The New Zealand Defence Force once banned LGBTQI personnel. It has now been 25 years since the ban was lifted. For Insight RNZ's Defence reporter Jonathan Mitchell asks how much has the culture improved?
In 1985, Darren Graham's parents received a letter saying their son was a "practicing homosexual." Their fresh-faced, 19-year-old son was just two years into his career in the Air Force. In a time when it was a crime to be gay in New Zealand, Graham had tried to keep his sexuality secret. But everything changed that year, when a petition against Homosexual Law Reform began doing the rounds at his base. He felt pressured to sign it.
"It was being circulated by people at the Air Force base - and it was being handed to you - and you were asked to sign it politely ... you sort of hesitate and then there's people signing it around you, and you're put in that situation that if you don't sign it, you don't fit in.
"It was a total peer pressure situation - but it was someone who outranked you that was handing it around," he says.
Feeling immense anxiety about what he'd just signed, Graham went to talk to the base chaplain about his sexuality. It soon became evident the conversation was not private. Very swiftly, Graham was told to leave the air force because of his sexuality. And if that wasn't enough of a blow, the military wrote to his parents, telling them he was gay.
"Mum and Dad received a letter from the military - it was worded to the effect that, ‘Your son was being discharged for being a practicing homosexual'.
"I phoned my parents a few days later to say I was back in Christchurch... I think my father answered the phone and basically said, 'We've received a letter from the military, saying you're a practicing homosexual', and I just said 'yes'... It's just something they shouldn't have done, in my opinion, but it happened," he says.
Planes had been Graham’s passion. But now, because of his sexual preference, his military life was over. Before the Human Rights Act came into force in the 1990s, the military banned anyone who was gay, lesbian and transgender. For people like Graham, this meant living their military life in the closet. It is now 25 years since the Defence Force lifted the ban on LGBTQI personnel being able to serve openly. Has the culture improved and have the attitudes of the past disappeared?
Rain is threatening on a cloudy afternoon in early May, but Wellington’s Courtenay Place is coming alive. It's the annual pride parade, celebrating the capital's diverse LGBTQI communities. The Defence Force is here, making history.
Leading the contingent is the Air Force Band, followed closely by chief of defence Air Marshal Kevin Short, and many personnel who identify as LGBTQI. To keep the crowds entertained, a light armoured vehicle is blanketed in rainbow flags. It is the first time a chief of defence has marched in a parade recognising the rainbow community. Short acknowledges the way some personnel were treated in the past was wrong, but says he is making a concerted effort to improve the culture.
"We have policies and procedures and practices that mean it is easier to work in the organisation - we want it to be safe, we want people to enjoy what they're doing, and we want them to have long careers," he says.
He points to Operation Respect - a programme aimed at reducing sexual violence - as one way the military is trying to improve things. That programme launched after a scathing assessment of the Air Force in 2015, which labelled the service sexist and toxic. Figures on Operation Respect, released to RNZ, show more personnel - especially women - are coming forward to complain about sexual violence. The document also indicated there were other programmes underway or being developed to recruit more women into the Defence Force, to provide positive messages about masculinity and to prevent sexism and inequality.
OverWatch is the Defence Force's in-house support network for LGBTQI personnel. Stu Pearce, a proud, gay man who takes charge of the group, says there is a genuine desire to make a cultural change.
"There are challenges affecting the LGBT community out in day-to-day New Zealand, and what we want to make sure within the Defence Force is that the culture of the Defence Force is not one of those challenges that people have to face.
"I think it would be naive of us to claim that this is mission accomplished and we've ticked all the boxes and we can go away and celebrate success,” he says.
Despite the military’s efforts, Michelle Lewin, believes it would still be a difficult environment for her to thrive in. She joined the Air Force in the late-1970s when she was known as Murray Lewin, and kept her gender identity issues to herself throughout her time in the military. She left the Air Force in 1986 and transitioned about a decade later.
Looking back, she says she’s proud of her time in the military and it helped her develop, but she thinks it would have been - and likely remains - a tough place for LGBTQI people.
"As a transgendered female, I think there would still be a lot of hurdles to come up against - you know things may have changed 25 years ago when the new policy came in, but the Air Force - like anywhere - will still have a certain amount of people in it that would be anti-gay, or anti-transgendered.”
Hemi Frires, however, has been in the Air Force for more than a decade and has never thought being gay was a problem. It has not affected his experience in the military, he says - he’s simply done his job just like everyone else. Still, he does say there is room for improvement.
"The NZDF is a slice of society at large and so with every recruit course intake of 100 new people into the organisation - several times a year - we inherit society's demographics and baggage,” he says.
"The important thing that we can do as an organisation, I think, is make sure that right from day one, it's really visible to people joining the organisation what our expectations are in terms of tone and behaviour."
Darren Graham says he's healed from being booted out of the Air Force in 1985. He's gone on to lead a successful business career and has a good relationship with his parents, the military sent that letter outing him. Every now and then, he drops in to visit his old stomping ground at Wigram Air Base, in Canterbury. It’s now a museum - a relic of the past.
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Listen to Jonathan's story on Morning Report