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Serving in silence? The history of LGBTI inclusion in Australian military service

Serving in silence? The history of LGBTI inclusion in Australian military service

Image: Interviewee Dennis Jeffrey, working as a cook on HMAS Vendetta on its 1968–69 tour in Vietnam.

An Australian Research Council (ARC) Discovery Project led by historian, Associate Professor Noah Riseman from the Australian Catholic University, is examining the histories of Australian lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex (LGBTI) servicemen and women from the end of the Second World War until the present.  

The project, Serving in Silence? Australian LGBTI Military Service since 1945, is analysing why, in some eras, the Australian military has been an international leader in facilitating social change, while at other times it has lagged behind civilian norms. Through the project, Associate Professor Riseman is revealing the untold experiences of LGBTI personnel, the processes of change to policies and practices, and wider cultural shifts around sexuality and gender.

Associate Professor Riseman was inspired to pursue this area of research while working on earlier projects studying the history of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander military service, which have also received support from the ARC. Through his 2011 ARC Discovery Project Defending Australia, defending Indigenous rights: Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander military service and Australian identity, 1946–2003, he and second investigator Dr Richard Trembath from The University of Melbourne examined the experiences of Australian Indigenous service personnel post-Second World War, both during their times of service and in civilian life. The project analysed the links between military service, the advancement of Indigenous rights, Australian identity, and the development of contemporary Indigenous communities. Much of the research conducted in that project was published in two publicly accessible books: Defending Country: Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Military Service since 1945 (UQP, 2016) and In Defence of Country: Life Stories of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Servicemen and Women (ANU Press, 2016). The latter book is an open access publication, which can be freely downloaded from ANU Press.

Associate Professor Riseman says of this earlier project: "What really stood out for us was the way military service was often an educative and empowering experience for Indigenous Australians. Many of these men and women learned new skills and grasped the opportunities to work as advocates in their communities when they returned to civilian life, whether as judges, teachers, writers, businessmen, directors of Indigenous corporations, health workers or respected Elders."

While conducting this earlier research, Associate Professor Riseman interviewed a gay Aboriginal ex-serviceman whose story piqued his interest. Associate Professor Riseman learned about his unique experiences being a gay man in the Air Force—at a time when being openly gay or lesbian was not permitted, prior to the Australian Government revoking of the ban on gay and lesbian service in the ADF in 1992. Around the time of the 20th anniversary of the revoking of the ban, Associate Professor Riseman also came to the realisation that there have been no documented histories of LGBTI military service since the Second World War.

This latest Discovery Project has involved examining old documents and interviewing current and former servicemen and women, both former and current members of the ADF who identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender or intersex. The research team, which also includes Associate Professor Shirleene Robinson of Macquarie University and Dr Graham Willett of the Australian Lesbian and Gay Archives, will produce the first overview history of Australian LGBTI military service, to reveal the policies, practices and lived experiences of LGBTI personnel and how they have changed over time.

This valuable knowledge will help to inform current debates about Australian Defence Force culture as well as address wider questions about how institutions respond to social change. "We have already recorded dozens of remarkable stories that include tales of lesbians forming lasting relationships while fearing being caught, witch-hunts targeting gays and lesbians in the 1970s–80s, gay subcultures among officers, and pioneering openly gay servicemen fighting for partner benefits in the 1990s and early 2000s. Our research with transgender members, for whom the ban was lifted in 2010, has also uncovered continuing challenges that would be of great interest to the ADF as they continue to develop diversity and inclusion strategies," said Associate Professor Riseman.

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