The story of defence couple, Carole Popham and Christina Dennis, started over 50 years ago in the Women's Royal Australian Air Force.
Both born in the '40s, without knowing it they grew up within 350kms of each other in northern Queensland: Carole in Townsville and Christina in Cairns. Coming of age in 1960s Australia - a time of limited work and education opportunities for women - in 1963 and ’64 respectively, Carole and Christina each jumped at the chance to join up and serve their country.
The WRAAF offered the women a chance to travel and see Australia, to meet other people from all walks of life and the opportunity to work in an interesting and challenging environment that home just couldn’t offer.
After meeting in the service 1964, and developing a romantic relationship at the end of 1967, Carole and Christina’s Air Force careers were cut short by the prevailing conservative morals and military regulations of the day. To avoid persecution from within, in late 1968 Carole and Christina decided to out their relationship to their WRAAF officer and voluntarily discharge from the Air Force.
Excelling in their respective musterings, it was not an easy decision to make and was a huge sacrifice. The ban on open service for LGB members in Australia’s military would endure for another three long decades, finally overturned by the Commonwealth government in 1992.
Carole and Christina have been together for 53 years, living in the same Melbourne suburb for almost as long. Much loved in their local community, their story is inspiring, funny, moving and courageous.
They are unassuming trailblazers for today’s queer ADF community.
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.
If this program raises any issues for you, feel free to call Lifeline on 13 11 14 or Qlife on 1800 184 527. Or 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.
Christina Dennis (WRAAF)
Carole Popham (WRAAF)
Huge thanks to Christina and Carole for generously sharing their story, insights and perspectives; for their patience during the pandemic and for their hospitality.
‘New Careers: Women of the RAAF’ 1958, (excerpts), courtesy of Cinesound Movietone Productions and the National Film and Sound Archive. Used with kind permission.
Flight Sergeant Adam Schlemitz - Bassoon
Corporal Laila Engle - Flute
Corporal Robert Scott - Clarinet
Leading Aircraftman Salvador Blasco Celda - Oboe
Aircraftman Aidan Gabriels - French horn
Original ‘Kissed’ music:
Professor Noah Riseman; Glenn Eley at Cinesound Movietone Productions; Siobhan Dee at NFSA and Jessica Ferrari at Memento Media.
Flight Sergeant Dr. Ralph Whiteoak, RAAF Band, composer James Henry (Gamilaraay Yuwaalaraay) and the Royal Australian Air Force Wind Quintet.
Thank you to the Shrine team: Sue Burgess, Laura Thomas and Kate Spinks, curator of the Defending with Pride exhibition.
If this podcast raises any issues for you, support is available from the following services:
- Australia’s first nationally-oriented counselling and referral service for LGBTI people. Phone: 1800 184 527
- 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.
- 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.
- Provides professional, affordable counselling for members of LGBTIQ+ communities and individuals or couples who are affected by or at risk of HIV.
- 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
- Suicide and crisis support. Phone: 13 11 14
MEGAN SPENCER: Parental guidance is recommended for this podcast. It contains adult themes and sexual references. 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, my name is Megan Spencer. And this is Defending with Pride: Voices, a podcast that explores stories of LGBTQI+ service and servicepeople with a Victorian focus. And we're listening to Emu and Brolga, a special piece of music that was commissioned by the Royal Australian Air Force Band to help commemorate last year's centenary of the Australian Air Force in 2021. It was written by Gamilaraay Yuwaalaraay composer James Henry and performed by the Royal Air Force wind quintet. It's a beautiful score to go with a Royal Australian Air Force story that started just over half a century ago. And that story belongs to Carole Popham and Christina Dennis, who as young women, joined the women's Royal Australian Air Force during the time of the Vietnam War in the 1960s.
CAROLE POPHAM: I'm Carole Popham, I grew up in Townsville. Joined the Air Force in January 1963. In until November in 1968,
MEGAN SPENCER: And when were you born?
CAROLE POPHAM: I was born in 1942 in Sydney.
CHRISTINA DENNIS: I'm Christina Dennis. I was born in Cairns. I joined the Air Force in 1964. And after several postings, got out in November 1968.
MEGAN SPENCER: Christina was born in 1946. At the time we spoke, Carole and Christina had just celebrated over 50 years together. They became a couple in the late 60s while they were still serving at a time when military regulations prevented gay lesbian and bisexual defence members from open service in Australia's Defence Forces. The Air Force was the reason they met and their relationship was the reason they had to leave. As author Shirleene Robinson writes in the 2018 book, Serving in Silence, knowing they risked being posted apart or being forcibly discharged if their relationship was discovered, Carole and Christina sacrificed their places in the women's Royal Australian Air Force after voluntarily revealing their relationship to officials. It was a big sacrifice. How long have you two been together?
CAROLE POPHAM: 53 years as of last week.
MEGAN SPENCER: Congratulations. It's a long time for anyone to be together.
CAROLE POPHAM: I knew for a fair while before that though.
MEGAN SPENCER: The Women's Royal Australian Air Force or the WRAAF, as it was known, formed in the 1950s after the success of the three auxilary women's services, which were raised during World War Two to support Australia's wartime effort and to release male personnel for combat and overseas deployment.
HISTORICAL AUDIO: At Point Cook Victoria, girls who've left civilian life for a career with opportunity to graduate as fully paid members of the Women's Royal Australian Air Force.
MEGAN SPENCER: Without knowing it, Carole and Christina grew up a few hundred kilometres apart in northern Queensland, both coming from service families. During World War Two, Carole's dad was in a reserved occupation in the civil construction corps, while Christina's father served in the Army in New Guinea. Later, her brother also joined the Air Force. Carole and Christina each joined the WRAFF, three decades before the ban on gay, lesbian and bisexual service was overturned by the Commonwealth Government in 1992. And there's more about the overturning of that ban and the history of LGBTQI+ military service in Australia in Defending with Pride Voices: The Power of the Wreath, another episode in this podcast series for the Shrine, which I invite you to listen to. So you were the first women in your respective families to serve in the ADF, is that right?
MEGAN SPENCER: How did your parents respond when you wanted to enlist?
CAROLE POPHAM: I told him I'll be 21 in August, you can either sign now or I'll just go in August. So they signed.
MEGAN SPENCER: And what about after you joined up? Did they accept that you were part of it?
CAROLE POPHAM: Oh, very much so. (They were) very, very proud. They actually came down for my graduation. And it was really funny because the officer in charge of the recruit course, said, 'Oh, you know, we issue invitations, but we don't expect any of the people from interstate to come'. They got the shock of their life when Mum and Dad turned up
MEGAN SPENCER: 1960s Australia still had very traditional expectations for women. And when it came to work and education opportunities, there weren't too many. Joining the WRAAF or either of the other two female-only services which fully established after World War Two, the Army WRAAC or the Navy WRANS was potentially a way out of the rigid imperative of marriage, kids and being a stay-at-home Mum and wife. Joining the WRAAF was an opportunity to travel and see more of Australia to develop valuable skills, receive education and training, and to meet people from other places and walks of life.
HISTORICAL AUDIO: Thousands of girls joined the women's Royal Australian Air Force during the war. More are joining now forsaking the monotony of civilian life for travel, interest and a career.
MEGAN SPENCER: For Christina Dennis, joining the WRAAF offered a way out of the small town of Cairns and working at the post office for the rest of her life as a telephonist. Well that was the plan, anyway.
CHRISTINA DENNIS: I had spent six months in Launceston as a telephonist with the post office and when I came back to Cairns, I knew I just couldn't stay in Cairns and do a telephonist for the rest of my life. And I, somewhere along the line, I'd found out that there was aircraft plotting which really appealed to me in the Airforce.
MEGAN SPENCER: What is aircraft plotting?
CHRISTINA DENNIS: Well, it's tracking the movements of the planes, basically. So I thought, if I joined the Air Force, I could train to do that. It would get me out of Cairns, and let me see a bit of Australia and the world. So that was why I joined the Air Force. Unfortunately, they told me at recruiting that if I joined as a telephonist, I'd get in pretty well straightaway. And then I could remuster, change jobs to do the course on aircraft plotting. But it didn't work out quite like that.
MEGAN SPENCER: It didn't happen. So you spent your whole Airforce career as a telephonist?
CHRISTINA DENNIS: As a telephonist, yes.
MEGAN SPENCER: Like Carole, Christina also had good family support behind her choice to join the military.
CHRISTINA DENNIS: Yeah, my parents, I think Mum was sad that I was leaving Cairns yet again. But she thought it was a good idea. It was one way of, she knew I wanted to see more of the world. And she thought it was a secure job. And yeah, she was quite happy about it. And Dad certainly didn't have any objections.
MEGAN SPENCER: Was that your ticket out of a smaller place?
CHRISTINA DENNIS: Definitely. Yes, yes. I think if I'd tried to leave, what because it was secure. I wouldn't have left unless I had something else to go to. And if I didn't have something to go to, I think Mum would have been very upset.
HISTORICAL AUDIO: There are 30 different kinds of jobs available. This girl, for instance, is an equipment assistant, trained to handle a wide range of clothing.
MEGAN SPENCER: With a dear brother in law in the Air Force, and after a start studying pharmacy at university, joining the services was also on Carole Pophams' radar. After all, she had grown up in Townsville, an Air Force town.
CAROLE POPHAM: Well, it's really funny, because when we were about 14 or 15, the whole stack of us at school talking about what you were going to do. And there was a real thing 'Oh, we're all going to join the services'. And so and so is going to join the Army and the Air Force and I thought I'd go in the Navy. So time passes. I actually started studying pharmacy at the time when pharmacy went from beingeye of newton, leg of toad in a cauldron to being a supermarket and I thought this is not for me and research pharmacy didn't pay. So what's the point? And so I joined but we had a RAAF recruiting in the town. And by then I knew my brother-in-law was RAAF. And so I'd serviced my best motor scooter, took it for a test drive. I'm covered in grease, coming past the recruiting thing I just pulled over and went up. And I said to Ted Darby, the recruiting officer up there, I said 'Give me the forms and I'll join up'. And you can see the look on his face saying 'Yeah, in your dreams, kid,' you know. So I went home, filled out the forms convinced Mum and Dad to sign them, went back next day all spruced up. And he got the shock of his life. I don't think he expected me to come back. But I think because Townsville was an Air Force Base, and a new RAAF Garbutt quite well, it was just, you know, what else would you do?
MEGAN SPENCER: So it was kind of familiar to you. It was in your radar, it was a natural sort of progression for you to join?
CAROLE POPHAM: I think so.
MEGAN SPENCER: After enlisting in the WRAAF in early 1963, shortly afterwards, Carole left the warm climes of Townsville to do her recruit training at chilly Point Cook in Victoria, as did Christina later who enlisted the next year in August 1964. It would be some time though before their paths crossed.
CAROLE POPHAM: I left Townsville in the middle of summer, it was about 38 degrees Celsius by today's measuring. And when I got to, the trains pulling into Spencer Street Station, one of the girls had a radio on, it said, you know, 'It's lovely here'. And I've heard the temperature and it was the equivalent of about 12 degrees. I thought, 'Oh my God'.
MEGAN SPENCER: Did you want to get back on that train and go back home?
CAROLE POPHAM: No, I just reached for another cardigan.
MEGAN SPENCER: And how did you find training, Carole? Did you enjoy it?
CAROLE POPHAM: It had its moments. Let me say that, I got ragged a fair bit because I had some university education. The particular officer in charge of the - there's two levels of officer in charge, the one directly above me definitely resented it. And so I got fronted for every mortal thing. And I just sucked that up. And I thought, you know, 'You are not going to win deary'. But yeah, I got ribbed a bit.
MEGAN SPENCER: Having had crushes on various people, Carole told me she had an awareness that she might be gay or bisexual at the time that she joined up. Christina's awakening came later after she met Carole, and they clicked. The first inkling about having to be careful around lesbian sexuality in the WRAAF came from the mandatory sex education lectures during recruit training. For Carole, it was a bit of an eye opener.
CAROLE POPHAM: There was a sex lecture. First of all, they gave you the bare basics. And it quite staggered me actually, because I grew up in a family where no holes were barred. We were told whatever we wanted to know. And discussion around the dinner table ranged across everything, so I was pretty well versed in the facts of life, and interpersonal relations and stuff. And I also was aware of LGBT issues, because I said I had had crushes on various people. And anyway, this getting back to sex lecture thing, what amazed me was a number of people who had no idea of even the basics. And you know, by this stage, they're at least 18. And one kid, in fact, because she'd been brought up that that was a terrible dirty thing, sat through the whole lecture with her fingers in her ears, so she wouldn't hear it. And I found that absolutely staggering.
MEGAN SPENCER: I guess a real sign of the times, hey? This is early 60s?
CAROLE POPHAM: Yes, yeah. And you know, premarital sex was just a sin. But the the lecture itself also had a thing about, you know, you must not have anything to do with another woman. And if you find anybody is you must report them, this sort of thing. It was a real, terribly negative message that came across.
MEGAN SPENCER: So that was part of that education as a recruit. You must not be gay. And if you know anyone who is, dob them in.
CAROLE POPHAM: Yeah
MEGAN SPENCER: How did that make you feel?
CAROLE POPHAM: I just thought it was a bit stupid, actually. I mean, what's the point?
MEGAN SPENCER: And pretty discriminatory.
CAROLE POPHAM: I don't know that discrimination was a word back then. Not in that sense. Life was as it was.
HISTORICAL AUDIO: These WRAAF using aerial photographs are helping the Air Force and it's important work of accurately charting large areas of Australia, while other girls train as communications operators, sending and receiving messages from the four corners of the world.
MEGAN SPENCER: After her recruit training in October 1964, Christina posted to Base Squadron Radio in Richmond, New South Wales.
CHRISTINA: I went to Richmond in New South Wales as a telephonist, and I was there for about 18 months I guess. While I was there, I did my proficiency test to become a leading aircraftswoman. And a month after that I sat, you also had to sit to become a corporal even though you weren't eligible at that stage. But you could do it anytime once you passed your first one. So I sat that. And then I just waited Richmond until I got posted.
MEGAN SPENCER: And where were you posted to?
CHRISTINA DENNIS: Townsville
MEGAN SPENCERl Back up north?
CHRISTINA DENNIS: Back up north yes, which didn't please be very much but
MEGAN SPENCER: You couldn't escape
CHRISTINA DENNIS: You couldn't get out.
MEGAN SPENCER: You were back where you started.
HISTORICAL AUDIO: Education assistants are trained projectionists and in the evenings, they provide filmed entertainment. And for those who like to read, there are first class libraries.
MEGAN SPENCER: Carole did her corp training in education and excelled. After a bureaucratic bungle, she found herself waiting at base squadron Point Cook for clearance to handle classified material. When it came through in June 1964, she posted to headquarters operational command education section in Penrith, New South Wales,
CAROLE POPHAM: I was happy with education. And after I finished at headquarters ops command, I was actually sent to Richmond, because Richmond was in a little bit of a mess. And I knew the system pretty well inside out. And by then, I'd already been told that I was, you know, had a particularly good grasp on the trade. And then after Richmond, I was posted to headquarters support command. And I was there working in the main library there, and that serviced all the other bases. So I learnt a whole lot more of the how the operation worked from the inside rather than looking on. And then the Vietnam War came along, and did me a favour. And the sergeant from the officer training school was being posted to Vietnam. And they needed somebody with sergeant level skills. But they didn't have anybody except me. I was a corporal. And I was female and it was a male establishment. So I was the first female to have a higher duties posting into a male establishment in education.
MEGAN SPENCER: How did that make you feel?
CAROLE POPHAM: Well, when I found out what had really gone on behind the scenes, I felt pretty bloody good.
MEGAN SPENCER: How do you mean?
CAROLE POPHAM: Well, it was when the top WRAAF officer, she was known director WRAAF, came down on inspection. And she came in and she said to me, 'We put you here because we needed to fill this space. And they asked me if there was a WRAAF, and we suggested that you might do' and she said, 'You've done us proud, I'm really proud of you'. I felt pretty good.
HISTORICAL AUDIO: Safety equipment maintenance is of vital importance in the Airforce and women learn all there is to know about inflatable dinghys and how to fold parachutes.
MEGAN SPENCER: What did you like about defence life at that time? And what did you enjoy?
CHRISTINA DENNIS: For me, I'm a very organised person. And for me the structure. Yeah, just the whole disciplinary type thing. A lot of people don't like it, but it doesn't worry me. I'd prefer that to being not having any structure or or anything. So that part of it I enjoyed. It was good being able to meet different people and finding out just about life in general, I guess and what else was out there. Because Cairns really, and particularly growing up in a Catholic environment, is a very closed environment to grow up in, and just being able to experience so much more.
MEGAN SPENCER: So would you say that it opened your worldview being in the WRAAF?
CHRISTINA DENNIS: Definitely. Definitely.
CAROLE POPHAM: And what about you, Carole? What did you enjoy about defence life?
CAROLE POPHAM: Bit like Chris, I like to have some sort of structure. But the other thing that I really enjoyed was the work itself. I'd always been interested in aircraft. Even from when I was little because actually, I made my first flight in DC three named Grey with TAA when I was about eight. And I got taken up to see the captain and up the in the cockpit and stuff. And I thought that was pretty cool. So I've always been interested in aircraft and stuff. And what I really liked was the technicalities of aircraft and the systems that worked, and I focused on it pretty well. And I was acknowledged as probably the leading expert in the service on the publications that went with servicing aircraft. So for example, we had a young fella come in one day to the library at Richmond. And he was holding a screw. And he said, 'We've just found this rolling around on the floor of a Neptune. And we can't take off until we know where it is, can you help us?' I knew to take him to the aircraft depot because all their publications had the break down for the aircraft parts. And every aircraft part was numbered, it had a serial number. So we just had to check the serial number against that. And I said, 'It's the screw that holds that piece of navigation equipment in place'. So they went and put it in and away they went. Not everybody had that overall knowledge of it, but I really enjoyed the technicality of the service.
MEGAN SPENCER: And what about you, Christina? Would you say you were good at your job as a telephonist within that structure?
CHRISTINA DENNIS: Oh yeah, yeah. I knew I was. I mean, even when I was in the post office, I was...
MEGAN SPENCER: Bloody good?
CHRISTINA DENNIS: Yeah, yeah. I mean, it wasn't a hard, A difficult job. You just had TO have a bit of common sense, I think and...
CAROLE POPHAM: Tell her about Harry Holt disappearing.
CHRISTINA DENNIS: I was Corporal at Point Cook. And I just happened to be on duty the afternoon that Harold Holt disappeared, and because I was in charge of the switch room, I didn't think it was fair to leave an ACW without much experience on the switchboard because there was a lot of traffic going through. So I stayed on for the rest of the night to field calls to and fro about Harold disappearing.
MEGAN SPENCER: So who was ringing at that time?
CHRISTINA DENNIS: Oh, anybody and everybody from police search and rescue from high command in Canberra,
MEGAN SPENCER: They must have nearly blown up the switchboard that day
CHRISTINA DENNIS: It was busy. Yes. Yes.
MEGAN SPENCER: My name is Megan Spencer. And this is Defending with Pride: Voices, a podcast for the Shrine of Remembrance. Couple Christina Dennis and Carole Popham are former ADF service members who met over 50 years ago when they were serving in the women's Royal Australian Air Force. So when did you first meet? Let's go on to your relationship now. And maybe you can fill us in a little bit about how you emerged and how you met?
CAROLE POPHAM: Well, the interesting thing is that I've always been able to have a good relationship with with blokes as well as with women. And one chap that I met at Richmond, kept bouncing back through my life until after I'd met Chris, and we got together. Because I'd never felt that you had to be one or the other. I just felt that you know, you had an emotional tie with whatever at particular times and maybe two at the same time or whatever, it didn't matte, it was just what you are.
MEGAN SPENCER: So bit gender fluid, should we shall we say, in today's parlance
CAROLE POPHAM: I would say gender fluid in today's parlance. I mean, I'd always been fairly influenced by my older brother, I, you know, absolutely hero worshipped Les. And, and so I was a bit of a tomboy, I guess when I was a kid, and I hung out with Les and his mates most of the time. And he was he was very proud of his little sis, he's 11 years older than me. So it was you know, he was a good bloke. So I didn't I didn't have any any preconceived notions about relationships, that you just were involved with who you're involved with.
MEGAN SPENCER: You loved who you loved.
CAROLE POPHAM: Exactly, exactly.
MEGAN SPENCER: And what about you, Christina?
CHRISTINA DENNIS: I, I'd been out with a few guys. Nothing serious, really. And I really didn't question my sexuality, I guess I'd never even had much to do with, with relationships between women. There was a couple of girls that I liked when I was going to school, but I wouldn't have never put it in that context at that stage. And I guess even now, I don't think I have a bias one way or the other. It's just happened that I met Carole. And we just clicked and in a fairly short time, really when you think about it.
CAROLE POPHAM: We first met at Richmond when Chris came in, because I was already at Richmond. And as it would be, she was allocated the same block as I was living in it was two storey block. And she started off upstairs and I remember the stairs were getting too much for her or what but she moved downstairs. But we knew each other and the other thing is that the building at Richmond, that the library and education section was in, at the other end was the switch room. So we if we ran out of milk, we'd go down to switch room to cage milk from the girls down there. So we knew each other,
MEGAN SPENCER: So, your paths would cross?
CHRISTINA DENNIS: Yes. And that was all it was. We didn't really have any social interaction. Until the end of what '66, '65 it must have been
MEGAN SPENCER: So, your relationship was a bit of a slow burn, wasn't it? It took a while. You met in 64. And I believe you were in a play together. Is that right? At some point?
CAROLE POPHAM: Yeah, they did a Christmas play actually, each block presented something at this this Christmas get together.
MEGAN SPENCER: Was it fun?
CHRISTINA DENNIS: It was, everybody thought it was terrific.
MEGAN SPENCER: I guess by that stage, you kind of knew each other a bit more. And you're getting a sense of a friendship growing between you?
CHRISTINA DENNIS: No, it just happened.
CAROLE POPHAM: We knew each other. When Chris got posted the Townsville, I said to her, 'Look, my folks are in Townsville. They won't mind if you want to get off base, you know, go and stay or whatever'.
MEGAN SPENCER: This was in 1966. Carole was also in Townsville on leave, and offered to make dinner at her parents house for Christina. It was a bit of a disaster. Mistakenly Carole's dad picked up a tough old boiling fowl instead of a roasting chook.
CAROLE POPHAM: Well, we had it soaking in vinegar in the sink to tenderise it, nothing happens. So I go and pick Chris up. So serve dinner. The vegetables are superb. Banana fritters, the pineapple fritters, other stuff, terrific. But the chook you cannot even get a fork into. So, Dad's sitting there saying 'This must have been an army choock, it's got tough from too much drilling stuff'. And then Missy here pipes up 'It's okay. I don't really eat chicken anyway'.
MEGAN SPENCER: So it was a disaster.
CAROLE POPHAM: It was interesting.
MEGAN SPENCER: So were you trying to impress Christina with your cooking at that stage, Carole?
CAROLE POPHAM: Nope.
MEGAN SPENCER: Okay, so you're still just friends.
CAROLE POPHAM: I just cook
MEGAN SPENCER: Okay, so well take us to the point where you did start becoming attracted towards each other. What sort of flipped the switch?
CAROLE POPHAM: Oh there's a few years in between yet. I got posted from Richmond to down here to Point Cook. And the girls at Point Cook said, 'Oh, I've got a new Corporal being posted in Corporal Dennis. I believe you know her?' and I said 'Oh yeah, I kno2 Christina Dennis. You lot are going to wonder what hit you. She is so tough. She's going to sort you lot out'. So when she trots in of course they're all...
MEGAN SPENCER: I take it you're a bit of a stirrer, Carole
CAROLE POPHAM: Just a little. I like having a bit of fun when I can. And so when Chris arrived, you know, I realised that she's not ... I got 'you so and so'. So she just was in at Point Cook.
CHRISTINA DENNIS: And so I came down in in May 67. And it wasn't really until November in 67 when we were both attached to Edinburgh in South Australia to do our NCOs noncommissioned officer training course
MEGAN SPENCER: So you both went over to do that together?
CHRISTINA DENNIS: Yes.
MEGAN SPENCER: In November 1967, Christina and Carole were corporals. With another WRAAF friend, they drove from Victoria to South Australia to do an NCO training course at RAAF base, Edinburgh. Realising they had a lot in common, their friendship went to another level and not too long afterwards became romantic.
CAROLE POPHAM: So when the thing came through that we were going over there, I had wheels. And so I said to Chris, and Pat, 'How about if we drive over and then if we can get a chance to get off base we can, you know, have a bit of a look around'. So they said 'yeah, right'. So we get in the car, Chris gets beside me. Pat gets in the back. Pat promptly goes to sleep. So Chris kept me company for the drive over.
MEGAN SPENCER: And you got to know each other on that trip?
CAROLE POPHAM:l That's when we got to know each other better. But when we got back to Point Cook,we socialised a lot more. And that's when I t the the lightning bolt started to hit and say well, hang on. There's something in this. For me, it was it was a it wasn't a smack attraction. It was something that grew and I think that's probably one of the reasons we've we've lasted so long is it wasn't it wasn't based on lust. It was based on friendship.
CHRISTINA DENNIS: Yes. I think we had a good friendship before any other sort of thing happened between us.
MEGAN SPENCER: When you did start, let's call it, dating. When you did start going out with each other, what would you do to go out on dates? Like, did you have to go off base? How difficult was it? Like, tell me about the idea of having to keep this a secret?
CAROLE POPHAM: That that was that was probably the hardest part. Although it wasn't that difficult if you were just careful. We just had to be ... just careful, careful. And while we were both at Point Cook, it was, I mean, you were just friends. Nobody needed. to know there was anything more to it than that. So you got I mean, I think about the most exciting dates we had was mostly going out and having a meal together.
MEGAN SPENCER: When you did start falling in love with each other, What did you like and love about Carole, Christina? And maybe that still remains to this day. What do you admire? What do you love about Carole?
CHRISTINA DENNIS: Well, I guess, I guess initially, her intellect because I've always been interested in learning more. I think I've always had a fairly inquiring mind if you like. And because Carole had grown up in an atmosphere, particularly with her mother, a very broad knowledge of things that I found really interesting. And yeah, I guess that was one of the things that attracted me was the fact that she did and that she was prepared to share it. I guess it always came through that she was very kind and caring. And that was probably the biggest thing that attracted me to Carole in the first place.
MEGAN SPENCER: You've also said, when I asked you to write this in an email, you said that there was a steadfast quality about Carole that you like to I think
CHRISTINA DENNIS: Yes, yeah. Yep. She's very loyal, and very, very steadfast.
MEGAN SPENCER: What about you, Carole? What did you, why did you fall in love with Christina. What attracted you to her?
CAROLE POPHAM: You can never say why you fell in love. You fell in love because it was going to happen. But she was just a nice person. I mean, there's no airs and graces about Chris. She's genuine. And yeah, she's she's, she's got a good mind. And I think, you know, that was important to me to have somebody who has a good mind. And she was caring and likeable and lovable and all those things. We had common interests, and by this stage, we had known each other for long enough to, you know, appreciate each other's character and qualities.
MEGAN SPENCER: An exhibition grew out of the book Serving in Silence. One of its co-writers, Professor Noah Riseman, wrote in the exhibition catalogue that lesbian and bisexual women in the WRAAF, and other women's services had to carefully guard their sexuality as they face persecution, punishment and discharge if it became known to officials. Witch hunts loomed, frequently. Women suspected of being lesbians were interrogated and asked to name others. He says that 'these practices primarily and disproportionately targeted the women's services up until the mid 1970s'. As you can imagine, following your heart and starting a new relationship under these kinds of circumstances would not have been easy. Plus, it was a big risk.
CHRISTINA DENNIS: When you're on the base, you were just very careful that you didn't let on that there's anything. There wasn't really because even you had your own room, but you couldn't really invite somebody there. And if you were talking to anyone, you always kept the door open. So that it was, looked as though the anything was going on. But we used to go off base, most weekends I would say, but off base, we were still careful, but you could relax more.
MEGAN SPENCER: Did your families know you were together?
CAROLE POPHAM: Oh, yes. Yeah, not a problem. In fact, one time it was funny. Mum and Dad were down here and staying at Clarendon Street and Chris and I were coming into town for something or other and I can't quite remember how it happened. But I was waiting for her, and Dad said to me 'Oh for God's sake, you're behaving like a lovesick puppy' and I said 'Well...'
MEGAN SPENCER: So it wasn't a problem with your families that you were together as a couple?
CAROLE POPHAM: No, no, I don't think I don't think ... it's interesting that we didn't have any problems with either parents, but in my mind, my parents completely understood. But I'm not sure that they were quite as happy for a while in accepting that it was the way it was. Whereas I think with Chris's parents, I'm not sure they completely understood, but they always accepted.
CHRISTINA DENNIS: I agree with that.
MEGAN SPENCER: That's pretty progressive for that time in the 60s, isn't it late 60s that your families would accept you for being together
CAROLE POPHAM: Well, Chris's mother said to me, 'You take care of my daughter'. And she always referred to Chris as 'my daughter'. And I think you know, that's that was pretty good.
MEGAN SPENCER: What do you think? It's pretty amazing
CHRISTINA DENNIS: In retrospect, yes. At the time, I didn't question it. I just accepted that that's the way things were and that, you know, they were happy, I was happy. And that was it. But in retrospect, yes, it was very progressive of them to be as openly accepting. Like, we got out of the Air Force in November '68. My parents came down to stay with us, not that year, the following year, in '69, they had Christmas with us in '69. So you know, there was no, no question that this was okay.
MEGAN SPENCER: Mid 1968, about six months after Christina and Carole got together, Christina was posted to Pearce in Western Australia. They maintained their relationship through phone calls and letter writing. But things didn't look good for being together in person in the same place. Even though they'd been careful, it seemed that the writing was on the wall. Carole had been in other relationships with women during her service, and had experienced firsthand one of these so-called defence interviews.
CAROLE POPHAM: The worst thing, I think, is the interrogation. Because it's not enough to be gay. When they come to the interrogation, they want to know, chapter and verse, and it is just, it was just so intrusive. And so badgering, you know, who else do you know, blah, blah, blah,
MEGAN SPENCER: They wanted you to name names, all that kind of thing?
CAROLE POPHAM: Absolutely. And there was no way and this is what made life difficult. The service never differentiated between friends who were friends, and people who were on together. And so you couldn't have a normal friendship. If you were gay, you could not have a normal friendship because it wasn't fair to the other person. So you tended to have very flimsy other friendships.
MEGAN SPENCE: What about you, Chris? What do you think about all this?
CHRISTINA DENNIS: Well, I really didn't have any experience of it. I wasn't even aware of these things until after I met Carole. And even then it was really only after I'd moved to Perth, when I can't remember if she wrote or phoned and I think you phoned and or I phoned her or something. Because we would talk on the phone about once a week. And I didn't really, I didn't know anybody else at the service who was gay, that I was aware of anyway. And then when Carole did say about it, and explained what was going on in Melbourne, and she said, you know, they could come over to WA and, you know, look at you over there. But I wasn't really aware of it and it wasn't until after Carole had actually approached the WRAAF officer here about us getting out. And I think Carole made sure that she had conditions that I was to be treated lightly, for want of a better word. So even the interrogation wasn't all that bad. Sure, they wanted to know who else and all the rest of it. But I could honestly say I didn't know because I had never been with any other WRAAF.
MEGAN SPENCER: I get the sense, Carole, that you were very protective towards Christina because you kind of knew what could come.
CAROLE POPHAM: Yep. Yeah. Like when I when I actually went to see the WRAAF officer, first of all I apologised to her for doing what I was about to do on her watch, because I didn't want anything to come back on her. But we were pretty sure that she had been in a relationship, weren't we?
MEGAN SPENCER: With a woman you means?
CAROLE POPHAM: Yes, yes. I said to her, you know, 'I'm sorry but I want to get out and I want Corporal Dennis released as well from Perth'. And she said she looked at me said 'Are you sure about this?' And I said 'I've never been more certain about anything in my life'.
MEGAN SPENCER: And you talked about this, hadn't you, between each other beforehand?
MEGAN SPENCER: I'd asked her you know 'What do you think we get out?' Because the you know, the crunch is going to come. If they get over to Western Australia, you know, it's going to be terrible, you know, I want to control the situation. So I said to her, then I said, 'I don't want Corporal Dennis being given a hard time'. And when the service police were there I said, 'Okay. You can ask me whatever you like. But leave Christina alone'.
MEGAN SPENCER: So Carole and Christina took the courageous step of outing themselves to their superiors and requesting a discharge. What was that like for you that moment, Carole, when you went in to see this officer, knowing what was at stake, you were giving up your whole careers, because you really did love being in defence, didn't you? And Christina, you were a bit over your job, but it was still a big sacrifice, wasn't it?
CHRISTINA DENNIS: Yes, yes. Yes. I mean, I, if this hadn't happened, I would have been happy to stay in the service for longer. You know, I hadn't really thought about getting out of bed early.
MEGAN SPENCER: And you Carole?
CAROLE POPHAM: Yeah, I'd have been happy to stay on. In fact, I had actually signed up for another two years.
MEGAN SPENCER: I feel this is a huge price to pay.
CAROLE POPHAM: Yeah, it was, but it was worth it.
CHRISTINA DENNIS: Certainly thought it was worth it. Because you wouldn't have made that decision. If you didn't think it was worth it. But yes, it was a big, it was a big price to pay.
MEGAN SPENCER: I don't mean, it wasn't worth it. But I mean, that's a huge,
CHRISTINA DENNIS: Commitment to make
MEGAN SPENCER: Yeah, yeah. And I think people listening to this also, if they put themselves in your shoes at the time also feel that that's that it's a sad, it's a sad outcome for a job that you're having to leave because of your identity?
CHRISTINA DENNIS: Well, I think it was the Air Force's loss certainly in Carole's situation, because I think she had a lot to offer. And she could have done a lot more. So they did themselves out of somebody who was very good at their job.
MEGAN SPENCER: It's the talent drain, isn't it?
CAROLE POPHAM: Yeah it was. And you know, you look at some of the others who came out after us. And some who'd come out before, they get rid of their best people. They've put a lot of effort into training people. A big financial investment in clothing them and all the rest of it. And then they throw them away so lightly, it was just crazy.
MEGAN SPENCER: So you have this conversation. How are you feeling? Do you remember how you were feeling at the time Carole?
CAROLE POPHAM: Strangely, quite relaxed. I trusted the WRAAF officer. And I knew that I would probably explain why and stuff. Yeah, I was I was fairly relaxed. I mean, there was an element of tension. But I'd made up my mind. I knew Chris was in, you know, agreeable, and it was the step we had to take
MEGAN SPENCER: On the ninth of November 1968, Carole Popham officially discharged from the Air Force with Christina Dennis following a few weeks later, on the 29th of November 1968. After transitioning out, they each went on to their own successful careers. How many years had you'd been in the WRAAF, at that point?
CAROLE POPHAM: Almost six
CHRISTINA DENNIS: Just over four.
MEGAN SPENCER: So what happens after that? you resign, and you're honourably discharged? Or were you dishonourably discharged?
CAROLE POPHAM: That was, that was the good thing about this, the WRAAF. With the other services, it was a dishonourable discharge, but with the services, it was on request, but they never said, whose request
CHRISTINA DENNIS: So it was an honourable discharge, and you actually had a spectacular...
CAROLE POPHAM: The funniest thing, at the end, you get a discharge certificate, and it ranks you for you know, conduct. And when mine came along, they arrive in the post sometime after, I think it was we're living in Hawthorn at the time, you know, and we're standing down by the mailbox, and I opened it up, and I looked at it and I just about flaked out because the gradings in for the gradings and I knew this was unsatisfactory, satisfactory, good, very good. That was it. My grading on trade knowledge was exceptional. They had created a grading to give me
CHRISTINA DENNIS: I think they had more than very good because I got an excellent,
MEGAN SPENCER: So really, what a waste. They got rid of an excellent and a very exceptional pair of members of service members.
CAROLE POPHAM: Yeah, I mean, they're just crazy.
MEGAN SPENCER: So, looking back on it now what emotions come up around it? I mean, have you made peace with this juncture in your life? Have you made peace with, I guess, historically how defence used to treat its lesbian service women and gay servicemen.
CAROLE POPHAM: Maybe I'm the sort of person who compartmentalises. But I don't believe in looking back, except in a good way. It happened. It was an element in our life. That was good, moved on to something different. And I can't say that I haven't enjoyed my life since. And in fact, the time I spent in the Air Force has been pivotal in the sort of things I've done since. In the Air Force, I learned a fair bit about law. I became a union official. What do we need? Law education generally. Since then, we've gone into training roles in as volunteers training roles and stuff. It's, you know, it's all it's all been there as good underpinning. I don't regret it. That's the way the service was. You can't say that it was necessarily a good time to be in the service. But that's the way, it's the way it was. They felt that they were in loco parentis. They had an obligation to protect people. That's the way they felt they were doing it.
CHRISTINA DENNIS: Yeah, look, like Carole, I don't certainly don't resent what happened, it happened, because that they were the rules. And you you either accepted them or you didn't. And yeah, all right in when you look back at it, from today's perspective, it's quite different. But that's what it was in those days, like everything else. And in some ways, it was probably a good thing for me, because I think I got a lot further than I would have got in the service. Because as I said, at the beginning, I wanted to be an aircraft plotter. My remuster finally came through, but I had been a corporal for over 12 months by that stage, and it would have meant going back right back to basics. And I think that's probably what they were counting on. So I would have stayed as a telephonist just until I got out. And after I got out, I've gone on and done so much more. Which I may or may not have done in the service. I ended up being manager and system supervisor. And yeah, I went and I did went into mathematical type things, which is had always been my bent anyway.
MEGAN SPENCER: Did your family support you when you came out of defence?
CHRISTINA DENNIS: Yes.
MEGAN SPENCER: How did they feel?
CHRISTINA DENNIS: Oh, I think they were surprised. But they just again, they just accepted that was my decision. And they understood that, that was it. If I had needed any emotional support, it would have been there if I'd asked for it.
MEGAN SPENCER: Carole and Christina chose their own paths and each other on their own terms. They've lived together in the same house in Melbourne for close to 50 years on the same side of town as Point Cook, the old WRAAF training base. Very much a part of their local community, they have a beautiful garden, a deep love of birds, nature and cats. Yes, their cat people. Remarkably philosophical about what happened to them in the women's Royal Australian Air Force, community service has never left their lives. They have big hearts and open minds. Their story is inspiring, and just quietly, in their own way, I reckon they're trailblazers.
CAROLE POPHAM: And I always had the view that I don't really believe in a gay community, I believe that community should have reached the stage where you're gay, so what? In fact, I don't even have to know you're gay. You know, you are a person and you do things in your own right
MEGAN SPENCER: And do you mean the mainstream community?
CAROLE POPHAM: The mainstream community, yeah. You know, people want to keep, you know, labelling things and boxing people. And that, to me is just not what life should be about. Life should be about you are you and you're accepted for what you are. And that's that. And so, I've always held the view that, you know, you change minds more by infiltration if you're like, in a way. You live in a community, people get to know you, and then discover things about you. And that changes their mind because they think well, that's not quite what I thought it was about.
MEGAN SPENCER: So looking back on on your lives together, and I guess this pivotal time in defence when you when you met and you had to leave your jobs because of your status as a couple of people who loved each other and wanted to be together. How do you look back at it from here now all these years later, because you've been together so long, like you've been together for 53 years. I don't think I know anyone who's been together that long.
CAROLE POPHAM: We've been together longer than Mike Kirby and his partner.
MEGAN SPENCER: Oh, Justice Michael Kirby?
CAROLE POPHAM: Yeah, and Bob Brown and his partner, but Bob Brown has only recently met his current fellow.
MEGAN SPENCER: So what reflections do you have have like, I mean, you may not even look back on that time, it might be like you said, right behind you. But I guess I'm inviting you to look back now and what might you, what might you feel about it?
CAROLE POPHAM: I'm still very grateful for the time I had in the services. I think it was the making of me, to be honest. I think it gave me a lot of the confidence and the characteristics I carried on in my subsequent thing, because I went from there to CSIRO in as the first professional film librarian. From there, I became a part time official with the Technical Association, the union, ended up going full time and becoming the head honcho in that outfit. And I think, you know, the things I learned under service did me well, and I think the service was a good time. I don't regret a minute of it.
MEGAN SPENCER: Christina?
CHRISTINA DENNIS: Yeah, pretty much the same as Carole. I enjoyed my time in the service. And I think it taught me a lot, brought me out a lot. I think it helped me live with other people. Small family only had two brothers and being brought up in a in a Catholic environment might sound strange, but I found it very claustrophobic in a way. And I think having lived in a broader community, like the Air Force did a lot for me.
MEGAN SPENCER: And the big thing, you met each other, if it wasn't for defence, you would never have met
CAROLE POPHAM: Exactly. The only thing I'm cranky on is that they because of the way they were, it made sense to destroy our letters and things. So that's the one thing I regret because she used to write a really good letter. And I haven't we haven't got those.
CHRISTINA DENNIS: No, we've got the memories.
MEGAN SPENCER: And you've got the connection still to this day in front of me right now. I can see it in both of you.
CAROLE POPHAM: Oh, boy, I thought we'd hidden it well.
MEGAN SPENCER: Final question. When you look at the landscape today, with defence, you've got amazing service organisations like DEFGLIS, which grew out of, you know, a rich history of activism back in the '80s and the '90s. You've got defence actually actively recruiting in LGBTQI communities now. There's been a lot of change since you were both in in the service years ago. What thoughts do you have around what's going on today? How does it make you feel to look at how far things have come?
CAROLE POPHAM: I'm amazed at how quickly they've come around, particularly when you think about it. And I mean, they were still, they were still crucifying people for being gay. Right up until, you know, in the 90s. And to think that, you know, in, say, 20 years, they've managed to turn it around to the degree it is, is brilliant.
MEGAN SPENCER: What do you think?
CHRISTINA DENNIS: Oh, I think it's great that that it is open now. And that doesn't matter who you are of what sex, orientation, colour, creed or whatever, you can be accepted into the services. I think the services are a great starting point for a lot of people. It's not everybody's cup of tea, but I think a lot more young ones would benefit from going into the service.
MEGAN SPENCER: In the end, what do you think defence was so scared of with gay service and lesbian service back in the day?
CAROLE POPHAM: Who knows? Who knows? I really think that a lot of the fear about, well, what's behind a lot of xenophobia and a whole thing, all the phobias, is a fear of the unknown. And that's why the approach is, you know, you live among people, let them get to know you, and then they will realise that you're just like they are, except for one small detail, which doesn't matter. And I think, you know, the service has probably come to the point where they realised that that's the way it has to be.
MEGAN SPENCER: Do you have any advice for people, young people listening to this who might be LGBTQI+, thinking of joining, thinking of joining defence?
CAROLE POPHAM: Do it.
CHRISTINA DENNIS: Oh, I would agree. If you're thinking about and think it's the life for you then yeah, definitely go for.
MEGAN SPENCER: Defending with Pride: Voices is a podcast for the Shrine of Remembrance produced by me, Megan Spencer. Speaking today were former members of the women's Royal Australian Air Force Carole Popham and Christina Dennis. Huge thanks to Christina and Carole for generously sharing their story, insights and perspectives for their patience during the pandemic and also for their kind hospitality. Special thanks too to Noah Riseman for his kind support of this programme. And you can read more about Carole and Christina story in the book he co-wrote with Shirleene Robinson and Graham Willett, Serving in Silence: Australian LGBT servicemen and women published by New South. Thank you also to Glen Eli and Cinesound Movietone Productions, Siobhan D from the National Film and Sound Archive and Jessica Ferrari, and you can watch her fantastic Women's Air Force History documentary series at momentomedia.com.au. And of course, many thanks to the Shrine team.
For the Emu and Brolga music, a commission by the Royal Australian Air Force Band, thank you to Gamilaraay Yuwaalaraay composer James Henry, the Royal Australian Air Force wind quintet and to Flight Sergeant Dr. Ralph Whiteoak. Also to Philip Brophy for his original music 'Kissed'. Sound mastering is by Chris Keogh. For the full credits, please visit the episode show notes at shrine.org.au/resources. If this interview raises any issues for you, please find Lifeline on 13 11 14 or QLife on 1800 184 527. You can call Open Arms on 1800 011 046 or contact DLVA the Discharged LGBTI Veterans Association on 0400 124 213, or you can visit their website 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. Thank you so much for listening. I'm Megan Spencer speak to you again next time.
HISTORICAL AUDIO: And there's never any shortage of partners or dancers in the recreation room. It's no wonder so many girls are joining the WRAAF.
Reviewed 29 July 2022