Last year, I interviewed a man who had joined the Royal Australian Navy aged 19 in 1967, as Australia’s involvement in the Vietnam War escalated. He had a family tradition of military involvement, with a father who had also served in the Navy, and he signed up for what was to be an initial nine-year stint.
The man’s military career came to an abrupt end against his will after six years of service in 1973 when he was discovered to be homosexual. He described to me a process of extensive interrogation by military police, his home being searched, his partner being intimidated and his ultimate discharge from the Navy.
He remembered thinking “all they were interested in was getting me out and preventing pollution.” The time from his initial interrogation to his being discharged took just five days.
Officially, gay men and lesbian women were banned from serving in the Army, Airforce and Navy until 1992, when Prime Minister Paul Keating had the political courage to overturn the ban. Until then, it was argued that homosexuality threatened military cohesion and morale. By contrast, the US kept its “don’t ask don’t tell” policy, which officially barred entry for gays and lesbians to the military while allowing them to join as long as they didn’t disclose their sexuality, for two more than decades.
Before 1992 in Australia, those who did serve were forced to hide their sexuality, facing discharge if their homosexuality was exposed. The ban on transgender service lasted even longer, a further 18 years. The contribution of intersex personnel (those born with aspects of both sexes) is still to be fully unearthed.
Lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex (LGBTI) service personnel have largely been written out Australia’s military history. But researchers are now correcting the record.
Notable and important exceptions to the historical silence on LGBTI military service include the meticulous archival research of Yorick Smaal and Graham Willett, who have shown an extensive history of gay service in the Australian military during World War II.