Canberra: Photograph of Chris Matterson (in suit), who works at the Department of Defence, and Chief Petty Officer Stuart O'brien (in uniform), for story by Cosima Marriner about being gay in the Defence Force.

Inclusive … Chief Petty Officer Stuart O'Brien, right, with his partner, Chris Matterson. Photo: Penny Bradfield

EVERY month or so Chief Petty Officer Stuart O'Brien gets an email asking: ''Is it OK to be gay in the military?''

This year marks 20 years since the Keating government lifted the ban on gays and lesbians serving in the Australian Defence Force - which includes the army, air force and navy - yet the military is still battling to shake its reputation for homophobia.

''People still think we have a 'don't ask, don't tell' culture,'' O'Brien, the ADF's leading gay rights campaigner, says. ''There is this myth and rumour that defence is homophobic.''

That perception is reinforced by scandals such as the Facebook hate page a former soldier created in 2010 to out service personnel and threaten them. Some gay soldiers have lost confidence in the ADF's diversity policies because of the way that scandal was handled internally, as well as separate allegations of assaults on gays which have recently been handed to the federal government.

But the ADF is now reaching out to the gay community to bolster its ranks. Many gay military members insist the only basis on which they are judged is their ability to do the job.

''People don't bat an eyelid if you say you're gay,'' says O'Brien, who met Chris Matterson, his partner of 11 years, in the ADF.

''I've served in the Middle East on several occasions, with the navy, the army, and the US military services. The sex never came into play; everybody understood you're there to do a job, they don't care who you sleep with.''

On military internet forums, gay people contemplating a career in the ADF are assured homosexuality ''quickly becomes a non-issue'', as Dion, a navy sailor puts it. ''Whilst I'm not flamboyant about my sexuality, everybody knows about it at work and it wasn't such a big deal when I did come out,'' Dion posted. ''I've even had some of the guys come out to the clubs with me from time to time.''

Major-General Gerard Fogarty, the head of People Capability at the Department of Defence, told The Sun-Herald that a member's sexual preference was ''simply irrelevant to how their careers are managed, right when they first enter the ADF and continue throughout their time of service''.

It is a vast improvement on the culture of fear that existed before the ban on gays and lesbians was overturned. Prior to 1992, ADF recruits had to disclose on their application form if they had engaged in same-sex liaisons, as gays - like women - were considered a threat to the military's morale, cohesion and efficiency.

Gay advocates say witch-hunts were common. One soldier was petrified, said one advocate, when his locker was raided and a letter from his lover discovered.

''It was just heartbreaking to see these young people who had struggled to come to terms with their sexuality and were now out to their family and friends, go back into the closet when they entered the military,'' said Rodney Croome, who lobbied for the ban to be lifted. ''They were constantly watching their backs for fear someone would spot them at a gay club or with their gay friends.''

Even after openly gay people were allowed into the ADF, it took more than a decade before the Defence Force officially recognised same-sex relationships. Chief Petty Officer O'Brien, who led the campaign for equal rights, credits Angus Houston with making the historic policy change when he became Chief of the Defence Force in 2005.

''The new CDF said, 'This is wrong, let's change it','' he recalls. ''Houston embraced diversity more so than the others; he said 'families are families'.''

Relocation funding, compensation, and superannuation are now available to de facto military couples, gay and straight.

Four years after the first ADF float in the Mardi Gras parade in 2008, the Chief of Army, Lieutenant-General David Morrison is advocating recruiting more gays and lesbians.

''Twenty-five, 30 years ago the reaction to people of a different sexual orientation would have been seen as almost insurmountable,'' he said in a speech to The Sydney Institute earlier this year. ''Yet now of course it isn't an issue and nor should it be. And we have many very proud gay and lesbian soldiers, airmen, airwomen, sailors serving in our ADF.''

Croome, a gay rights activist, says ADF leaders and policies are no longer ''on the side'' of prejudice. ''They're now on the side of tolerance and inclusion and that makes a big difference. But the sexual prejudice within the ranks has a long way to go.''

Concern remains that homophobic behaviour ranging from offensive language, harmful gossip and public taunts to more extreme activities like the Facebook page and alleged assaults still occurs.

Squadron Leader Vince Chong says that the Facebook scandal was a ''wake-up call'' to gay members of the military like himself who had not experienced any homophobia.

''It came as a big shock to us … that perhaps the level playing field we've experienced may not be reflective of all units in Defence,'' said Chong, who is the chairman of the Defence Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender and Intersex Information Service.

The service runs an anonymous advice hotline, and the ADF is developing new gay and lesbian awareness training programs.

Major General Fogarty warns that the ADF ''is not immune to individual opinions or attitudes'' towards gays, but says it now has policies and procedures to address discrimination.

Yet the lawyer for the Facebook victims, John Davey, says the army's failure to take formal disciplinary action against members who viewed the material (they were issued with warning letters) means the discrimination policies ''aren't worth the paper they're written on''.

Davey cannot understand how an organisation which can deploy troops anywhere in the world with two days' notice is still struggling to stamp out homophobia in its ranks.

''If you can tell these guys what kind of underwear to wear, you can tell them not to go on a hate site','' he says.

Croome believes it will be heterosexual troops who ultimately banish homophobia from the ADF.

''What will continue to make changes in the ADF is … the rank and file heterosexual people who are no longer willing to tolerate discrimination and continue to speak out against it in defence of their colleagues''.

''That's the most powerful force for change,'' he said.