LGBTI military service members and their partners

As part of our marriage equality series, Noah Riseman reflects on the past and continued challenges of LGBTI military service in Australia when it comes to romantic partnerships.

November 23 this year marks the twenty-fifth anniversary of the Keating Government lifting the ban on lesbian, gay and bisexual (LGB) people serving in the Australian Defence Force (ADF). The transgender ban was lifted only in September 2010, yet we know that LGBTI people have been serving in Australia’s military since long before these two milestones. Over the last twenty-five years, the ADF has evolved from merely tolerating homosexuals, to embracing LGBTI members for their skills and the diversity they bring to the force. LGBTI personnel have served with distinction at home and abroad, in warzones from Korea to Afghanistan, on peacekeeping missions from East Timor to the Sinai, and providing humanitarian aid from the Boxing Day Tsunami to flood-ravaged Queensland. Yet they cannot marry their partners in Australia.

Dennis was a Leading Cook who served in the Navy from 1966-74, including on the HMAS Vendetta on a tour of Vietnam in 1969-70. He is one of the many ex-service personnel who identify as LGBTI whose histories have remained silent. Image via personal collection.

There is Dennis, who served in the Navy from 1966-74. Like so many other LGBTI service personnel of that era, Dennis lived a double life to hide his homosexuality. When Dennis fell in love with a civilian man, he went AWOL and moved from Sydney to Perth. A year later he turned himself in, and he was sentenced to one month’s detention before he could discharge. From the military detention centre he wrote letters to his partner, addressed as “K” or “Bub”. Dennis addressed one to “Mr K”, so the Navy police confronted him about his homosexuality. Dennis was moved to a private block (he speculates so others would not “catch the gay cooties”). In Dennis’ case, authorities took no further action since he was discharging anyway.

Margaret and Linda forged a relationship while serving together in the Women’s Royal Australian Air Force during the early 1960s. They were one step ahead of the annual witch-hunts and eventually requested a discharge on the grounds of their sexuality. They did this primarily because they knew they would never be posted to the same base again (or be able to serve with opportunity to advance) if their relationship were exposed. Since leaving the Air Force, they have stayed together for over forty years.

Relationships within Defence were less common for gay and bisexual men, and when they happened they were usually short-lived because of the strain of secrecy. One striking exception was Lorenzo and Rob, who were both national servicemen in Vietnam. Three nights before the end of Lorenzo’s tour of duty in Vietnam in 1967, they hooked up on the beach in Vung Tau and spent the night together in Rob’s tent. They both left the Army within a few months of their return and continued a tumultuous twenty-seven year relationship full of ups and downs, sordid love affairs, a high-profile broken engagement, and eventual tragedy when Rob died of AIDS in 1995.

Dennis saved the love letters his then-partner Keith sent to him in 1974 while he was in military detention. Dennis and Keith’s relationship lasted for twelve years. Dennis has been with his current partner for almost thirty-two years. Image via personal collection.

Lifting the ban in 1992 ended the threat of dismissal, but it did not grant equal treatment to LGB service members. Many Defence members still kept their same-sex relationships a secret for fear of bullying or other persecution, while others were brave enough to challenge ongoing discrimination. As early as 1993 the Army rejected a lesbian couple’s application to have their relationship recognised because the policy on de facto couples explicitly defined them as members of the opposite sex. Same-sex couples therefore could not access benefits such as financial assistance during base transfers, travel allowances, married quarters, compassionate leave, education programs, and even pensions. In the mid-1990s several LGB Defence members lodged applications for their relationships to be recognised, appealing as high as the Chief of Defence Force and to ministers in the Howard Government. All of their efforts came to nought.

Ex-service members, too, were denied benefits because the Department of Veterans’ Affairs did not recognise same-sex relationships. In 2002, the thirty-eight years’ partner of a deceased Second World War veteran lodged a formal complaint to the UN Human Rights Committee when he was denied a spousal pension. In 2003 the UN found in the complainant’s favour, but the Howard Government refused to implement the UN committee’s ruling.

The two turning points in favour of same-sex couple recognition were in 2005 and 2009. The ADF amended its definition of interdependent relationships in late 2005 to recognise same-sex couples. This reform positioned Defence as a leader, as most of the Australian Public Service still did not recognise same-sex partners. The reform only applied to serving members, though, and did not cover ex-service people. It would be the Rudd Government’s reforms to eighty-five federal laws that allowed the Department of Veterans’ Affairs to recognise same-sex partnerships from July 2009.

One argument that anti-marriage equality advocates make is that same-sex partnerships, in the wake of such reforms, are entitled to the same legal protections and rights as heterosexual couples. Yet it is not always so simple, especially in as complex a bureaucracy as the ADF. The piles of paperwork needed to prove an interdependent relationship are onerous. Heterosexual couples may, if they so choose, marry and simply produce a marriage certificate. Marriage inequality can also affect transgender Defence members’ relationships. Transitioning service members have had to divorce their spouses for the state to recognise their affirmed gender.

ADF members, past and present, are brave people who have served their country. We may not always agree with the ADF’s involvement in particular wars or the militarisation of Australia’s borders, but those who are willing to put their lives on the line to defend our country deserve our respect and to be afforded equal rights. Some Defence members have already married their spouses in overseas ceremonies in places like Canada or New Zealand.

They have fought long and hard to be recognised as equals in Defence. They should not have to battle to be equals in civilian Australia as well.


Noah Riseman is an Associate Professor in History at Australian Catholic University. He has published research from this ARC-funded project in Australian Historical Studies, International Journal of Transgenderism and Australian Journal of Politics and History. A co-authored book on Australian LGBTI military service is under contract with NewSouth Publishing for publication in late 2018.

Follow Noah on Twitter @noahriseman.

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