As a gay Australian, I couldn’t be more grateful for the rights and freedoms our soldiers have won for us, while LGBTQIA people are tortured, killed and ostracised in nations around the world simply because of their sexuality.
At the 2017 Sydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras, the Australian Defence Force marched proudly in support of the community. Seeing them marching in their uniforms up close, in perfect formation, with serious intent, was an inspiring moment for me and many other members of the LGBTI community.
Yet the next morning, Miranda Devine wrote in The Sunday Telegraph that the ADF should not have marched because they are meant to be “non-political”. Her point was that the ADF should not have worn their Rising Sun badge wrapped in the rainbow colours of the marriage equality campaign, because the military isn’t meant to be political.
Devine argues that their message was a “party political message” because of the Coalition’s plebiscite position, while the Labor and Greens want a parliamentary vote. Instead, she sees the Army’s involvement as a “radical social engineering experiment, rejecting what it regards as outdated male Anglo culture and segregating its troops according to ethnic, religious, sexual and gender identities which are accorded special privileges as victim groups, in the name of diversity”.
Let’s get this straight: Victim groups like the LGBTI community are afforded privileges, in Devine’s words.
You know, privileges like being unable to marry, having to constantly prove relationships to medical and financial institutions, jumping through a million hoops to have children, experiencing a higher rate of bullying, verbal and physical abuse than the wider population, and dealing with employment discrimination (especially for trans people – and that’s just the tip of the iceberg).
LGBTI youth in Australia are five times more likely to attempt suicide than their peers, according to the National LGBTI Health Alliance. US research recently showed that youth suicide attempts dropped by 14 percent since marriage equality was legalised in the US.
So there is a direct correlation between affording LGBTI people rights, and the effect has on the broader health of our society. Is the ADF meant to turn a blind eye to protecting our young people, some of whom are future army officers, from harm?
Dr Shirleene Robinson, a historian and researcher for DEFGLIS (Defence LGBTI Information Service Supporting LGBTI personnel and their families), argues that the ADF’s involvement had no political agenda.
“The ADF’s participation in Mardi Gras was not political. The Australian government does not recognise marching in Mardi Gras as a political activity. There are a diverse range of groups that participate in Mardi Gras each year, including corporations such as Holden and Virgin Australia,” Dr Robinson tells Mamamia.
“Many Australian Government Departments also march. These companies and Departments are expressing their support for their LGBTIQ staff and customers, just as the ADF was expressing support for its LGBTIQ servicemen and women.”
The fact that the ADF wants to pledge its allegiance to the LGBTI community is hugely symbolic.
It begs the question: Do we want our institutions to set an example for how to treat other people, or is it better just to stay silent and “shut up and serve”?
The ADF has made concrete efforts to foster a culture of tolerance and inclusion (so threatening, right?), in the efforts to address issues of homophobia and sexism in the force.
In 2002, the DEFGLIS service was launched to help LGBTI personnel and their families, while in 2009, partners of LGBT servicemen and women were granted the same access to military retirement pensions and superannuation as their straight counterparts. If that’s not worth celebrating, I don’t know what is.
Dr Robinson adds that the ADF march not only represents the pride of current ADF members, but also honours the service personnel “from the past who have been largely written out of our understanding of Australia's military history”.
As for the rising sun badge appearing with a rainbow flag, which really got Devine’s goat, Dr Robinson puts it in perspective.
“This is particularly important because until 1992, lesbian and gay service personnel had to serve in silence, knowing that if their sexuality was revealed, they faced discharge from the military,” Dr Robinson says.
“The ban on transgender service continued even longer. For LGBTIQ people, wearing the badge allows them to feel pride, both as individuals who have served their country in the Australian Defence Force and as LGBTIQ people.”
“It is also important to note that the rising sun itself was not modified on the badge worn in the Mardi Gras parade. This symbol of military service has also been incorporated into other badges which recognise the rich service and contribution of groups who have not always been acknowledged for their important contribution to Australia’s military history, including Indigenous service men and women.”
The ADF is not telling anyone how marriage equality should be achieved. The ADF was not holding signs of political dissent, screaming at Malcolm Turnbull to just pass it already. It was making a social statement – a statement that homophobia in society should not be tolerated, and anyone who is gay serving in the military should know that their relationships are treated as equal.
Call it a naïve, Utopian ideal, but supporting other Australians’ rights is not political. It is a social responsibility, and I personally thank the ADF for taking a stand.
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Do you agree with Adam, is it necessary for national institutions to take a stand on social issues?