True Colours: ADF at Sydney Mardi Gras Parade
SYDNEY MARDI GRAS: They have been marching in the Mardi Gras Parade since 2008 but this year, for the first time, openly gay personnel from the Australian Defence Force will take part in the procession in full uniform – a move that will only have positive outcomes. It’s gay and lesbian service members speak with Reg Domingo. Photographed for SX by John McRae.
[Pictured above] Private Anthony Wilson, Lieutenant Joshua Maher and Leading Aircraftwoman Andrea Pearce. Photo: John McRae
Having twice marched in the Mardi Gras Parade, this year’s event will bear special significant for Lieutenant Joshua Maher. For the first time, the 22-year-old Maritime Warfare Officer will be able to march down Oxford and Flinders Streets in full naval garb.
“Both times, the experiences were incredibly overwhelming,” he tells SX. “Last year, I got to do it with one of my really good friends. She had also come out, so the two of us, we had an absolute blast – the parade was too short.”
But this year, he expects the procession, and their reception, to be a little different.
“It’s incredible,” he says. “It’s such an achievement for us now to be able to do it in uniform.”
Maher will be among 100 personnel from the Australian Defence Force (ADF) from all over Australia marching in this year’s event on Saturday, March 2. They are members of DEFGLIS (Australian Defence Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender and Intersex Information Service), which serves as the support network for ADF’s LGBTIQ service personnel. They will be joined by more than 50 people from DEFGLIS’ civilian contingent, which includes family, friends and supporters.
2013 marks DEFGLIS’ fifth year in the parade; they first took part in 2008. But this year will be the first time participants have been permitted to march in uniform.
According to DEFGLIS Chair Vince Chong, the decision, which garnered plenty of media coverage when it was released in December last year, will have only positive ramifications for Defence.
“DEFGLIS considers that the ADF decision shows strong support for the service of LGBTI personnel and is a clear sign that the ADF is open to all Australians,” Chong tells SX.
“In my view, the decision demonstrates that it is okay for people to be their ‘whole self’ in the workplace and when representing the ADF. This is critical for people who are unsure about their sexual orientation or gender identity.”
The issue of allowing government employees – whether state or federal – to take part in Gay Pride events in full uniform has always been a contentious one. The most recent example was in Adelaide. In November last year, South Australian Police Commissioner Gary Burns rejected calls urging him to allow the state’s officers to take part in a gay march in uniform. SA Minister for Social Inclusion Ian Hunter said “a change to existing policies would send a very powerful message to the LGBTIQ community”.
“A message of social inclusion, respect and support for diversity,” Hunter told Adelaide gay magazine, Blaze.
Sadly, the ban for South Australian police officers marching in uniform at any Gay Pride march remains in place.
In stark contrast, their counterparts in New South Wales have been marching in uniform for 15 years.
The first contingent of Gay and Lesbian Liaison Officers (GLLOs) of the NSW Police Force (NSWPF) first took part in the Mardi Gras Parade in 1996. They marched in full uniform two years later.
NSW Police Chief Superintendent Donna Adney tells SX that such participation sends a strong message of visibility, understanding and solidarity to the gay and lesbian community.
“The Mardi Gras Parade presents an ideal opportunity for the NSW Police Force to demonstrate a very public, highly visible commitment to supporting the GLBTI communities.
“I believe that NSW Police Force’s participation in Mardi Gras makes a very strong statement to the general community that diversity is valued and everyone deserves to live without harassment and violence.”
Moreover, allowing GLLOs to march in uniform also reaches out to GLBTI members of NSW Police, Adney says.
“Another very important benefit has been to those who are GLBTI within the organisation. Our participation in such a high profile event sends a strong message to those within the NSW Police Force and those considering joining the organisation, that we are a GLBTI-friendly organisation.”
It’s a key point shared by the other emergency services. A spokesperson for Fire & Rescue NSW, which has been participating in the Mardi Gras Parade in uniform since 2006, told SX: “Fire & Rescue NSW is an equal opportunity employer and participating in the parade shows the organisation’s strong support of its gay and lesbian staff, and for diversity in our workforce”.
Nathaniel Smith is an Ambulance Parademic and the 2013 Mardi Gras Events Coordinator for the Ambulance Service of NSW (ASNSW). He says their Mardi Gras participation, which has seen paramedics march in uniform since in 2011, conveys to the broader community the commitment of ASNSW in promoting diversity and social inclusion.
“The public can see openly gay paramedics make up our workfoce and the community cansee Ambulance is focused on bridging any gaps that may have existed in the past about homophobia,” he tells SX.
“Ambulance benefits from actively acknowledging gay staff in the service and helping support them. This allows paramedics to be open with their sexuality, meaning they can be proud of who they are and not feel judged”.
The decision by the ADF to allow its members to march in uniform in the Mardi Gras Parade builds on recent initiatives for cultural change within the ADF. While openly-gay service personnel have been allowed to serve since 1992, recent controversies, albeit seemingly isolated, have unearthed instances of homophobia and discrimination, such as the vicious gay-hate campaign on Facebook in early 2011.
Such initiatives, which include the implementation of a number of strategies and programs that address equity and diversity, have yielded positive results. Recently, resource material have been produced which directly addresses LGBTI concerns within the ADF.
“DEFGLIS members recently contributed to the development of Air Force guides aimed at assisting LGBTI personnel in the workplace,” DEFGLIS’ Chong says. “A complimentary guide for commanders was also published to provide education about sexual orientation and is available in workplaces. Both guides have been made available via the DEFGLIS website with permission from the Royal Australian Air Force.
“In my view, the decision [to allow personnel to march in uniform] shows that the ADF is serious about Pathway to Change – the program that seeks to evolve Defence culture. DEFGLIS fully supports this program, and is committed to supporting initiatives that improve inclusion and achieving the culture envisaged by the ADF leadership: ‘trusted to defend, proven to deliver and respectful always’.
Warrant Officer Stuart O’Brien is an LGBTI advocate who founded DEFGLIS eleven years ago. He was among the first people from the ADF to march in 2008.
“It was an emotional parade,” he recalls. “At the time, I never believed that we would be able to represent the Australian Defence Force at Mardi Gras. I was overwhelmed by the responses of the crowd.”
O’Brien will again take part in this year’s parade but for the first time, in his uniform.
“I believe that one of the key outcomes for our participation in the Parade is that it will show the broader community that the Australian Defence Force is a diverse organisation. I know there are lot of people in the community that still believe that LGBTI personnel are not allowed to serve,” O’ Brien says.
“I am marching in uniform to ensure that the Australian Defence Force doesn’t miss out on talented candidates that otherwise wouldn't have thought of joining. For those of us that are serving, it’s very reassuring to have received support from ADF leadership.”
For Lieutenant Maher, it’s not just the support, but it’s also about the acknowledgement and, perhaps most significantly, the pride.
“Now being able to march in uniform, to get the recognition is a very big thing for me,” he says. “And I’m very proud of being able to do it.”
PRIVATE ANTHONY WILSON
In the summer of 2009, life for 19-year-old Anthony Wilson couldn’t be better. He was now in his second year as a member of the cavalry of the Australian Army. The camaraderie, the training, the work – it fitted him to a tee. It was a good outcome, given the decision to enlist in the Army was never on the cards.
“I just didn’t know what I wanted to with myself after school,” he recalls. “I didn’t want to study straight away so I just joined. And half way through, I was enjoying it. So I signed up full time.”
But it was also during this time when Anthony began to realise his attraction towards other men.
“I’m kind of one of those people who didn’t realise I was gay until I was 19. So during the year when I was 19 to 20, it was all crashing in at once.”
For fear of being ridiculed or harassed, he kept his sexuality from his cavalry colleagues.
Then the following year, in 2010, Anthony took a transfer to train as a parachute rigger. But rather than start off this next phase in his army career with a secret, he decided to go in, out in the open.
“So I changed jobs and started again as a gay man in Defence,” he says. “When I went into training, I was out straight away to the guys I was training with.”
Not that it was easy, of course. To come out the first time never is, let alone to one’s army buddies.
“It was daunting. We were all living together but I just went from room to room and told them all.”
And within two months, everyone knew about it. More importantly perhaps, everyone was fine with it.
“Because you build it up in your head, I was expecting their responses to be bad but there was nothing bad about it.
“I had such a good reception that I wish I had come out earlier. Most of the hardship I went through was all self-imposed, that when I actually did come out, there was no problem at all.”
Private Anthony Wilson, now 22, now serves as a parachute rigger at Royal Australian Air Force Base in Richmond in north western Sydney. This year will be his second year marching in the Mardi Gras Parade with the Australian Defence Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, Trangender and Intersex Information Service (DEFGLIS).
More significantly, however, it will be his first time marching in military dress, after the Australian Defence Force finally approved its service personnel to march in uniform.
And Anthony couldn’t be more excited.
“Marching in uniform puts a really good message out there,” he says. “For me, it’s not just about having pride in myself, but it’s also about showing those people who maybe want to join Defence or are already in Defence and are struggling with their sexuality, that you can be out and serving and be happy at the same time. It can be done”.
LIEUTENANT JOSHUA MAHER
Lieutenant Joshua Maher, 24, is a Maritime Warfare Officer. In layman’s terms, he’s the man behind the wheel.
“There’s three in my position on board,” he tells SX. “We do two four hour shifts a day and we drive the ship on behalf of the captain. That involves navigating, controlling the routine of the ship, and working with the operations room for the warfighting of the ship.”
But his point of origin in Defence never began in the Navy. Joshua had originally joined the Army, when studying a Bachelor of Science at the Australian Defence Force Academy in Canberra in 2006.
“Whilst in the Academy, I had a couple of friends in the Navy and I was talking to them, and I worked out that with what I wanted to do in Defence, to be in the Navy was going to be a better option for me.”
So he transferred in his final year and graduated from the Academy as Navy in 2008.
Spurred on by his accomplishment, Joshua seized on his sense of triumph and came out to his family.
“Because I had achieved my degree, I had this drive and that’s what helped me tell my family. Their response was very positive and supportive. As my dad said: ‘It doesn’t change anything’.”
The Navy, on the other hand was a different matter.
Following his graduation, Joshua underwent officer training at the Royal Australian Naval College in Jervis Bay on the New South Wales south coast.
“Whilst I was at the college, one of my friends sort of guessed it but I didn’t end up properly coming out until the following year, around January 2010.”
That moment came at a friend’s birthday party. It was a small gathering of 30 people, all of them from the Defence Force.
“I don’t know but I just had a drive and ended up telling all of my best friends,” Joshua recalls. “I told each of them individually at the party and said, ‘Look, I don’t care, go out and tell whoever you want’.”
And that they did. Within the hour, everyone at the party knew.
“Not one person had an issue,” Joshua says. “Everyone was really positive, it was incredible. I was afraid that there was going to be some kind of reaction, like some people might distance themselves. But nobody did – everybody was fine about it.”
Since then, Joshua has been open about his sexuality in his workplace. He is now based at Fleet Base East at Garden Island at Wolloomooloo Bay.
Such pride will again be on display when Joshua marches for the third time at the Mardi Gras Parade with DEFGLIS, the support network for LGBTI personnel in the Australian Defence Force. This year, particularly so, as Joshua will be able to do it in military garb for the first time, following a decision by the ADF to finally allow its members to march in uniform.
“It’s such an achievement for us to now be able to do it in uniform,” Joshua says. “I feel that Defence is not just a normal job, it very much dictates a lot of my life. Now being able to march in uniform, to get the recognition is a very big thing for me. I’m very proud to be able to do it.”
LEADING AIRCRAFTWOMAN ANDREA PEARCE
Leading Aircraftwoman Andrea Pearce began dating her first girlfriend while still living at home with her parents in Mount Gambier in South Australia. It was a furtive relationship characterised by sneaking out of the house and secretive calls, which drew plenty of suspicion from her mother.
Things would finally come to head when her brother came to town for a visit.
“My mum had obviously been in his ear about my, in her words, ‘odd’ behaviour,” Andrea recalls. “As soon as I saw my brother, he gave me a big hug, looked me straight in the eye and asked, ‘Do you dig chicks?’ I laugh and said yes, and the rest is history.
“Besides a few struggles with my mum’s attitude towards it all, she has finally, five years later, told me that she accepts my sexuality and loves me unconditionally.”
Coming out is never easy. But it helps when a sibling or a loved one is there to help you along the way. There was no such pillar for Andrea at the Defence Force.
Andrea enlisted in 2009 seeking a new challenge. For years, she had worked as a personal trainer and fitness instructor and felt it was time for a change.
“I worked in the fitness industry for five years – I’m 25 now. Fitness was always something that I could always come back to so I wanted to go away, do something else, maybe get a trade and education besides what I’ve already done.”
And she found that with the Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF).
For three months, she trained at RAAF Base in Wagga Wagga in central southern New South Wales, before undergoing employment training throughout 2010. Since then, Andrea has been posted at RAAF Base in Richmond in north western Sydney as an aircraft technician, working on maintenance and rectifications on military transport aircrafts such as the C130J and C130H Hercules.
Not that she hid her sexuality from her colleagues; rather, she just didn’t share it with them.
“Everyone knows – I’m openly gay. But I actually didn’t tell anyone when I was in recruits. I was concerned about how it would be received. For three months, I was living in closed quarters, four people to a room, all girls – I didn’t want to freak anyone out.”
But as soon as basic training finished, things changed for the better.
“I had awesome friends that I made at recruits that didn’t know about that about me, so I just told them straightaway. They were a bit shocked but they were, like, ‘We don’t care, we like you anyway’.”
And Andrea has not looked back since. Indeed, it would be through friends that Andrea would get connected with DEFGLIS, the Australian Defence Force’s support network for LGBTI personnel.
This year will be Andrea’s first time marching in the Mardi Gras Parade. And it’s a timely introduction, with the ADF allowing its members to march in the parade in full military dress for the first time too.
Andrea, to say the least, is more than excited.
“My uniform is important to your identity and it’s awesome to be able to represent the Air Force and to show that we are diverse,” she says.
“Mardi Gras has been going for so long now and other services get to do it, and now we finally get to have that opportunity. Hopefully, it will open people’s eyes when they see that, no matter your sexuality, you can come and join the Defence Force.”
The Mardi Gras Parade is on Saturday, March 2. For more information on DEFGLIS, visit www.defglis.com.au.