Ex-Defence members traumatised from being dishonourably discharged under historic policies banning lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people will use the recently announced royal commission into veteran suicide to call for an apology and redress after years of government inaction.
Up until 1992, the Australian Defence Force banned LGB personnel from serving openly and it was only in 2010 when the ADF lifted restrictions on transgender people from serving.
Among the organisations calling for change is the Canberra-based Defence LGBTI Information Services (DEFGLIS).
Member and spokesman Stuart Martin, who served in the Air Force, said the organisation wanted to see a process between Defence's senior leadership and LGBTI military service persons where all options for ongoing support and recognition are considered.
"In some cases, an apology is a powerful tool for healing trauma caused by events and we would like to discuss the benefits of this option with defence leadership," Mr Martin said.
"Through our research partners who have recorded over 100 oral histories, we know that past policies have led to mental health issues among the ex-serving and veteran LGBTI members.
"We also know that mental health can be a contributing factor towards suicide.
"We will be communicating with and encouraging our members to make submissions to the royal commission if it is appropriate to their circumstances."
Joining forces for a cause
Ex-service personnel Yvonne Sillett, 60, and Danny Liversidge, 54, founded the Victorian-based Discharged LGBTI Veterans' Association (DLVA) in 2020 to help people impacted by the policies and to push the campaign for redress.
Ms Sillett, who joined the army at 18 then discharged 10 years later after being investigated, said the experience was "very traumatic and very heartbreaking".
"It was a career I wanted to be in for the long haul, I was disappointed not to serve 20 years," Ms Sillet said.
"Danny and I are trying to achieve an apology. Compensation would be the cherry on the top, but that's not the main reason for us creating our association. It's to help others that have gone through what we have."
Asked about what responses she has received from Defence, Ms Sillet said Minister for Veterans Affairs Darren Chester "was just not interested".
She has been writing to Ballarat MP Catherine King and increasing the association's presence through exhibitions and collaborations with other organisations, such as the Victorian RSL and Open Arms.
Mr Liversidge said he felt ashamed of being forced out in 1991 when he was only 23.
"I held onto that shame for a very long time and did not talk about it," he said.
"There were lots of mental health problems over the years - especially the sense of self-worth. I also lived on base, so it wasn't just my career but my home as well."
Mr Liversidge said they had been "handballed several times" when contacting Defence.
"The apology can be across the board, but every case is unique. Along with that apology, I'd like to see the government fund a major research to understand impacts on the LGBTI community to learn about their needs," he said.
"The government needs to take ownership of the issue, to acknowledge it."
Historian to make submission to royal commission
Australian Catholic University professor of history Noah Riseman has conducted extensive research into the impact of the previous policies, including service police who would go undercover to investigate, surveil then interrogate suspected LGB defence personnel.
In late 2018, he sent a policy briefing to the Department of Defence calling for an apology and financial redress for those who still lived with the trauma of the previous policies.
"While the present situation is much better for LGBTI service members, many of those who were discharged or otherwise experienced hardship under the earlier policies against LGBT service are still suffering," Mr Riseman wrote in his briefing.
"The stress of hiding their authentic selves and the traumatising experience of the investigations, interviews and discharges have left ongoing mental health problems for some ex-service personnel.
"We also know that there were LGBT members under investigation who suicided.
"For those who rebuilt their lives after discharging, still there is the feeling that the ADF abandoned them and there has never been a proper reconciliation."
In 2019, the Senate passed a Greens motion calling on the government to acknowledge the suffering of LGBTI Defence personnel.
Mr Riseman, who with fellow historian Shirleen Robinson published the book Pride In Defence last year, said since then there had been little to no progress from the government in its consideration of the campaign.
"Some of the vets I've been working with have been quietly lobbying their local MPs, trying to build more momentum," he said.
Mr Riseman said he would be making a submission to the royal commission.
"In my research, I've met LGBTI veterans who are suicide survivors, but they survived, thank goodness," he said.
Mr Riseman said an apology could be delivered to individuals using a process similar to one that already exists - the restorative engagement program by the Commonwealth Ombudsman.
The program is designed to support reportees to tell their personal stories of abuse to a senior Defence representative in a private, facilitated meeting.
The conference also provides the chance for Defence to acknowledge and respond to personal stories of abuse.
Mr Riseman said he had interviewed people who went through that program.
"They speak so favourably of it because they felt they were being heard," he said.
"Based on their stories, it's so effective and it means so much to them. There's already a process, so let's extend that."
During his research, Mr Riseman accessed records under Freedom of Information that showed 489 men and 165 women were investigated from 1953-92 for being lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender.
Mr Riseman said his message to those living with trauma and mental health issues from previous policies was that "you are not alone".
"There are others like you. What happened to LGBTI people in the past, it was structural. Get in touch with the Discharged LGBTI Veterans' Association or DEFGLIS," Mr Riseman said.
Defence commits to cultural reform
In response to questions about whether the government will support the campaign, Veterans' Affairs Minister Darren Chester said they were "committed to building a capable and diverse workforce that reflects the community we serve".
"Our ADF is a proud foundation member of Pride in Diversity, Australia's first and only national non-for-profit empower program for all aspects of workplace inclusion," he said.
A Defence spokesperson said its cultural reform strategy Pathway to Change 2017-2022 identified "capability through inclusion" as one of its six cultural reform priorities.
The 2019 Defence census identified 4 per cent of the 38,284 permanent ADF members who participated in the census as gay, another 2 per cent as bisexual and 0.5 per cent as transgender.
The percentages were similar for ADF reserves members and Defence APS.
Submissions to the royal commission can be made at email@example.com.
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