Bridget Clinch is a change maker. A former captain in the Australian Army, in 2010 she challenged the Australian Defence Force over its ban on transgender service - and won.
It was a hard-fought battle that paved the way for other transgender ADF service members to be able transition and to continue serving after her. High profile former Lieutenant Colonel and Group Captain Cate McGregor, was one of them.
Born in Sydney in 1979, Bridget Clinch’s military story began in Victoria as an Army cadet in the mid-90s, at the boys’ secondary college, Melbourne High School. She joined the Army in 1999, and went into officer training at Royal Military College Duntroon.
Bridget spent 15 years serving in the Australian Army and had a busy infantry career - in her words, she “crammed a lot in”, especially in her 20s. A combat leader, she deployed to East Timor twice on peacekeeping missions, first in 2003 then in 2008, receiving medals for her service. Amongst it all she commanded platoons, abseiled down mountains, did commando training – and that’s just for starters.
Bridget has a remarkable story to tell – not only about being the person who made the ADF repeal its ban on transgender service in 2010, but also about service life itself and what it means to look after and defend your country. “I wanted to transition, be true to myself and keep serving”, she said in a 2017 Guardian article.
The protracted process with the ADF took “a huge personal toll” on Bridget. In 2013, she made the difficult decision to discharge from the ADF. Bridget lost her career and the Army lost a dedicated career soldier.
Now based in Brisbane, Bridget Clinch describes herself as a “parent, veteran, nerd, writer, speaker and occasional political candidate”. She’s a passionate speaker with a genuine sense of social justice, a super-informed worldview and a progressive thinker. This is her story.
Defending with Pride: Voices is a podcast produced for the Shrine of Remembrance to accompany the exhibition Defending with Pride: Stories of LGBTQ+ service.
Parental guidance is recommended: this audio program contains adult themes and concepts and occasional coarse language.
If this program raises any issues for you, feel free to call Lifeline on 13 11 14 or Qlife on 1800 184 527. Or please scroll down for additional support services.
The opinions expressed in this podcast are those of individual contributors and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Shrine of Remembrance.
Bridget Clinch (former captain, Australian Army)
Huge thanks to Bridget Clinch for generously sharing her wisdom, candour, insights and lived experience for this project, and for her patience during the COVID period.
“ADF in East Timor”, Department of Defence. Used with kind permission.
“Vice Regal Guard of Honour”, Shrine of Remembrance
Original “Kissed” music: Philip Brophy
’62,000 Bells For 62,000 Australian Dead’, recorded at the ANU School of Music by Veronica Bailey, Thomas Laue and Chris Latham (in Movement 12: ‘Lux Aeterna – In Paradisum’). From The Diggers’ Requiem, co-commissioned by Australian War Memorial and the Australian Government Department of Veterans’ Affairs. The concert was performed in Amiens, France, on April 23, 2018, by Orchestre de Picardie and the Jena Philharmonic and with Australian soloists, conducted by Chris Latham.
Professor Noah Riseman, Wendy Love, Kon Velanis and Sean Gallagher at Defence Digital Media and Chris Latham.
Emma Masters, Sean Burton and the Shrine team: Tessa Occhino, Laura Thomas, Sue Burgess and Kate Spinks, curator of Defending with Pride exhibition.
If this podcast raises any issues for you, support is available from the following services:
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.
MEGAN: Parental Guidance is recommended for this podcast. It contains adult themes and concepts and occasional coarse language. The opinions expressed in this podcast are those of individual contributors and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Shrine of Remembrance. If this programme raises any issues for you, and you need support, you can always contact Lifeline on 13 11 14 or Qlife on 1800 184 527. Welcome to this podcast exploring all facets of our wartime history. The Shrine of Remembrance acknowledges Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples as the traditional custodians of the land on which we honour Australian service people, and we pay our respects to elder's past, present and emerging. Hello, I'm Megan Spencer. And in Defending with Pride: Voices for the Shrine of Remembrance, we've heard the voices of current and former Australian Defence Service personnel who've contributed to making Australia's military a more diverse and inclusive workplace and defence force when it comes to LGBTQI+ service. Often in the face of adversity and discrimination, they've stood up, and they've stood proud, asserting that their identities have nothing to do with their ability to do their jobs. They've called for the visibility, inclusion, equality and respect that any defence service member who works to the best of their ability in the service and defence of their country is entitled to. As we've heard in this series, the stories of those who went before are inspiring, especially to today's LGBTQI+ service members now able to serve openly with pride in the Army, Navy and Air Force. Some might call those people pioneers or change makers. Well, today, you're about to meet another.
BRIDGET: Yeah, I mean, like, it's like a principle of like, biological organisms, that diversity is strength. And that really does carry through, you know, most aspects of humanity, you know, and that was one of the things I noticed was really cool in defence, you know, the diverse interests and backgrounds, just even from the demographics that you know, because it does seem to get like people from every extreme, you know, and you're all smashed in together, and that's definitely a strength. So, yeah, going into the future if there was more diversity, it could only make things better.
MEGAN: After the federal government overturned the ban on lesbian, gay and bisexual service in the Australian Defence Force in 1992, it would be another 18 years before the defence instruction that effectively banned transgender service in our military would be lifted. As with 1992, this change and internal ADF policy repeal this time also involved the Australian Human Rights Commission. This policy change came about in 2010 with the effort and persistence of former Army Captain Bridget Clinch. Coincidentally, Amy Hamblin, a transgender Air Force member also happened to confront the ADF over the ban around the same time as Bridget.
BRIDGET: Yeah, sure. Um, I'm Bridget Clinch. I'm 42 now, and I was in the Army for around 15 years, and I went there pretty much straight out of school. So yeah, that's the main thing that my adult life sort of knew.
MEGAN: Bridget Clinch had a busy Army infantry career. In her words, she crammed a lot in especially in her 20s. A combat leader, she deployed to East Timor twice on peacekeeping missions, first in 2003, and then in 2008. Amongst it all, she commanded platoons, abseiled down mountains, did commando training, and that's just for starters.
BRIDGET: You know, to be honest, just looking at, even with the benefit of hindsight and knowing everything I know now, there isn't a job out there that is as cool as being like a combat-focused person in the military because you just get to do so much stuff and you do get to blow shit up. You get to shoot stuff, you get to throw things that go bang and get to fire rockets like, you know, detonate six claymores you've just duct taped together and like, it's just so much crazy stuff you get to do.
MEGAN: Born in Sydney in 1979, Bridget's military story began in Victoria as an Army Cadet in the mid 90s, at the boys secondary college Melbourne High School. She joined the Army in 1999 and went into officer training at Duntroon. The next year in 2000, with no tolerance for and no defined policy around transgender personnel, the Australian Defence Force instigated a policy that effectively barred members who wished to transition their gender from service. In this policy, it was stated 'a person undergoing or contemplating gender reassignment cannot be considered suitable for service in the ADF because of the need for ongoing treatment and or the presence of a psychiatric disorder'. As Professor Noah Riseman writes, an expert in LGBTQI+military histories, 'the only option for transgender personnel was to serve in secrecy or face dismissal'. Being transgender automatically meant medical downgrade, and that downgrade meant unfit for service. It would be nine more years until Bridget finally realised that she had gender dysphoria and wished to transition to affirm her female gender. Although by then diverse sexuality in the ADF had been officially accepted with same sex de facto relationships, also officially recognised, it would be another battle before the military would recognise and accept transgender members such as Bridget.
BRIDGET: Before I transitioned, I was never able to actually just relax and, and be myself and give 100% ever. Which is, you know, from a people management perspective and a capability perspective, I mean, people are one of the pillars of the military's capability. If you've got people holding themselves back, that's, that's not okay. Because you know, that was soul destroying, like it makes you always wonder, you know, what could have been if I had been supported? So yeah, I'll never know. But I just know that my whole career, everything I did, I was holding myself back.
MEGAN: After trying to terminate Bridget's service for her decision to transition, with the support of the Australian Human Rights Commission, Bridget turned to the law, took on defence and won. In 2010, the ADF repealed the policy and her dismissal. Bridget made them change.
BRIDGET: Yeah, I mean, yeah, it was a rough couple of years. And I don't know if I ever will bounce back. But I couldn't be the person I am, if not for the experiences that I've had. So you kind of have to take all the good and the bad together like because you can't perfect world this stuff. So yeah, it just takes that one person who's unlucky enough to be in the right place at the right time, with the right sort of willingness to take on the fight.
MEGAN: In a subsequent Guardian article, Bridget wrote, 'I wanted to transition. be true to myself and keep serving'. But the process before and after this moment took as Bridget says, 'a huge personal toll'. In 2013, she made the difficult decision to discharge from the ADF. Bridget lost her career and the army lost a talented, dedicated and decorated career soldier. Now based in Brisbane, Bridget Clinch describes herself as a parent, veteran, nerd, writer, speaker and occasional political candidate. She's a passionate speaker with a genuine sense of social justice, a super informed worldview and a progressive thinker. We start her story back in the 1990s at Melbourne High when the cadets were part of the annual pre-Anzac Day Honour Guard Ceremony at the Shrine.
MEGAN: We kind of could say I guess that your connection to the military and your desire to be part of defence life was born in Victoria when you went to school there?
BRIDGET: Yeah, I mean, it kind of was. I went to school, I went to Melbourne High School for Year nine to 12 It was kind of strange, like because I think back then I wanted to be a pilot. And so I was looking at the Air Force cadets and then I wasn't really, I don't know, they seem kind of a bit nerdy and dorky. And I kind of was, I don't know, that wasn't really, I wasn't really feeling it. So I went to the Army Cadets instead. And like most of my memories and shenanigans and craziness for Melbourne High stem from you know, all the extra curricular stuff we got up to in through cadets and things like that and camps and, and all the friends that I made in that sort of thing and yeah, it's kind of, that's kind of what I guess put me on track to join the army.
MEGAN: It sounds like you have some fond memories of that time when you were at Melbourne High and in cadets?
BRIDGET: Yeah, for sure. I mean, it was a great bunch of people. And you know, that kind of adolescent time when you're sort of trying to figure out a lot of stuff. And we had some great teachers who were cadet officers as well. And heaps of people from the school used to come back and help us out. But we did so much stuff like we did camps, you know, we learned all those practical skills. It was a good couple of years. And yeah, you know, yeah, it was a lot of fun.
Also, one of the interesting things that Melbourne High did for many years, and I think still does, is form the Honour Guard for the Shrine of Remembrance, you know, we're making this podcast for the Shrine. Were you part of that at all?
BRIDGET: Yeah, yeah, every year that I was in the school. So it was pre Anzac Day. And so we would do this big thing. And it was, it was pretty full on like, it was pretty formal. And there was always like, politicians there and that sort of thing. And, and we do all the service. And then actually, on Anzac Day, most of us would sort of volunteer to carry banners for some of the regiments, because I guess back then, there wasn't too many young veterans. Yeah, so it was a lot of older guys, you know, from back in previous wars and stuff. And so, yeah, so we'd carry banners on Anzac Day, but the Honour Guard was pretty huge. We'd practice for it on the school oval and do all that stuff. And I guess it was part of that whole identity building that I mean, that's the years you're in, that those sort of last few years of high school before you become a proper grown up and whatever. So like, it was a big thing at the time, I guess. You know, like it was a big part of like, who you were and, and yeah.
MEGAN: Dedicated to her training and not wanting to be bored, after high school, Bridget moved into a military life. As she mentioned earlier, initially, she contemplated the Air Force, but it was the Army that got her attention.
BRIDGET: I needed adventure and, you know, excitement. A Jedi craves not these things. But you know, that's kind of that's where I was at back then. Yeah.
MEGAN: Bridget joined the Army Reserve and applied to the commando regiment in Williamstown.
BRIDGET: I eventually finished school and I applied to the commando regiment, which is in Williamstown. And I joined them as a reservist. At that time, they were doing this thing where regulars and reserves did the same training courses, through recruit training, and then through their corp specific training. So I was like, 'Oh, this is cool. It's kind of the best of both worlds'. So I joined the commando regiment and they had their sort of selection-y sort of process to get into them. And so I did all that. And then I went to Kapooka straight out of school. And then came back to Melbourne for a bit of the holidays and then went to Singleton the School of Infantry, did my course there over the start of like '98. And then I came back to Melbourne, and was doing the reserve thing with the commando regiment there and I was supposed to be going to uni and then I just couldn't bring myself to do it. So maybe sometime during '98, that's when I was like, 'No, I think I need to go into the full time army'.
MEGAN: Bridget had also excelled in her aptitude testing. Before starting the commando course, her platoon commander in Melbourne suggested that she apply to the Royal Military College Duntroon, which she did. But she was also preoccupied with being a commando. Bridget picks up the story.
BRIDGET: I just was like three quarters of the way through the course when I found out
MEGAN: That you got into the Military College in Duntroon?
BRIDGET: I got into Duntroon and of course I was partway through during my commando training course. Because in my head I was like, 'Who cares about Duntroon. Let's smash this commander course out.' And then after that I can be a qualified commando and just transfer the full time commando regiment and I'm like, full-time'Yeah, hardcore, like let's do this'. And I was kinda like, I don't know, I was just sort of jumping through all the hoops and, and I just did all the things and I got into infantry. I did actually, while I was at Duntroon, I did do the aircrew testing and stuff. So I passed all the stick tests and and whatever, I probably could have been a pilot but again that wasn't like toughe and war-y enough for me so you know I was like 'No I want to go infantry' and so stupid me ended up infantry again. And that's where I did like the majority of my time in the Army, you know as a as an infantry officer. So, yeah,
MEGAN: Wow, tough and war-y enough. So I guess you could say, like, pretty masculine space that you were in...
BRIDGET: I know. It's so cliche now I like, there's so many examples like it in the world, but I just, you know, don't know, it just, it just seems silly. It's that whole, you know, join the army, it'll make a man out of you like, you know, there's so many like gay and trans women, people in that sort of spectrum that sort of tried that whole military angle. And I guess for anyone listening out there, it doesn't work. It'll come back and bite you.
MEGAN: Do you think that part of your motivation at that time, because I just want to say listening to you talk about it, like, there's obviously a huge level of joy about you moving into this career, this life, when you started, you know,
BRIDGET. You know the old movies, you know, I think GI Jane was big when I was in my last couple years of high school, you know, and there was a scene in there, where she's talking to the psych, you know, because she's doing a Navy SEAL training first woman ever and she's like, 'Oh, so why are you here?' And she's like, 'I don't know, the same reason that the guys are here for' and she's like, 'Look, to be honest, most of the guys say they're here just because they want to be able to blow shit up'.
And there's just there's so much cool stuff you get to do. And everyone sort of experiences are different because of what's going on at the time. What sort of tack the military's taking in terms of qualifications and skills and whether or not it's peacetime versus wartime type stuff and whether or not they can, you can find space for things like adventurous training, which is one of the things I did get to do. I actually started that in cadets, I did whitewater rafting with the adventurous training wing. And then, you know, many years later, I was 2IC of the adventurous training wing, you know, so. But then, you know, you're turning around, and then you're doing a career course a few months later, where you're back into your, your primary job and, and doing stuff. So, yeah, it's just, it's, it was super cool. You know, it was, like, there's some annoying aspects of it of the life stuff. But the cool stuff definitely outweighed the shit stuff. And yeah, there was a lot of fun to be had there. And yeah.
MEGAN: Well, that's great. That's, um, clearly you're an adventurer, you know, like, but I suppose, you know, given the focus of this exhibition that we're looking at, you know, LGBTQI+ and the military and defence life. Yeah, I'm kind of interested if we could return to that point you brought up before about being really attracted to this hyper masculine space and stuff that you were doing. At that time, were you also cognizant of the fact that in your body, you weren't feeling right with your gender?
BRIDGET: Yeah, I mean, for sure, like, that sort of began in, in high school too like, I guess, weirdly, being in a single sex high school for years nine to 12, it kind of, it took that sort of gender thing off the radar a bit or sort of, like, pushed it into the background. Although, you know, we, my friends all had girlfriends, and whatever. And I kind of had a girlfriend in year 11 and 12. And, but it was like, it was really weird, because I just, I couldn't really figure out why I wasn't doing all the same things as they were doing. And I was like, there's, there's something, something's off here. But I really didn't want to think too much about it. And so that kind of continued on by going into the military. And by going into areas that were, at that time, male only occupations that kind of just push that whole gender thing away. And then, you know, you were just sort of competing in this, you know, space of, you know, toxic masculinity and, and just, you know, who could be the toughest bastard out there and just do all the stuff and just keep going and, you know, it's just like, I guess that was a good distraction. And, yeah, it can't, but I mean, it doesn't address anything. It just sort of pushes it down the road.
MEGAN: In 2003, not too long into her Australian Army career, Bridget deployed to East Timor as part of Operation Citadel, the post-independence peacekeeping mission supporting the UN, which also included Australian combat battalion groups. In her words, it was a time when the new nation of Timor Leste was trying to find its feet. Bridget was a lieutenant in the first battalion Royal Australian regiment and was put in charge of a CIMIC or a civil military cooperation team that included an interpreter, a corporal and five soldiers. Based in Batugade and covering Balibo and Oetapo, she says that they were out and about basically every day interfacing with the locals and leaders, the new police force, humanitarian groups, NGOs and UNHCR. It was a varied role that included everything from intelligence and intercepting smugglers to getting a roof put on a local school. She describes it as an epic experience and a real eye opener. That deployment left a deep impression on her.
BRIDGET: Yeah, well, I mean, I was like 22, 23, and a platoon commander, I did my first year in a reserve unit, or part reserve part regular unit in Queensland. And then I went up to the first battalion, so I did my year of, you know, real hardcore platoon commandering in the first battalion, and then we deployed the next year. And so, you know, you kind of think, like, it's pretty, you know, being in charge of people's lives and welfare and responsibility and making, you know, decisions that impact the tactical sort of situation on the ground, and that sort of thing. And being responsible for all that sort of stuff, like, you know what you're legally responsible for, and, and what's going on, and it's like, so you think you kind of got a lot of stuff sorted out, but you fall into that trap of being that typical white person, but you know, I guess a lot of us were kind of almost that way, but when I sort of got there and hit the ground and spoke to the people, and it was just like, that was the first time I'd seen firsthand like people subsistence living, you know, like, just in a hut with growing something close by, and with none of the comforts and, and stuff that we have. No money, just trade, but seeing them like being happy and smiling and seeing the kids play with dogs and chickens and each other and, and seeing the big people just doing their thing and stopping to have a chat with us and that kind of stuff. And it was just like, wow, this is like really different. And so seeing it in East Timor, and going, wow, you know, like, we aren't the perfect example of how humans should be. And we don't know everything, and I'm fortunate that whatever, however, I'd grown to being an adult at that point in time, but I was able to step back and take that view and flip a lot of things on their head that were like, you know, common, I guess, beliefs held by, you know, white Australians and, you know, white people around the globe, you know, but, you know, because I was like, I hope we don't wreck this place, you know, I hope that we can leave and make it better, not worse, but without like, convincing them that our ways the best way to do everything and, and stuff so, you know, that that really sort of sort of set me on that path of being able to reevaluate things and take on new info and look at just different ways and, and just really being able to critically evaluate stuff.
MEGAN: Bridget's second peacekeeping deployment to East Timor came about five years later to Dili in 2008 as a reinforcement with Third Battalion Royal Australian Regiment as a logistics officer in a Parachute Battalion attached to the Army. Noting how much Timor Leste had changed, it was quite a different experience from 2003. In the chapter about Bridgette in the book 'Serving in Silence', Noah Riseman writes that Bridget received medals for her tours and attained the rank of captain before considering applying for the SAS, the Special Air Service regiment. Super fit, physically, she was up for the task. But as she explains, she was worried about the psychological aspect of the training.
BRIDGET: There was one thing that held me back from doing SAS selection as an officer because they only take like, you know, one or two officers, the course or, if any, but I had this nightmare scenario in my head, that I would be because they just run you into the ground. My nightmare scenario was being smashed to, you know, complete fatigue on an SAS selection course and having I don't know, a psychologist and the directing staff like badgering me with questions and somehow finding out that, you know, I, ever since I was in primary school, or even before primary school, that I had sort of had this idea or feeling whatever it was that I you know, should have been born a girl. I don't think I knew that trans people existed at that point in time. Although I think I'd actually read the policy for trans people. I didn't really know what it was I didn't know it was real, it wasn't a tangible thing in my headspace back then. And so that nightmare scenario kept me from going through with SAS selection. So I trained up for it with a bunch of other people. And I did like the entry test. But I kind of sabotaged myself by doing a half Ironman Triathlon two weeks before the Special Forces entry test or something, or maybe a week, even anyway, my legs were dead. And I missed the run by like, three seconds. And I had a bunch of people behind me saying, 'We were pacing ourselves off you like we thought you're gonna you're in for sure'. And but you know, I just, I couldn't get that nightmare scenario out of my head enough to, to go through with it. But yeah, that sort of thing was in my head, and I couldn't, I couldn't deal with it enough at the time to move past it.
MEGAN: Bridget says that personally, this was a turbulent time in her life. Her commanding officer could also see something was up.
BRIDGET: But on my second trip to Timor, the commanding officer was like, he said, 'I need you to go and see a psychologist while you're here'. And so I had to go into the headquarters and talk to a psych.
MEGAN: And why was that, Bridget? Did he see something was up, like, emotionally, what was going on there?
BRIDGET: And when I did the stuff with the psych, like, we did all the depression and anxiety screening and all that usual stuff. And they were like, 'It's really weird, because you tick all of the depression boxes and whatever. But you're functional'. And the CO was just like, 'Something's not right'. He kept saying all that, you know, that thing you hear in primary school, 'You're not living up to your potential, and you've got so much potential'. And he was like, 'It's just such a terrible waste. I see potential here. And you're not living up to it'.
MEGAN: So you went on a second deployment in 2008. And that's when things started to change for you. And things were starting, it sounded like you were allowing things to come up closer to the surface and look at them in sharper focus. You mentioned your CO wanted to get you to have a psychological evaluation because he, he sensed you holding yourself back and not doing your potential. And we shouldn't forget that part of the ethos of, of being in the ADF is, is people being the best they can. That's true, isn't it?
BRIDGET: Yeah. They drummed into you as a leader, you know, at Duntroon and whatever, you know, that if without your people, you can't get the mission done, you know. And so that's why your people are like, such a primary thing. Yet, you know, I was only ever able to be, you know, I don't know, half to three quarters of what I could have been. Yeah, it was really weird to get that and, and having this colonel being all like, 'Ah, you know, you could be doing all these grand things. And but you know, there's something not right there'. So, that was when I was starting to let some of the thoughts bubble to the surface like that, you know, I guess I hadn't really entertained since they were sort of, I guess, beaten or conditioned out of me as a kid, you know. And so, I was like, I was, I was sort of starting to realise that, like, I still enjoyed what I was doing. But that thing that was not fitting was how I was in the world. And so that led me to searching and I guess, yeah, like 2008, 9...
MEGAN: It was an awakening for Bridget, she realised that in her words, she wasn't crazy, and that her feelings of incongruence or gender dysphoria were real. And that in some respects, she had been trying to bury them in the highly masculine environment of the Army. So she started doing some research online, which at that time for her was pretty confronting.
BRIDGET: Yeah, so searching down that rabbit hole back then, and yeah, I, I didn't have the words. I didn't have the terminology that everyone sort of has now. And yeah, I came across this blog of a US sheriff's something or other and they were supporting all these basically, I guess, trans women who were all in hyper masculine things. So there was like firies and tactical response, SWOT team people and all different kinds of law enforcement. And, you know, when you find something like that, and you're not ready to accept that by typing in the things that are in your head, lead you there. And then there's these people transitioning, that was just like close all the windows, run away.
MEGAN: Too scary.
BRIDGET: Yeah, it was it was just too like, you can't be serious. Like, that's not a thing. So there was so many things like it seems so stupid in retrospect though, because you're like 'Well, derr', if you search what you're thinking, and that's what it turns up, then they're thinking the same thing you are. And yeah, and that's why I sort of said earlier, like it's so cliche, the whole hypermasculine employment trans woman type thing and because there's been a bunch-
MEGAN: There'd been a bunch of people doing the same thing, trying to bury themselves in a very masculine environment so that they don't have to deal with the fact that they're feeling quite the opposite?
BRIDGET: Yeah, because you know, it feels like I get, you know, in medical and in most up to date circles now, I guess it's just seen as something that is, but in the absence of knowing where things are up to with the current medicine, and psychiatry and psychology and all that sort of stuff, it seems like it's a defect or a character flaw, or, you know, you're just crazy. You're just flat out crazy.
MEGAN: Feeling like that your gender doesn't match what you're born into?
BRIDGET: Yeah. So you know, it was really weird. By the time I got to talking to, I just had searched stuff. And I had found out that we actually had some gender clinics around Australia, and people transitioned, and that was a thing. But surely, I wasn't one of those people, you know, that wasn't me. So I looked into it. And I was like, I've got two options. I can try about seeing medical people privately, which is, you know, not what you're supposed to do in the military, because all your medical is inside the military system. So I was like, oh, you know, it's the modern world. It's 2009. I'll just go through the military system and just talk to the medical people, if anyone's going to understand they will. And yeah, so I talked to that psych. And it was like, 'Okay, then', because that was the first time like, I guess, you know, that perfect world scenario? Whenever anyone asked that question, you know, what would you do, what, what would life look like for you in a perfect world, like, I couldn't seriously answer that question. Because it just, I just couldn't, you know, like, I was still running from that. So I guess I'd just be like, I don't know. I don't know. But yeah, you know, now I can say, well, you know, that perfect world looks like, it looks like me, not like this. But yeah, so it was really, that was really full on. So after the psych, I went to the senior medical officer, and I just spilled my guts, totally. And he just asked a bunch of questions. And I was just like I answered, and you know, this was during a work day. So you know, like, I've made an appointment with the doctor and whatever, I walked across from where I was working, spilled my guts to him, and I think I just felt like numb and weird for the whole rest of the day. And he just was like, 'Oh, well, let me make some inquiries and I'll get back to you'. And I went and saw him again, he's like 'Well, we've got a couple of options. And I've narrowed them down, I think the best one's in Sydney. So we'll send you there, you can go talk to them'.
MEGAN: And where were you posted at this stage?
BRIDGET: I was in Wagga at that time, I was at the army adventurous training wing. And that's at Kapooka where the recruit training stuff is, but hidden over the other side of the hill, so the recruits can't see them. Because, you know, we're doing all cool stuff and not wearing uniforms. And just, you know, they're training to be, you know, with shaved heads and being indoctrinated into the ways of the army and stuff. So yeah, so we were like, we were a secret from them.
MEGAN: My name is Megan Spencer. And this is Defending with Pride: Voices, a podcast for the Shrine of Remembrance that explores the stories of LGBTQI+ service people in Australia's military. And today we're listening to the remarkable story of former Army Captain combat leader and change maker Bridget Clinch. I guess we can say you came out to yourself and others about wanting to transition between 2008 to 2010. And by that stage, there had been some significant policy changes within the LGB area in the ADF. In 1992, the ban against homosexuals serving in the ADF was overturned. And also in 2005, same-sex couple partnerships were also officially recognised within the ADF. So it wasn't like there hadn't been some sort of progress or evolution or reflection of diversity in the community being reflected back in the ADF at that stage, the ADF as an employer were aware and doing some things. So when you did start to look into transitioning and bringing the army with you, I guess you could say, opening up to them about it. It sounds to me like you had some trust and hope in the institution that you had been serving for such a long time.
BRIDGET: I did and I kind of got that from looking at what had been going on in Canada and the UK because there'd been a couple of examples. And one of those countries had like a, I think a fighter pilot or something, go away on leave, and came back, you know, transitioned and whatever. And the system just kind of caught up. So I guess coming back to that was did you say '05? That same sex couple? That was country leading. No one else recognisedsame-sexx couples as equally as the ADF was doing at that point in time. And so it was encouraging. Yeah, it really was like, oh, okay, that's pretty cool.
MEGAN: This is way before gay marriage, or same-sex marriage, in 2017
BRIDGET: So I sort of, I guess, yeah, I thought the ADF was ahead of where it was, that was a big part of it. And then, you know, sort of recognising that we were still because we had no marriage equality yet. For the purposes of defence, we kind of did. So looking at that, I had never known a military where, you know, they could kick out someone for being gay. Because I joined after that point, but I thought I was working for a more progressive organisation than I was. I guess I was going into it a bit naive. I honestly think like, I was kind of ready, when I started to transition, and I thought that things were going to be okay. And that I was going to continue on. I was like, You know what, I've got nothing holding me back now. If I just can sort this out, get my postings back on track, I can, because I was fit as, I was like 30, and I was like, I can go train, I can go smash selection, like and even if it's never publicly, whatever. And it's just like slip under the radar and I disappear off to SAS I was like, surely I can do this, I can pull it off. But you know, the army just, they, they just decided that was they were going to keep on my case until I left I think, so yeah.
MEGAN: The formal name of the ADF policy that effectively prevented transgender service in the Australian military as Defence Instruction General Personal 16-16 Transgender Personnel in the Australian Defence Force. It came into effect in the year 2000. So Bridget, what was the ADF's policy around transgender personnel at that time?
BRIDGET: Well, the policy said something like that it couldn't be considered suitable. And that anyone considering transitioning would have to be medically evaluated or undergo a medical review. And so I kind of thought, oh, Medical Review. Yeah, that's cool. I can do a medical review. And I'll just do a little bit of homework. And I'd already figured out that the, you know, the Poms are cool with it. The Canadians are cool with it. And there was other countries as well. But you know, the, the critical ones being the Brits and the Canadians. And so I was kind of looking at it as though, well, if they're cool with it, and we do stuff like that, then surely I can manage to convince them to just, you know, be cool like them. Yeah. And, yeah, it didn't quite go down like that.
MEGAN: So they told you that you would have to be medically discharged because under the policy, it was seen as a psychiatric disorder, being transgender, and also that you'd require ongoing treatment, so you'd have to be medically downgraded. And that means you're not fit for employment at that time. And you chose to fight it, didn't you?
BRIDGET: Yeah, yeah. I mean, I couldn't, I couldn't not, I guess I was in a, I was in a position where, you know, I'd been moved away from my family, and so had my partner and, you know, we didn't have any big piles of savings to speak of, and I didn't really have any other, you know, relevant sort of training or things that I could do. And because one of the little things in the policy was kinda like, if you go away and just be discharged, and then transition, you can reapply, and we might take you.
MEGAN: In your new gender?
BRIDGET: Yep. And they had done that for someone before. But it was one of those urban legend kind of things where I'm sure all the details were just blown out. But the thing is, is, you know, you had to you had to have some sort of a plan, and some sort of a big bucket of money to get you through that kind of thing, because you had to, there's time periods and stuff. And so you can't just go oh, I'm trans bam, like, get me the surgery and get everything legally changed and recognised and then back to work kind of thing. It's a good, you know, depending on the systems that you're under, a year to two year, kind of thing. And, you know, I laid everything out for them. And I sort of said, I think this would be a timeframe for us to do it in Australia and the standards of care and this was how it would all fit and I could just do a posting like, like to the recruit training place or to somewhere like a headquarters where I'm not going to be deployable, and then once it's all finished and over, then I go back into being deployable again. Like, I gave them all the answers. I gave them everything that they needed upfront. And all they needed to do was execute it. But they were just like, nope, get out, get out now.
MEGAN: Bridget's army unit at the time was supportive of her decision to transition. Well, what is interesting is that when you told your unit and your CO, the people that you worked with, they were all pretty encouraging of you, weren't they?
BRIDGET: I know, I was freaking out so much. And you know, the, the British, I think it was a British policy, talked about, you know, communicating it to sort of everyone at the same time and whatever, and that kind of thing. And I was like, oh, yeah, cool. And so I did up this letter. And luckily, I was in a small unit, you know, there was only like, I don't know, there's adventurous training, we didn't have any people so that all the people that were on hand, I managed to get my boss to give them all a letter. And I'd handwritten all their names and signed it off and just kind of explained, you know, what was going on and what I understood that transness was and what my rough timeline of things would be. And you know, I'll take some long service leave, and this is the name that I want to go by. And so they took off into a room, and they had those letters out and had a bit of a chat and whatever. And then they all sort of came out and like shook my hand and were like, 'Oh, no worries,' and, you know, 'Do what you got to do' or 'Gutsy'. Or, you know, they all said some pretty cool things. And they were, they were all pretty cool. And this was people from all over the Army, you know, like all sorts of different backgrounds, and mostly sort of senior NCOs and stuff. I've really, and even the boss, like the boss of Kapooka, when I sort of said to him, he was like, 'Oh, you know, well, you're still you and you're still one of us. And we'll see how this goes'. And then. And then yeah, Canberra turned around in like a week or two and was like, get out. And it was like what, when this come from
MEGAN: Bridget did mountains of research to make her case to the ADF. As she writes in the 2017 Guardian article, and I'm quoting here, 'I pored over legal and medical information, contacted overseas militaries with serving and former serving trans people and put together what I thought was a pretty tight case. The hierarchy of the Army and ADF in the Canberra bubble, resisted, but eventually after extensive and expensive legal advice, and with the then Attorney General weighing in, they decided that I was right'. Do you remember that moment when someone from the ADF let you know that it was repealed, and that you are no longer being medically discharged?
BRIDGET: I had three colonels from Canberra come to my house, my married quarter outside the front gates of Kapooka. They had a letter, with ink on it from someone really big, I've still got it somewhere. But it like acknowledged that, you know, they'd gotten some things wrong, and they were going to change stuff. And that these people were going to try and help get me through it all. They sort of did, but on the other hand, they were sort of there for to keep tabs on me. And for expectation management, you know, to try and not let anything get out of hand.
MEGAN: Did you feel vindicated in some way?
BRIDGET: I did a bit yeah, but it wasn't too long before more barriers kept coming up. But it was just so weird, because I was like, I was literally giving them all the answers all the way through. Every time they came up with a problem, I would give them more than one solution based on the overseas examples and back it up with whatever info I had.
MEGAN: Like the previous policy change around LGB service in 1992, it also took some time for the ADF to catch up to its new policy around transgender service in 2010, what it actually meant and what was needed afterwards. In their book Pride in Defence, Noah Riseman and Shirleen Robinson call this a policy vacuum, saying that back in 2010, commanding officers had little guidance on how to deal with transgender personnel with variable experiences. After she transitioned, Bridget felt disempowered and limited in her career choices within the ADF saying in a 2019 interview, that the ADF's secrecy around her status as transgender and lack of overt support was stressful.
BRIDGET: So it just, it really wore me down to the point where I think it was sometime late in 2012, I just, I just took the discharge on mental health grounds.
MEGAN: Because you weren't well were you?
BRIDGET. No. I still, like now I'm dealing with chronic inflammation stuff. I'm on arthritis meds now. Like, I don't think I ever fully recovered from that, you know, because it's, it was so huge, and it was so protracted, like I was arguing with them from December 2009 to late 2012. That's how I was in a protracted tit for tat argument battle war with the Chief of Army's office and, and that kind of thing. So it was just like that. But that did mean, all I needed was some, a little bit of help. It just, it just didn't come together. Yeah. So if I had had that support, like I just, I could have progressed, you know, it just would have been a totally different outcome. And so I could have just quietly trained up and slipped off to the SAS if all went well or if not stay in infantry, you know, progress. The people I went to Duntroon with, I mean, they're like colonels and stuff now, you know, yeah, it just would have been possible for me to hit my potential I guess.
MEGAN: Since Bridget's David and Goliath battle in 2010, the wheels of change have turned. Bridget paved the way for other ADF service members to be able to transition and continue serving after her. High profile former Lieutenant Colonel and Group Captain Cate McGregor being one of them in 2013 and with the then Chief of Army's very public support. Along with First Nations people, women, people from culturally and linguistically diverse backgrounds, and people with disabilities, the ADF actively recruits in the LGBTI community. It has a 2012 to 17 Diversity and Inclusion Strategy with a formal policy also in the pipeline. 'A more diverse workforce supported by an inclusive culture enhances defence's capability and effectiveness as it draws on different ideas to innovate and adapt to a rapidly evolving strategic environment and the changing nature of warfare' Defence says on its website. And if you do a Google search, pretty quickly, you'll find that the Air Force has a transgender and gender affirmation guide designed to assist individuals, supervisors and commanders to support members affirming their gender. In it, Air Commodore Geoffrey Harland writes, 'when a person is able to be their true self, they are able to contribute fully to Airforce capability. This is why it is imperative to support individuals affirming their gender'. LGBTI members support organisation DEFGLIS welcomes these kinds of developments, saying all services have worked towards the release of an inclusive policy that outlines the administration and management of transgender and gender diverse members. They also say there will always be more work to be done to ensure we meet the emerging needs of our community. So how is it now for transgender and gender diverse people within the ADF? Looking back over, you know, the last decade and a year, 11 years from that moment where you did manage to get that policy changed? How is it for gender diverse people and trans people in the ADF now?
BRIDGET: I think it still depends a lot on the individual's self agency, and their rank and position within defence and the local environment that they're in. I do know that they have deployed people post-transition. The big boogeyman that they were, they were scared of that, you know, someone would transition and then suddenly not be, you know, of use to them in the in their role. It's never eventuated, you know, like, and I guess, and the reality of it is, is that people transitioning in defence is only it's a transitional thing, because people transitioning as adults, I think, is just going to get less and less common every year that goes on. I didn't, I didn't really know that when I was fighting the policy. But that's, I guess, the observation. That's why there's so much focus on youth now. So you know, a couple a couple of decades down the track, there won't be any transitioning adults, because people will have gotten all their stuff sorted earlier. So you know, potentially, it's not going to be an issue for Defence for much longer really.
MEGAN: Since leaving the ADF, Bridget has run in state and federal politics, studied law and continues to advocate for LGBTQ+ rights in the military. And listening to Bridget speak today, I can't help but be struck by the deep commitment she had to defence service and her level of skill. She clearly loved being a soldier leading others and serving our country. And she was really good at it. So when we spoke not long ago, in the lead up to this interview, I did say to you do you miss defence life? And you said, 'Yeah, in a heartbeat, you'd throw the uniform back on and the boots back on, because they shaped you. Can you share a bit more about that?
BRIDGET: I don't know. Like, I guess the experiences that you have in defence, you know, when you're wet to the bone, and it's raining and you're carrying all this shit. And you're like, I can do this, like, just just keep going, you know, like, just just keep doing this keep keep looking after your people at the same time. And just just get the job done. You know, and you're just like that, that feeling is like it sucks at the time. But you know, at the time, and you know, afterwards like, that was cool. Like, it's just crazy the stuff that like you see happen in defence, you know, defence can, I think that's part of the problem that I see outside in the rest of the world is that people don't see that if you need or want something to happen, it can happen. Like when Timor came along, our defence had been this peacetime army for so long. And then we had this massive, like, logistic shortfall. And then it was like, oh, we need to do this, right. Buy these boats, hire this, hire that like lease these Russian helicopters, like, you know, like, we just made it happen. And then when the cyclone when Tropical Cyclone Yasi hit, I was in a headquarters about to go home in my ADF cycling gear, I get a call from Brigadier saying, 'I need to get Hercules into Innisfail how to how do I do it?' And I was like, 'Oh, I'll just go around the corner and I'll hook you up the air ops people', bam, you know, like, you know, all the people I remember in the first battalion and through most of my training, we all joined the army to do good, you know, and to put ourselves in harm's way rather than defenceless people, you know, so like, you know, we all joined to make things better, not worse. And so, you know, you know, when the chips are down, like you're you're trained, you're all capable and able and you just you just know that there's like almost limitless potential right there and ability, and it's just on tap all the time, and it just needs something to, to make it sort of, you know, come out. So, for all its failings like it's, it's, it's pretty awesome. And yeah, so I wouldn't ever want to like, like, if I cut that out of my life, that'd be, I don't know what, like, I'd be some boring person that went to school and did some stuff. Like, you know? Yeah, just. Yeah, I mean, like, it's like a principle of like biological organisms, that diversity is strength. And that really does carry through, you know, most aspects of humanity. If you only recruit from one sort of limited pool, then everything gets narrowed down, and your ideas and your thoughts are all sort of channelled and you get that groupthink thing happening. But, you know, and that was one of the things I noticed was really cool in defence, you know, the diverse interests and backgrounds just even from the demographics that you know, because it does seem to get people from every extreme, you know, and you're all smashed in together, and that's definitely a strength. So yeah, definitely like, going into the future, if there was more diversity, it could only make things better.
MEGAN: Former Army Captain, and today's speaker Bridget Clinch ending this episode of Defending with Pride: Voices, a podcast for the Shrine of Remembrance produced by me, Megan Spencer. Huge thanks to Bridget Clinch for generously sharing her wisdom, candour, insights and lived experience for this project and for her patience during the COVID period. Special thanks also to Noah Riseman for his kind support of this programme. And you can read more about Bridget's story in the book he co wrote with Shirleen Robinson and Graham Willett, Serving in silence: Australian LGBT servicemen and women published by New South. Also in the book Pride in Defence: the Australian military and LGBTI service since 1945, co-written by Noah and Shirleen and published by Melbourne University Press. I'm indebted to them for their research and authorship.
For additional sound many many thanks to Teodosia “Dhesy” dos Reis, journalist and trainer with Radio Liberdade Dili, and also to the Department of Defence and the Shrine of Remembrance. For the music, thank you to Chris Latham, Veronica Bailey and Thomas Laue for the ‘62,000 Bells’ from the Diggers Requiem, and also to Philip Brophy for his original music ‘Kissed’. Sound mastering is by Chris Keogh.
Thank you also to Wendy Love for her support of this programme to Kon Velanis and Sean Gallagher at Defence digital media, Emma Masters, Sean Burton, and of course to the hard working Shrine team.
For the full list of credits, please visit the episode shownotes shrine.org.au/resources. If this interview raises any issues for you, please find Lifeline on 13 11 14, QLife on 1800 184 527 or visit their website qlife.org.au You can also visit the Defence LGBTI Information Service website DEFGLIS.com.au or Discharged LGBTI Veterans' Association (DVLA) on 0400 124 213 or dlvainfo.com.
The opinions expressed in this podcast are those of individual contributors and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Shrine of Remembrance. Visit the Defending with Pride: Stories of LGBTQ+ service exhibition at the Shrine of Remembrance from August 2022 until August 2023. My name is Megan Spencer, thank you very much for listening.
Reviewed 30 August 2022