Serving in silence: the secret lives of LGBTI diggers in Australia’s defence forces
Australia’s armed forces have for years grappled with changing social attitudes towards lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex people. But the stories of LGBTI service members have mostly stayed in the dark corners of the nation’s proverbial closet. Now, a trio of dedicated historians led by ACU’s Associate Professor Noah Riseman is shedding light on the lives of those who served in silence.
It was 21 June 1988 when Alix Blundell, a Senior Lieutenant in the Australian Army, was summoned to an interview with her superiors at Lavarack Barracks in Townsville.
With no idea why the officers had called for her, Ms Blundell was sat down and interrogated. She was soon to discover their motives.
“They simply interrogated me brutally and aggressively in an attempt to pressure me into confessing to homosexual behaviour, and to implicate other ADF colleagues in homosexual behaviour,” Ms Blundell said in a written account of the event.
The long-held ban on gay, lesbian and bisexual members of the Australian Defence Force was still in force, with an ADF instruction stipulating that “homosexual behaviour is not accepted or condoned” and offenders should be treated “sympathetically and with discretion”.
As a lesbian who had kept her sexual orientation a secret, Ms Blundell was suspected of breaching the policy.
During the interrogation, she was in intense physical pain due to injuries she had suffered in service at the Townsville base.
“My interrogators made no attempt to obtain a medical clearance as to my fitness for interview,” Ms Blundell said. “They forced me to maintain a fixed, seated posture and denied me water, pain relief and toilet breaks."
Alix Blundell and colleagues wait for a flight out, 1977
Ms Blundell’s traumatising experience is not an isolated incident. It is one of 118 stories that have been recorded so far as part of a four-year research project examining LGBTI military service in Australia since World War II.
A trio of researchers led by ACU’s Associate Professor of History Noah Riseman has scoured the archives and interviewed former and current service personnel who identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender or intersex.
They’ve spoken to many soldiers, sailors and airmen and women who kept their sexuality or gender identity secret, and several who were forced out of the military when their sexuality was exposed.
“We’ve recorded some remarkable stories, including tales of lesbians forming lasting relationships while fearing being caught, gay men going through intense mental and emotional strain, and transgender members undertaking dangerous roles to ‘prove’ their masculinity,” Associate Professor Riseman said.
Australia’s ban on LGBT people in the armed forces was always presumed, but practices varied across and within the forces. Only in 1974 did the Army, Navy and Air Force adopt consistent rules targeting “homosexual activity”, and enforcement spread like wildfire.
“From ’74 to 1992 there was a persistent hunt for gays and lesbians in the ADF … there was surveillance, there was homophobia and there was intimidation, where military police kept someone in an interrogation room for hours on end and demanded the naming of names and really graphic information about their sex lives,” Associate Professor Riseman said.
Unlike most others expelled under the ban, Alix Blundell fought a long battle to gain compensation for the injuries and mental health problems she suffered as a consequence of the ADF’s interrogation. Ms Blundell finally saw some movement in 2015, after she submitted her case to the Defence Abuse Response Taskforce (DART).
Alix Blundell graduates, 1978
“She had spent 20-plus years constantly battling the ADF and Veterans’ Affairs to get some sort of justice or retribution, and when she went through the DART process, it was the first time she was treated with respect,” Associate Professor Riseman said.
As part of Ms Blundell’s redress package, the Chief of Army, Lieutenant General Angus Campbell, flew to Brisbane to give her a personal apology for the abuse she had suffered.
Soon after that meeting, Ms Blundell received a handwritten letter from the Army Chief, who described her experience as “an utterly unacceptable and inappropriate interrogation at the hands of fellow officers you should’ve been able to trust”.
“Their actions were wrong, inexcusable and extremely damaging to you and your subsequent life,” Lieutenant-General Campbell wrote. “You were treated in a degrading, damaging and wholly unlawful manner, for which I am deeply ashamed.”
When the Keating government scrapped the ban on lesbian, gay and bisexual service on 23 November 1992, Australia repositioned itself as an international leader, changing its rules before Britain, New Zealand and the United States.
However, many lesbian, gay or bisexual service members stayed in the closet for fear of harassment.
“The people we’ve spoken to remember a mix of tolerance and derision even after the ban was overturned,” Associate Professor Riseman said.
“Even though they were technically free to be open about their sexuality, the ones who came out in the 1990s were very brave because they still faced taunting and bullying.”
Alix Blundell, 1977
More progress was made towards equality for gay, lesbian and bisexual service members in late 2005, when the ADF recognised same-sex de facto relationships, and 2009, when government reforms allowed the Department of Veterans’ Affairs to recognise the same-sex partnerships of ex-service people.
The ban on transgender service remained in place until September 2010, and since lifting that ban there has been a distinct shift in the ADF’s approach towards LGBTI people.
“It’s quite remarkable the progress that’s been made in the ADF since 2010, and in general the ADF has in the past few years grown to embrace LGBTI people in uniform,” Associate Professor Riseman said.
“At the same time, as the recent marriage equality debate showed, transgender people are still Australia’s socially acceptable punching bag, and while the ADF leadership has been supportive, there’s still progress to be made. That’s why it’s up to LGB people and other allies to stand up and support trans people in the armed services and society at large.”
Fourteen stories from the research project form part of a book by Associate Professor Riseman and his fellow historians, Shirleene Robinson and Graham Willett, published in July 2018.
Noah Riseman is Associate Professor of History at ACU’s School of Arts in Melbourne. His research focuses on the social history of marginalised groups in 20th and 21st century Australia, especially Indigenous and LGBTI people. You can order his book online.
For more information about the Australian LGBTI Military History Project, visit the website or email Noah.Riseman@acu.edu.au