. Yet, it was a significant turning point which deserves celebration.

Before 23 November 1992, the ADF had strict policies against LGB service. Any person who was suspected of being homosexual (to use the language of the day) was referred to the service police, who would embark on secret investigations: interviewing colleagues, searching property, surveillance and sending undercover agents into gay and lesbian bars. Once service police had enough evidence, they would summon the suspected LGB person for an interview. Interrogation is a more appropriate word – interviews could go for hours or even days, with investigators persistently posing questions about people’s movements, relationships and sex lives. Veterans describe these interrogations as a harrowing experience.

Some denied that they were LGB, while many others cracked under the pressure and confessed. Even a confession was not enough to end the interviews. Service police asked more questions: details about the person’s sex lives and – most importantly – they wanted the names of other LGB service members. The practice became colloquially known as witch-hunts. Finally, the LGB members were given a “choice”: to request their own administrative discharge, or be dishonourably discharged “services no longer required”.

Challenging the ban was not easy because Australia had no anti-discrimination protections for sexuality or gender identity. The ADF consistently defended the ban on four grounds: 1. Troop morale, 2. National security (the threat of blackmail), 3. Health (an allusion to HIV and AIDS) and 4. To protect minors. Activists easily debunked these rationales, but still that was not enough for the ADF to change its policy.

A series of events put in motion in 1990 ultimately brought down the LGB ban. That year, the Commonwealth Government added sexuality to the Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission’s (HREOC) terms of reference. Shortly after, naval officer Anita Van Der Meer and a brave, unidentified lesbian soldier lodged complaints with the HREOC challenging their dismissals. Through the course of 1991 the HREOC conciliated the complaints and worked with Defence to rescind the LGB ban and introduce a new, sexuality-neutral policy on Inappropriate Sexual Behaviour.

In early 1992 it looked like the ADF was close to lifting the ban, but the service chiefs advised the CDF that there would be a revolt among the ranks. In June 1992 the Defence Minister announced in parliament that the LGB ban would stand. The HREOC then turned to the Attorney General, Michael Duffy, arguing that the LGB ban violated Australia’s obligations under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and conventions of the International Labour Organization. Duffy invoked international law to bring the LGB ban out of the exclusive purview of the Defence portfolio, making it a broader Cabinet issue.

I had the privilege of interviewing Michael Duffy about this history. He became the champion of LGB service in the Keating Government, and he really has not received enough credit. Other champions who deserve praise include the HREOC Commissioner Brian Burdekin and Senator Terry Aulich. Senator Aulich chaired a caucus working group tasked with investigating the LGB ban and making recommendations. The caucus working group recommended, in a 4-2 split, that the ban be lifted.

The LGB ban went to Cabinet on 23 November 1992. Some Cabinet members sided with the Defence Minister, but the majority – including Paul Keating – backed Duffy. After the meeting, Keating put out a statement announcing the lifting of the LGB ban, noting: “This decision reflects broad support in the Australian community for the removal of employment discrimination of any kind, including discrimination on grounds of sexual preference.”

Lifting the ban was only one step. Those LGB Defence members who served in the 1990s share experiences ranging from full acceptance through to bullying, harassment and assault. In the 1990s, 2000s and beyond, new generations of LGB and transgender Defence members fought for relationship recognition, the lifting of the trans ban and for the ADF to shift to active inclusion. Events over the last five years show that this fight is never over, as reactionaries consistently try to unwind LGBTIQ+ rights in the ADF and Australia more broadly.

As we celebrate that great moment 30 years ago, let us also remember those who suffered under the ban (and to whom the Commonwealth government and ADF have yet to apologise). I would like to end with this quote from “Mark”, who enlisted in the Army in 1987 and was kicked out in 1988 for being gay:

The irony is now actually having spoken to military personnel – serving military personnel – in the last couple of years who were saying, “We now have to do diversity training and everything”, it just seems so bittersweet because it would have been a job and a career that I would have loved to have continued doing, but unfortunately, that was taken away from me because that was the status quo back then.

Noah Riseman is a Professor of History at Australian Catholic University who has worked closely with DEFGLIS, DLVA and LGBTIQ+ veterans to record their histories. If you want to learn more about the LGB ban or the history of LGBTIQ+ service, you can read the co-authored books Pride in DefenceServing in Silence?, or this article.