This podcast was recorded during the 2023 Midsumma Festival and explores stories of LGBTQ+ service.
Chaired by Midsumma Chief Executive Karen Bryant, listen as current and ex-service members share their experiences in the ADF.
Midsumma Chief Executive Karen Bryant, Yvonne Sillett, Felix, DEFGLIS Vice President Flight Lieutenant Nathan Howarth, Professor Noah Riseman, Defending with Pride curator Kate Spinks-Colas.
Parental guidance is recommended: this audio program contains adult themes and concepts and occasional coarse language.
The opinions expressed in this podcast are those of individual contributors and not necessarily the views of the Shrine of Remembrance.
If this podcast raises any issues for you, support is available from the following services:
QLife Australia’s first nationally-oriented counselling and referral service for LGBTI people. Phone: 1800 184 527
Defence Gay and Lesbian Information Service Defence Gay and Lesbian Information Service provides policy and community information to gay, lesbian and bisexual, transgender, intersex and non-binary serving and ex-serving members of Defence and their families.
Discharged LGBTI Veterans' Association (DVLA) A support and advocacy association for Australian Defence Force personnel, their family and their friends who were adversely impacted by Defence's historic anti-LGBTI policies. Phone 0400 124 213.
Thorne Harbour Health provides professional, affordable counselling for members of LGBTIQ+ communities and individuals or couples who are affected by or at risk of HIV.
Open Arms Free and confidential, 24/7 national counselling service for Australian veterans and their families, provided through the Department of Veterans’ Affairs (DVA). Phone: 1800 011 046
Lifeline Suicide and crisis support. Phone: 13 11 14
Across the Line - Lone Canyon
LAURA THOMAS: This podcast contains adult themes, mild coarse language and sexual references that may not be suitable for younger ears. It also contains themes that some listeners may find distressing. If you need support, you can always call Lifeline on 13 11 14.
The opinions expressed in this podcast are those of individual contributors and not necessarily the views of the Shrine of Remembrance.
Hello and welcome to the Shrine of Remembrance podcast. My name is Laura Thomas and I’m the production coordinator here at the Shrine. In this installation of the podcast, we’re coming to you from Midsumma Festival, Australia's premier LGBTQIA+ cultural festival. As part of the 2023 program, the Shrine hosted a panel talk on the experiences of LGBTQ+ service and the formation of the Shrine’s Defending with Pride exhibition. We pick up the panel with Midsumma Chief Executive and convenor of the panel Karen Bryant introducing the event and panellists…
KAREN BRYANT: So thank you, again, for joining us. My hope is that, you know, we can, this can be a really relaxed and informal chat, pretending we're all in someone's lounge room. And we're all here together. So on that basis, you know, rather than the traditional start of a panel where I might read a whole lot of bios, which apart from the fact means that I'm glued to a piece of paper for a while, always has a little bit of formality. So instead, what I've invited the panellists to do is each to do a brief introduction themselves, so it's much more personal, of who they are and the role that's brought them here to this panel and involvement in the exhibition. That is the centre point of this chat as well. So I might start with you, I think.
KATE SPINKS COLAS: Hi everybody. My name is Kate Spinks Colas, and I'm one of the curators here at the Shrine. And I was the curator for Defending with Pride, the Defending with Pride exhibition, and got to work with many of these wonderful people who are up here on stage and some in the audience as well, which is fantastic to see. And I've been at the Shrine since 2019. And I'm very passionate about, in terms of my career in the museum sector, you know, telling personal stories, you know, through collections, and, you know, through history, so, yeah, that's me.
NATHAN HOWARTH: I guess I'm next. My name is Nathan Howarth. I'm a veteran of 16 years experience from the Australian Army, and also the Royal Australian Air Force. I have done two operational tours of the Middle East, particularly in Afghanistan. Why I'm here today is I am the recently elected vice president of the Defence Gay and Lesbian Information Service, working to advocate for LGBTQ+ veterans and their families, both in service and supporting outside of service. So I guess that pretty much speaks for itself why I'm here today.
FELIX: My name is Felix. I'm ex-Army and ex-Navy. And I now work for the Australian Public Service in Defence.
YVONNE SILLETT: My name is Yvonne Sillett. I'm a 62-year-old gay veteran. I served in the Australian Army from 1979 to 1989. So I was in for 10 years when they asked me to leave because I was gay. And there was a policy in place at the time saying you couldn't be lesbian or gay in the military. And I'm part of the Defending with Pride exhibition here at the Shrine.
NOAH RISEMAN: My name is Noah Riseman, I'm a Professor of History at Australian Catholic University. I use he/him pronouns. One of the projects I've worked on was the history of LGBTQ+people in service, wrote a few books plug plug, with others on that. And also, I mean, thanks to Kate invited me to be involved in the sort of consulting I suppose on the history that informed the exhibition. And I've met all these lovely people. I'm getting stares from Yvonne, I'm not sure why.
KAREN BRYANT: Thank you all. One of the things that really struck me both with the exhibition but also in having a few pre chats with these wonderful panel members, was the power of their stories. And certainly, in all the work that I do, I always find that, in fact, I always underpin everything with stories as the centre point, because they're the way we make connections with each other. The way that we can celebrate our commonalities as well as our differences. And so today, a lot of it will be, we'll certainly be starting with exploring a few of those stories in more depth as a way to make those connections from a starting point. But before we do that I'd like to, to throw to you Noah, because I know that you were really a driving force behind, I guess bringing a lot of this to light and, and bringing this exhibition together and these people's stories and empowering some of these stories. So I'd love to sort of get your I guess, historical context that leads us to the exhibition and to today.
NOAH RISEMAN: Sure, so this is big, boring, historical lecture here. I'll try to keep it brief. But first I'd just say how I got into this area of research was I had previously done research on Indigenous people in the armed forces, and through that project, interviewed a gay Aboriginal veteran. And at that time sort of realised, you know, we've all heard of 'don't ask, don't tell', people know the history of the American LGBTQ+ experience. But there hadn't really been much work done in Australia, except for the great work of Yorick Smaal, which I'm plugging who'd done some work on the Second World War. So this project, then grew out of that, and then the exhibition sort of followed on from the project, and yada, yada, yada. But I thought I'd just give a really quick, brief historical overview for those who haven't seen the exhibition yet of LGBTIQ+ service in Australia. It sort of fits into a few different eras. Before the Second World War, it was hardly talked about, and by hardly, I mean really wasn't at all, there weren't any policies in place, you do get the occasional court martial for sodomy, or acts of gross indecency. And that's really the only time that there's sort of any mention in the records. During the Second World War is the first time that you get an actual formal policy on how to deal with homosexuality in the armed forces. And that came about actually, at the behest of the Americans, when they found that the Australians were doing naughty naughty things with the Americans and Papua New Guinea. So they went to the Australians and then they came up with a policy. And the policy framework was pretty much sort of trying to separate out those who were confirmed homosexuals, versus those who maybe this was just a one off fling, and you know, we can keep them. And it was sort of treated as a bit of a legal issue and a bit of a medical issue at the same time. And sort of the policy was kind of inconsistent in that. But that's when you begin to see this approach of you investigate, and if they're a confirmed homosexual, you then kick them out of the Defence Force. The era from the Second World War until 1974, is still an era where there's sort of a lot of silences in policy. There was that policy during the Second World War, but it kind of goes silent, for the most part. From the research that me and my team did, which was a lot of oral histories, as well as archival research, during that period through the '50s, '60s and early '70s, for men, and it's very different for women and I'll explain in a moment, as long as you were discreet, there tended to be blind eye looked. Where someone was a bit more public about it, where discretion was not there, then they would go through an investigation and be kicked out. So you do though for men, if they were discreet, tended to be able to get away with it during that period. Women though, from the Second World War onwards, there was never, it was always hunting of women. Because the rules at the time, if you were a woman, you weren't allowed to be married, or you'd have to leave the Defence Force, you weren't allowed to get pregnant, or you'd have to leave the Defence Force. Oh, then what kind of woman might want to join the defence force? Oh but we can't have them either. So there was always this suspicion of lesbians in the defence force. So they were constantly being hunted, even during that period. 1974, for reasons that I won't get into, but we can talk about later, maybe in the discussion, is when there's finally a formal policy brought in across the three services that basically says any case of suspected homosexuality gets investigated by the service police. And then if there's enough evidence, then people will get hauled in for an interview. Those interviews, I think interrogation is a better word, but I'll leave that to Yvonne to tell the living history of that. But you then had a choice. Either you can request your own discharge, or you will be kicked out with a dishonourable discharge, services no longer required. Not surprisingly, the majority of people chose the former. 1992, that ban is lifted by the Keating Government at the very end of '92. And then you enter this new phase from '92 until about 2006ish give or take, where I usually refer to that phase as just tolerance, so you couldn't be kicked out, but that doesn't necessarily mean you are embraced. And from the oral history interviews that we've done, you know, it ranges from full acceptance, some people were able to be open and have great careers through to bullying, harassment, and I'd even say attempted murder in one case. So you sort of have a spectrum, the Air Force after the ban was lifted, tended to be a bit more accepting than the other services. Women tended to have better experiences than men because there were always the assumptions that women were lesbians and now they actually could be. And then from the end of 2005, when the ADF started recognising same sex relationships, that's when you begin to see a change towards more inclusive policies. The Trans ban, I haven't talked about trans, but there was always a presumed ban on trans people. In 2000, that's formalised. The trans ban was lifted in 2010. So then you begin to see more inclusion from there. So from the teens onward, you get to a more inclusive era, though, we can save it for the discussion, I'd say the final few years of the previous government, were going a bit quiet on that. That's putting it nicely. But there, that's your historical overview in a nutshell. Hope I didn't take too long. Sorry.
KAREN BRYANT: No, that's great. Thank you, Noah. And stories certainly are the keepers of our history. They're the way that we challenge and discuss our present. And they're the changemakers for our future. So I'd like to invite a couple of the panel members to go into a little bit more detail about their stories. Some of you may have already seen the exhibition, and we're going to invite you to join us up there afterwards if you haven't, but I think that the doorway into everything we're talking about is the personal impact and the personal relevance for each of us and we all have our own stories. So I know Yvonne, we were chatting a bit earlier about the role that telling your story has had on you personally, and not necessarily starting out, expecting or even planning to tell your story. But I'm going to invite you to revisit that story and maybe the impact that that's had for you, bringing you here today.
YVONNE SILLETT: I had always wanted to join the military from a very young age. Both my parents were ex-Navy, my mum had to discharge when she married back then. And I didn't have a plan B. The military was going to be my career. And it was going to be a 20 year plus career. There was no doubt about that. I joined at 18 not realising I was gay at the time. There was no one around. I didn't have any role models. It wasn't on TV. I didn't really know anyone that was gay. So I didn't think that I was gay. I just thought I was a tomboy. So I went off and I joined the Army. And as soon as I got to RAC School, which is in Sydney, Mosman, where we did our training, I knew that I'd made the right decision. I fitted into RAC school like a hand into a glove. I loved the discipline. I loved the sport. I loved the camaraderie. I was fortunate enough to get into the Royal Australian Signal Corps. And in that core, you require a top-secret clearance. My father had worked in the Navy and he then went on to the Defence Signals Directorate. So he had a top secret clearance. I wanted to know what my dad did because I could never ask him because he couldn't tell me. So by me getting into RA Sigs, I was finally able to understand why my dad for all my childhood couldn't talk about his work. So I had a top secret clearance I was a cypher operator, I was a corporal. I then applied to be an instructor and I raised the very first female platoon to go through 1 Recruit Training Batallion at Kapooka. Up until that stage, women and men had trained separately. So I was one of the very first females to take on a female recruit course. They were 12 weeks each course and I did eight platoons over two years. To this day, that was a highlight of my working career. The other highlight is sitting up in the back row, my son, Jack Magreal. I always say you know, I have a military highlight and, and having my boys was another highlight. So I was there and I was a trailblazer and I absolutely loved it. By then I knew that I was gay. I'd met a lady in 1983. We're both in Signal Corps. We both had a top secret clearance. We both knew we were gay. We both knew there was a policy in place. We were professional soldiers by day. And then we did our own thing on weekends. By now we started to meet a few different people and met more gay people. That was prior to me going to Kapooka. I was at Kapooka for the two years, I got posted to Perth, I knew that I was gay and I knew that I had to keep my head down. I got posted back to Watsonia Barracks here in Melbourne, to a signal unit, which ironically, the building is directly across the road here. It's now an apartment block, but that was the Defence Plaza, 365 St Kilda Road. I'll never forget it. I was on duty one day when I got called down to Vic Barracks for an interview, a security interview, which I now call an interrogation. I was in there for three hours. They'd followed me, we'd been to Rutherglen the weekend before. They knew where I'd been. They were demanding that I admit to being a homosexual. And I knew that if I confirmed that or admitted that, that my career would be over. So for three hours, I denied it. They kept asking me for names of other people and would go easy on you forgive other names. I said, 'Well, I don't know anyone. I'm not gay.' A week later, I had another interview this time with the SIB. Same thing unfolded. They broke me. I admitted to having two homosexual relationships. But I also admitted that I was a career soldier and it wouldn't happen again.
I had to do something. But unfortunately for me, they decided that even though I put in a show cause even though I put in a redress of grievance, I wasn't going to walk away without a fight. They took away my top secret clearance. They took me from top secret to confidential, which made me unemployable in my corp. At that stage, I was due for promotion to sergeant and I was going to go down the instructor path. But I elected discharge after 10 years because I knew that I could never do the job that I loved. And I knew that my 20-year, career had come to an abrupt halt. I then had mental health issues. I suffered terribly for many years I, I suffered in silence for a long, long time, until this man here entered my life. And he wanted to hear my story, him and Shirleene Robinson. And that was back in 2016. And I was one of many to be interviewed, I told my story. It was very cathartic for me. Finally, someone wanted to listen to me. Up until that point, it had been my partner at the time, Norma, sitting up there, and my current wife, who, who were the only people that knew my story, really, and my friend, Margaret, who I worked with at defence, who's also here today. Nobody else knew my story, not even my parents. They didn't know why I discharged. So Noah came along and poked the bear. And my life has never really been the same since. And a year ago, I gave evidence at the Royal Commission into veterans, defence and veteran suicide. And then from that, Kate got in contact with me and asked me if I'd be part of this exhibition. So for a long, long time, I did nothing. And the last eight years, nine years, it's just been a snowball, people wanting to hear my story. So thank you for being here today to hear that.
KAREN BRYANT: Thank you so much Yvonne for your honesty and your bravery. And not only sharing your story with us, but also assisting with, I guess, for those people who don't feel yet that they can have a voice. The telling of stories goes way beyond the power and the impact on us as individuals. Felix, I'd like to invite you also if you feel comfortable to share a little of your story.
FELIX: So I joined the Army when I was 18 years old. I came from a very religious family in South Australia. And half the attraction was for me, like it was a dare from a friend, they said, you know, 'You won't join the Defence Force', blah, blah, blah. But the thing that I found most attractive was they told me they said, 'Once you sign on the dotted line, no one can stop you. And if anyone tries to stop you, the military police will come and get you. Because you'll be AWOL, and it's illegal'. And I was just like, 'Great. This is a way out of here that nobody can stop me'. Even if somebody like locks me off at home, I can escape because they'll come and get me. So that was the big, big draw card for me. And so I joined. And I loved it. Like it was the uniform, it was the people, but also too it was just for me as a trans person, it was very genderless. I loved that fact. I loved the fact that you put a uniform on and you were just, you know your last name. You were a totally different person. And I loved that. But then I got to a point where I realised I wasn't happy in my gender, I started drinking a bit too much, had a few other issues. And I went and saw a psychologist about it. And the hardest part was that I couldn't quite describe what I was feeling and they ended up saying I had an eating disorder, which wasn't exactly what was happening. And it was just really frustrating. And then when I finally did work it out, nobody could help me. And it was just like this whole process of nobody knows what to do with me. And things just got worse. And then I took a transfer to the Navy sort of just to leave a whole heap of shit behind and I loved my job. But I had a problem with a former partner who was stalking me and Navy wouldn't do anything. And all of my problems were just starting to cave in on me. And I think the most frustrating part was that I just wanted someone to help. And the Defence Force didn't know what to do with me. And there was no policy, other than we can't have trans people, like just 'No, no'. And I knew there were some people floating around in the RAAF at the time. But they were kind of like tolerated, I guess, like these are people who transitioned in the late 90s. And people would tell stories of they've been on a course, a tri-service course with a RAAF person that was transgender or something and instructor and make fun of it. For me, it was like, oh, there's trans people around. But I think for me, I'd never met a trans masculine person. So I wasn't even sure that it was possible for me, it was just this weird thing. You don't know where you sit. And that was quite distressing for me and I just couldn't talk to anyone about it. Like it was something I kept to myself. I tried to talk to a psychologist. It didn't go anywhere.
And when I got out and tried to get back in, Defence has a very over medicalised decision of what makes a trans person, there's no room for you to say- because for everyone is different. You don't go, 'Oh, I'm going to do this step, this step, this step, this step'. Everyone chooses their own path. And there are people out there who don't even do a medical transition, they just do a social one. And I think that was what frustrated me the most is I remember sitting down in this interview with a psychologist, and she was explaining to me that she couldn't let me pass the psychological interview, because I'd have to deal with weapons. And I said, 'You do know what I do for a day job. I'm in the public service'. I said, 'Last week, I was down at the range, you know, taking potshots at something for a test'. I said, 'I already handle weapons in my day job, I actually sit in a position where someone in a uniform can do the job or somebody in the APS can do the job. Like, how can you say that I'm not psychologically fit if the APS has deemed me fit and that position is also for somebody in a uniform?' And she didn't have an answer fpr me. It was just really odd, because she wasn't happy with where I sat. Like, I'm like, 'Yeah, I'm a trans person. And this was where I'm at'. And she's like, you know, that at that stage, I think DSM-5 hadn't de-medicalised trans, they still made it a mental health problem. Now it's not. And I've attempted a couple of times, but I think defence still has this thing where they over medicalised trans people, they want you to fit a mould and take a couple of steps, and then they're willing to take you on. They're not happy if you're just a social transition, or you go, 'I don't want to do this, that or the other'. They're like, 'Well, that doesn't fit with us because what if you do want that?' And it's like, 'Well, does that matter?' Like they'll support people who come in to the Defence Force, and they end up with, say, diabetes, they'll go, 'Okay, your job is really, really important, we'll keep you on because we don't have anyone else'. And I've known a few people, like normally Defence will go 'Oh, if you're diabetic you've got to leave.' But because their job is so rare, or they don't have someone to replace them, they'll support them to stay in. And then you get people who need knee reconstructions, or whatever. And it's like, Well, how's that different to a trans person, like, you know, people break their arms, people break their legs. And for some reason, there's this fear of what medical things a trans person might need when it comes to recruitment. And it's not a cheap thing. Like, I think people don't understand that some of the things that you might want are not affordable, you don't get them on Medicare. If you want to do these things, you can go to places like Thailand, but then you run the risk of things not working out right if you don't pick the right surgeon. And Equinox Health Service actually has a medical service now to support people who've gone and got surgery overseas. It's that much of a problem. And so if you try and do these things in Australia, you can be up for about $150,000 if you want to do full medical transition, depending on what you choose and where you go. So it's not something like say, for the defence force to expect you to have done all that before you even start. It's just not affordable. Like I've come to a point in my life where there's things I want, and I go, Well, you know I'd rather own a house so I have some stability, because if I choose that path, then I'll never own a house. And then you start end up making these decisions about what you need for stability. And it's like, it's quite soul crushing sometimes, because yeah, I really want to do this, but, but I also, I've suffered from housing instability for so long that I can't deal with renting anymore, I need to buy a house. So I choose between surgery and a block of land to build a house. And that was just soul crushing, because I had to make a choice. I couldn't just go, you know, other people can get, you know, their shoulder reconstructed, or other things done with Medicare, and I can't, and it's most trans people access medical transition through loopholes in Medicare, we don't access it, there's not actually a path for us. It's just that we tend to have GPs who know the loopholes, to get us access to PBS medication and other things. But on the whole, you do have a lot of out of pocket expenses if you don't have a savvy GP. And a lot of trans people when they start transition, may not have a savvy GP. So they end up paying hundreds to thousands of dollars out of pocket for hormone replacement therapy and things like that, because they don't know about the loopholes in the system. So it can be really frustrating. If you're trying to join the Defence Force as a trans person, and then you haven't quite begun your journey or you're halfway through your journey, or you don't even know where your journey is going. They really want you to tick the boxes. And that's a very frustrating process. And I think they really need to de medicalise the whole thing as a trans person and just treat them as a human being that, you know, like people who need shoulder reconstructions, or their teeth fixed or something like that. It's just like, it's part of the process.
KAREN BRYANT: Thank you, Felix. And there's certainly so much in what you just shared, and I'd like to come back to some of that through the talk. But another thing that sort of struck me, you know, with both of the stories and it's, you know, none of us face the world with one part of our identity and yet everything is so often segmented and you know, there's this part of their lives and there's that part of the life. And you know, they're even today, the latest research states that you know less than 50% or 50% LGBTIQ Victorians still don't feel able to be completely themselves in their workplaces. And, and that there is inflexibilities in systems and across the board that both discriminate, but also make it very difficult for people to be their true authentic selves. Whilst we're still very much on a journey for pride, and a lot of progress has been made in recent years, and the exhibition, Defending with Pride at the Shrine of Remembrance certainly is a symbol, a visible symbol of that. So knowing that the Shrine would be the first war memorial, and that's a very significant point, in Australia to explore LGBTQ military history, I'd love to open up to all of you to reflect a little bit on what it was like to be approached to be part of this project. And then also the process of taking part in Defending with Pride and what it's meant to you.
YVONNE SILLETT: I'll start if you like. As I said earlier, a year ago, I spoke at the Royal Commission, which was one of the hardest, challenging things I've ever done in my life. And I thought nothing would really beat the Royal Commission, that that was pretty much up there. And the publicity that I had after that was quite mind blowing. Shortly after, these two, I believe, had been in discussion, and they said, 'We're going to be getting a Defending with Pride exhibition at the Shrine' and, and Kate reached out to me, and asked if I'd be a part of it. Well, I was, I was blown away, you know, I just thought 'What? The Shrine of Remembrance is going to acknowledge our service? LGBTIQ service?'. It took me a little while to process to be honest. So directly after giving evidence to the Royal Commission, some weeks later, I got involved and met Kate. And as soon as Kate asked me, there was no hesitation. It was I'm there, I'm there with bells on. And I'm so so proud to be a part of this exhibition, and have so many people come through. And people that didn't even know that this happened to us while we served. I can't even put it into words how I felt when I was approached, and then we had the launch 31st of July, and we'll talk about the lights, I'm sure that's coming up later. But yeah, it's something that I'm very proud to be a part of. And I thank you, Kate, for acknowledging and reaching out to me.
KATE SPINKS-COLAS: Well, maybe I can pick up from there and just say that, you know, it's been an absolute privilege, you know, for me working at the Shrine to be tasked with the opportunity to curate this exhibition, and to connect with all of these incredible people, and to help share, you know, that history and that story, you know, personal experiences that have, you know, traditionally been absent from spaces like the Shrine. And, yeah, so being part of that, that whole process has been, you know, an incredible journey. For me personally, as well, it's absolutely a highlight in my career. The connections that we've been able to make, and, you know, the opening up of, of that, of that broader sort of military history and experiences of service personnel, it's really incredible to have been, you know, a little bit of a part of that, yeah, helping facilitate that, I suppose.
NATHAN HOWARTH: So, for me, personally, I am not one of the members who was individually interviewed as a part of the exhibition. But having come through here recently, over my career, I have toured a lot of memorials, nationally across the country and overseas. I have seen the conflicts that I have served a part of over my career represented in those memorials and institutions across the world. But from a personal level, there was no representation for me as a gay man. Now, as a born and bred Victorian as well, there's a little bit of state bias, to know that the Shrine was going to be representing me as an individual, the friends that I had served along with the lineage that I had picked up from, from the likes of Yvonne and Felix, and to represent what had been kept in the shadows for such a long part of our strong military history and our Anzac tradition, and history, because we're all Anzacs, all three of us, to finally see an exhibition that represented me as an individual, my community, the organisation, DEFGLIS, as an openly queer advocacy and support network, was validating. We were brought from the shadows into the light. And not only were we as individuals able to express a cathartic release in seeing representation, which for a lot of us we hadn't had before. I think it's really important because we're laying a pathway forward for future generations to see representation in the Defence Force, to know that you are included as a part of a force that can often seem exclusionary, and there is a place for you. And so I think that was exceptionally incredible.
KAREN BRYANT: That's actually a beautiful lead into my next question in that it already starts to answer it, which is, and I think I will start with you, particularly with your role. You've talked about, like the impact on as individuals, which is so significant, and the recognition, the visibility, but what do you think the impact of the exhibition has had on the broader LGBTIQ service community and perhaps even broader communities?
NATHAN HOWARTH: For me as a current service person, it really solidified what can often in the past, especially- I enlisted in 2006. It's funny, I was sitting there during my defence interview, and the recruiter, this was September, maybe just before 2006, it was a while ago. And without any discussion, and I didn't really know who I was at that point, she's like, 'Oh', and this warrant officer, 'by the way, we recognise same sex relationships'. And I'm like, 'Excuse me. Okay. Sure.' You know, and I wasn't there yet in my life's journey. And so, you know, I was like, 'Okay, sure. Thanks'. Less than a year later, hello. Thanks, Mum and Dad, we all knew. Anyway, it was really just, the impact is that we are finally valid, we are being held alongside equals of history. And the Anzac legend is, is a weight of carriage in every service they talk about during military training, especially as a, I guess, a foundation in setting you as a military service person, you know, you're carrying lineage, you represent this, this is part now, here's the flame, continue it on. And so I think that, much like I just, you know, did say, it's showing that we are welcomed, especially now. We have always been there, whether or not it was in the light or the dark. And unfortunately, it was in the dark for a very long time. We are now in the light, we are now counted as equals. And yes, there is still a way forward that we need to go with holistic inclusion. But we are making ways forward. And we are being brought on that journey actively. And it's just incredibly powerful to know that you might not know who you are as a person, but you will aspire to be part of something. And there are people that are just like you that can actually, you can actually belong.
KAREN BRYANT: Thank you. In the lead-up to the exhibition, and during the planning phase, there was some criticism from certain segments of the community. Kate, would you be able to speak a little bit further about this and the impact particularly on staff at the Shrine, and we will also might open up into you know, the impact on participants from the exhibition as well in that in that lead-up process?
KATE SPINKS-COLAS: Yeah, look, I think not everybody in the community understands the role of the Shrine and the fact that the Shrine is a memorial but it's also a site of cultural significance. And we're charged with, I guess, an educated and knowledge sharing role, to share the stories of service and sacrifice of all who've served. And I think through this kind of misunderstanding, some commentary suggested that the Shrine was, I guess, trying to divide, you know, a shared recognition of service. And, you know, politicising it. But the fact is that, you know, the Shrine holds more than 200 services every year, dedicated to different groups who are associated with service and sacrifice. And, you know, other examples would be war widows, First Nations service people, and our galleries as well are, you know, a vehicle through which we can fulfil that very important function to, you know, share that history of Australia's military history, and the, the experiences of people who have served. So it was very disappointing, obviously. And, you know, in some instances, quite upsetting for staff, and everybody who was involved in putting together the exhibition, you know, to receive some of that criticism was, it was disappointing to hear. But, you know, to counter that we also had, we've had a lot of very positive feedback, you know, the people who've been walking through the doors since the exhibition opened, you know, deliberately coming to the Shrine, you know, possibly for the first time, actually, specifically to see the exhibition, you know, people who attended the Last Post Service at the opening, and, you know, also members of the general public writing into us, or calling us and telling us that, you know, how pleased they are that the Shrine trod this path and is telling those stories, and, you know, that they really see the Shrine as a more inclusive space. So, I guess, the positive feedback has helped counter some of that negative, or some of those criticisms.
NOAH RISEMAN: Can I jump in? So as a civilian who doesn't work at the Shrine I think Kate's very diplomatic. I'm gonna give my thoughts on this. Just first though again, quick history lesson. And this is credit to the Shrine also in the significance of this exhibition, is the Shrine has an LGBTQ+ history. One of the people we interviewed for the project was a World War Two veteran who had served in Melbourne and was telling me in the interview about how the Shrine was a beat during the Second World War. I mean, Graham would know more than me, Graham Willett in the audience, and probably still less after the Second World War as well. So, but also, I mean, the significance in 1982, there was a group of gay ex-servicemen who formed a group called the Gay Ex-Services Association that came to the Shrine on Anzac Day to lay a wreath and the then president of the Victorian RSL very dramatically turned them away. And this made the press and then a year later returned and and attempted to be turned away. But that time they were able to lay it and then did it again and '84. I had the privilege of interviewing one of the members before he passed away and had been misinformed that he was the last surviving member, but through putting the exhibition together, they tracked down one of the original five who is still alive and part of the podcast and amazing. I still haven't met him, because he lives in Mildura. But bringing it back to what happened though. So there is a long history and I think just the fact you did the exhibition, 40 years after that happened, shows how far the Shrine has come. And that's amazing and I give credit to the Shrine. And actually all the criticism I'm about to level, none of it is at the Shrine. I think you handled what happened in July as best as you could. I was overseas when it happened. So I missed most of the fun. I woke up to like, emails and texts and Lord knows. But let's- this wasn't misunderstandings. These are bloody bigots. Okay, homophobes, transphobes, whatever you want to call them, stirred by certain members of the right-wing media who love to wage a culture war. And unfortunately, that's what happened, but let's call it out for what it is. It's bigotry. It's not misunderstandings. Where I do, as I said, I give the Shrine credit like you did have to deal with safety and what happened to you is unexcusable but why I really have been praising the Shrine was in the statement you put out, not only did you explain why you had to cancel the lighting, but you actually said in the statement, this is the sort of hatred that LGBT, like that was that extra step of allyship that I don't think enough other organisations would have done and that's why when I read your statement, I was like, they've nailed it like, so I really do want to give the Shrine credit for that. What was disappointing though I have to say is RSL Victoria 40 years later hadn't learned their lesson because they came out condemning the lighting and I thought that was very shameful on RSL Victoria's part. Yeah so look I, but also silver lining as I think you did hint at Kate best publicity the exhibition could have gotten so screw you bigots. Sorry that's my take on it.
YVONNE SILLETT: If I could just say something, at that time I was actually an advocate for RSL Victoria because they'd reached out to me because they were looking in the future of getting the rainbow tick for RSL. Really? Wasn't gonna happen in my lifetime. Anyway, so I had been part of their advisory group and I had been in several meetings with them and then come the day before the launch, RSL Victoria president spoke out and said, 'This is a family place we're not going to have you know, it's good that we're not having the lights'. Well at my next meeting, which was two days later, I Zoomed in, because I live in regional Victoria, into Anzac house, and I just let rip. And, and I'm not normally like that. And I addressed the president of RSL Victoria, and said, 'Don't tell me about being a family place'. I said, 'my wife is at this opening and so are my two sons', I said, 'so I couldn't get any more family than that'. And I said, 'And I'm stepping down from this role immediately, because there's a conflict of interest.'
KAREN BRYANT: Thank you. And certainly the threats that led to the cancellation of that lighting was certainly a really strong symbol of the bigotry and the hatred that does still exist.
FELIX: Are we still going to do the lighting at the close?
KATE SPINKS: We'll have to speak to the CEO about that.
YVONNE SILLETT: But the good thing is there is proof because they had a practice run a couple of days before so there absolutely is a photo of the Shrine in rainbow lights. They just didn't actually see it on that night.
KATE SPINKS: It was publicised in all the criticism or the critical kind of media reports, which is, yeah, interesting.
YVONNE SILLETT: So it did happen.
KAREN BRYANT: And hopefully will still happen. Noah, just picking up you mentioned about the podcasts. And I'd like to draw attention to those because certainly I listened to I think all of the podcasts leading into this. And there's some really, really powerful stories there and great context. So for anyone who goes away from this wanting to know more Kate, dp you want to just mention about those podcasts.
KATE SPINKS-COLAS: Yeah, absolutely. I mean, they're very comprehensive. And, you know, in some respects, the first two are kind of like the whole exhibitionand history condensed into a, you know, two podcasts, and there's some really incredible additional stories in there, personal stories. But it also is very thorough in the way that it really tells you about the history of LGBTIQ+ service.
KAREN BRYANT: And those gathering of history now is so important. But Noah, obviously you're a historian in this space. And from what you were saying earlier, I certainly gathered that there, it might, you know, prior to getting all these wonderful people together, it was potentially a little bit difficult to pull together some of that research. And could you talk a little bit about how much information was available in terms of military history for you? Or LGBTIQ military history. And if there was a little bit of a lack, a bit about why that is?
NOAH RISEMAN: A good chunk of what we did was through oral histories. We interviewed 140 people all up, which I think when we put the grant proposal together for the project, we said we did interview 40, we interviewed 140. So there was a lot of interest amongst LGBITQ+ veterans and currently serving members and I have to thank DEFGLIS a lot, you weren't the leader at the time, Vince was, but they really helped with reaching out with a lot of currently serving people. As part of our ethics approval, we had to have a balance, whatever that meant. But anyway, what's interesting is like, so the oral histories were fantastic. And people we interviewed would then refer us on to other people that they knew. And a lot of the veterans we interviewed had saved records that they were so generous to share. And these were things that we would not have had access to otherwise. Getting documents was actually, so for the period from '74 to '92, there was actually quite a bit in the National Archives, that was relatively easy to access, because that's during the period of open access in the National Archives, it was just a matter of requesting it and going to Canberra and having a look. So where there were gaps or where it was a bit more challenging was that period from the Second World War until about the '70s. Because I suppose, to put it bluntly, there were fewer people from that period who were around to interview, but those we did interview were absolutely wonderful, amazing people. Strangely, the '90s was a bit of a gap. We didn't interview many people who served in the '90 and I don't really know why but that was a gap.
But where I would say the biggest challenge was was when we needed stuff from Defence, Oh my god, I mean dealing with the Department of Defence or the ADF is like pulling teeth. It's worse than pulling teeth. And that's not because of homophobia or transphobia. It's just because they don't trust outsiders. And they don't want to give you anything. I could tell lots of stories about it. But I guess I'll just give one example, was one thing that we wanted to access with some of the old police records of interrogations. Now, this became, this was sort of a circular challenge, because theoretically, those were during the open period of the National Archives. But for very legitimate privacy provisions under the Archives Act that I wouldn't ever contest, you wouldn't be able to see most of that information. But then the catch was you couldn't request, so they would be filed by name. So unless you knew the name, you couldn't request it. But because you didn't know the names, you couldn't know what to request. So I tried to have a discussion with someone in the ADF about coming up with a sort of privacy protocol to get access to this. It took nine months just to find the person who I should speak to just nine months, and then it was the Provost Marshal. And then I finally like had a meeting scheduled and then got some email from the Deputy Provost Marshal saying that the Provost Marshal was on like extended sick leave, could it wait till they got back. And I very politely explained, I've been waiting nine months just to like find out who you were let alone blah, blah, blah. I'd rather not. And to his credit, he's like, 'Alright, we'll meet next week'. And it actually, it was a great conversation on the phone. And I explained what I was doing, where I was coming from, he was very, very supportive. And he said, 'I can imagine us coming up with a protocol of you in a room with all these files, and you just going through them'. So we're like, 'Alright, how will we do this?' We're like step one, we'll identify what we know we have and then we'll release sort of data to you on the sort of number of investigations, when, et cetera, where and then we take it from there. And I should say, so what they knew they had collated a whole lot of the police files as part of the not the current Royal Commission, but the previous Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse, because the ADF was part of that. So they collated a lot of homosexuality files related to that. And so they prepared the data. And then I was like, 'Okay, can I get the data please?' They're like 'Oh, we're waiting for approval to release it'. A few months later, 'Can I get the data please?' 'Sorry, we're waiting for approval to release it' a few months later. And then finally, I just said to the APS contact, 'I feel like I should just put in an FOI'. He rings me and he goes, put in an FOI. And I did and then it was released. But that's when I was like, just screw this. Like, that's just one example. When you needed stuff from the ADF, you weren't gonna, you couldn't get anything. But that said, luckily, because it's history, most of what we needed was early enough that it was through the National Archives. And we had these amazing oral histories.
FELIX: It was interesting that you commented about not having a lot of information in the '90s, because I found it very gay when I joined in the '90s.
NOAH RISEMAN: Where are they now?
FELIX: Well, I think the thing is, everyone knew who everyone was but nobody talked about it because the policy had changed, but the culture hadn't. And that was a big thing. Because I joined in '94 and the culture was still like, people still had that thing of like, they just hadn't got over that we can't have gays in the Defence Force. And so I knew a lot of other gay people, but nobody was out at work. Nobody. Like I think I knew one person who was out at work. And they were an Air Force medic. And that was it.
NOAH RISEMAN: Yeah, of people we did interview who served in the '90s, the ones who were out in the '90s tended to be people who had already served a really long time. So they were much more secure in their job. They tended to be people further away from combat in roles that would be-
NOAH RISEMAN: Human resources. Women did tend to be more open we found from the '90s as well, because like I said, there was always the expectation and again, Air Force for some reason, and I was talking with Yvonne about this earlier, during the era of the witch hunts from the '70s and '80s, Air Force were like the worst at targeting. But once the ban was lifted, since then, Air Force seems to have been the most accepting.
FELIX: I think they still are, like most of the trans people I know are Air Force.
NATHAN HOWARTH: So part of the work that I do at the moment is advising directorate personnel and assisting. I got some training last year that they sent me off for and so it was the Pride in Diversity training, end of last year, I was fortunate enough to represent the Department of Defence at the Pride in Practice conference, Air Force is, we are leading in, we're very proudly leading inclusion. And you know, that's because we recognise the strength in diversity.
FELIX: Because the army still hasn't quite got it together because I worked with pockets of the army where you sometimes go 'Oh, are we still back in the '70s?'
NOAH RISEMAN: What I can't figure out is, so the Australian Defence Force census now does ask questions about whether You're LGBTQ+ and, Oh God, I should have looked at the stats before, but the 2019 census was it like 6% or 5% or something like that. We don't know it for the Australian census, but we do for the ADF census. But the stat from the census that keeps confusing me is higher percentage in Navy. And I'm like, the Navy is where we couldn't get as many people. I was like, where are these people in the Navy? Like Air Force, they're all out, like, I don't know, anyway, just a random thing, like we found the Air Force people see to be more open. But according to the statistics, there's more in the Navy.
KAREN BRYANT: I'd like to pick up a second on that point of, you know, just because a rule changes the culture takes considerable time to to change along with it. And often, the way people view things continues. And Felix, you talked about when you were telling your story, you know, it was as much about now as it was about the past. And I guess I'd like to invite you to talk a bit about some of the difficulties that are still experienced by trans members with regards to maybe some of the inflexibility and the boxes that you mentioned that, that everyone's supposed to fit into a box.
FELIX: Yeah. I think I think the big one is medical. Like, when you try go in the Defence Force, you've got to take a medical beforehand. So there's a psychological medical and there's a physical medical. And I think the hardest part as a trans person is they want to know exactly what stage you're at. And it becomes rather impersonal. Like, it's just too invasive. Like, they asked questions that they wouldn't ask a cis person, like, 'Have you had this bit removed? That bit removed? Have you done this to your body?' and you're like, 'I'm a fit, healthy person I'm currently serving in an APS role that a uniformed person could also do, and I can be deployed and do all those things, handle weapons, whatever you want me to do, I can do it. I've got a security classification that's quite high. And now you sit there and tell me that I'm not psychologically fit to do these roles. And I'm already doing them. So what's going on here?' And I think, defence, especially when it comes to recruiting trans people, they go, 'Yeah, we can do this or that'. But then you go to sit at the Medical Board, and they don't know what to do with you. And I don't understand why if I'm fit and healthy, and I can do my day job, why that just can't be carried over and they just deal with the medical things like they would anyone else with a broken toe or bad teeth, like, I've known people in defence force to get a full set of porcelain teeth, because all their teeth rotted out of their mouth. That s*** ain't cheap.
KAREN BRYANT: It also assumes, you know, talking about the invasiveness of the questions, but also, what's behind those questions is an assumption that everybody is following the same path and the same boxes.
FELIX: Yes, and they very much want you to tick different types of surgery, different types of hormones, and they assume that that makes a trans person and that's something from like the '50s when you wanted to change your ID. So New South Wales and Queensland still have a process by if you want your birth certificate and your driver's licence and all those bits of documentation to match your gender, you have to tick certain surgery boxes. That's no longer the case in South Australia, Victoria, Tasmania, and I think Western Australia is not quite...
NOAH RISEMAN: WA is in between and Queensland, the law is about to change. It's in the process.
FELIX: Northern Territory, I don't know
NOAH RISEMAN: They've removed it too. It's literally, by later this year, it'll be just New South Wales. Well, depending on how quick WA is.
FELIX: And I think that's the problem is that everyone's journey is different. And they just haven't quite got their head around how to deal and non binary people, that's just, that's a weird one for them. Like they just assume a non binary person is somebody who's androgynous. And I know plenty of non binary people who swing it both ways, they're are a lot of fem and a lot of masc. And I think that'd be just too hard for the Defence Force to deal with is people who like dresses and beards, that would just be too much for them, I think they would just break their brain on that one.
NATHAN HOWARTH: DEFGLIS as an advocacy organisation, we're actually really fortunate that we get to enjoy a lot of the success and help create a lot of inclusion moving forward. We are actually working, DEFGLIS as a part of the Royal Commission is putting up evidence to the commission. But also, we've been helping work to create a policy and framework that is, once we can get it through, establish better protocols, procedures and inclusion around trans inclusion and the medical side of things.
FELIX: Yeah, because the medical side, I think they really have to start treating it like it's like getting your teeth fixed or you know, you broke your shoulder or something. Because what I found going through the recruiting process less than 12 months ago was that they really wanted you to tick certain boxes and I don't know why that is.
NATHAN HOWARTH: In my capacity as a DEFGLIS member I can't really comment on behalf of the department
FELIX: No, you can't
NATHAN HOWARTH: My experience personally as a gay man is that defence is very prescriptive in its medical care. And my, you know, even going on well, you know, the amount of gay men that are on PrEP, we started having PrEP as a part of the healthcare system a few years ago, thanks to a very good friend of mine who was one of the first. And it's because, I think the nature of our service can be very, we can be sent away, we can go here, there and everywhere. And so there needs to be a robust framework around that, doesn't matter where you are, we can plug you into a situation. I think that's why the way that it is the way that it is. And that certainly fits in with my experience. On a positive note, as well, one of our board members is actually an openly serving, non binary trans masc Army officer, and they've recently just graduated as our first helicopter pilot and they're undergoing conversion. So we are making inroads, we are certainly moving forward. And we're excited for the future because we recognise the value of inclusion and diversity.
FELIX: I still think that at some point defence does need to make an apology to all the people it wronged. That is something I can't- I still can't march in Mardi Gras is as an APS person because that apology hasn't been forthcoming. And I think it's long overdue that people like myself and Yvonne haven't got a formal apology from defence to say, sorry, we treated you badly, and we've ruined your careers before you even had a chance to blossom.
YVONNE SILLETT: Look, that's my journey now. My journey is not about compensation. My journey is about an apology. And that's why I gave evidence at the Royal Commission and I'm hoping one of the findings in the final report will be that Albo and Penny will apologise for the way we were treated.
KAREN BRYANT: Thank you.
LAURA THOMAS: Thanks for listening to the podcast, and a big thank you to everyone involved in the panel: Karen Bryant, Yvonne Sillett, Noah Riseman, Felix, Nathan Howarth and Kate Spinks-Colas.
The Defending with Pride exhibition is on at the Shrine until July 2023. For more information on the exhibition head to the Shrine’s website - shrine.org.au. And discover our other podcasts on LGBTQ+ service, search ‘Defending with Pride’ on your preferred platform.
If this podcast raised any issues for you please contact Lifeline on 13 11 14, Open Arms 1800 001 046, or DLVA, the discharged LGBTI Veterans Association - phone Yvonne or Danny on 0400 124 213 or visit the website dlvainfo.com. You can find out more about DEFGLIS at DEFGLIS.com.au.
Thanks for listening.
Reviewed 17 May 2023