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IDENTITY AND SERVICE

Experiences of LGBTQI+ Personnel

BY KATE SPINKS-COLAS

In July 2022, the Shrine will launch a special exhibition that aims to shine a light on an aspect of Australia’s military history that has, until recently, largely been ignored or absent from our war memorials.

On Anzac Day 1982, the Shrine of Remembrance became inextricably associated with the discrimination and exclusion of the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Trans and Gender diverse, intersex, and Queer and Questioning (LGBTiQ+) service community when Bruce Ruxton, then Victorian President of the Returned Services League (RSL), stopped five veterans laying a wreath in honour of gay and lesbian people who had served and died in war.

The five men were representatives from a newly formed organization called the Gay Ex-Services Association (GESA). Founding member and Vietnam veteran, Max Campbell suggested that the association begin to lay a wreath on Anzac Day. Max was overseas in 1982 when the first attempt to lay a wreath was made; however, he and another GESA member, Terry, bravely attempted again in 1983.

Although initial attempts were met with the same refusal, they were eventually able to lay the wreath later in the day on Anzac Day in 1983. interviewed by author Noah Riseman in 2015, Max stated that a reporter from The Age had seen them being refused entry to the Shrine and came and spoke to them. Max then spoke with the Shrine’s Chairman of the Board of Trustees, Wing Commander Peter isaacson, resulting in Max and Terry being allowed to lay their wreath later in the afternoon.

The Shrine’s Chairman ultimately stood by the memorial’s intended purpose as a place of commemoration for all Australians to commemorate all who have served. However, the events of the previous year already entwined the history of the Shrine with the exclusion of the LGBTiQ+ community.

It is a confronting juncture in the Shrine’s story and one that we cannot disentangle ourselves from. However, we can take ownership of this unpleasant event and everything it represents. We can use it to draw attention to the diverse experiences and stories of LGBTiQ+ service people and celebrate their incredible contribution to service— often in the face of discrimination, marginalisation and silencing.

In 2022, the Shrine will launch a special exhibition that aims to shine a light on this aspect of Australia’s military history that has, until more recently, largely been ignored or absent from memorials like the Shrine. The exhibition will be part of a series of programs and events that are broadly based on the concept of identity in relation to service and sacrifice.

It will explore the intersection of LGBTiQ+ identities and identities relating to service in Australia’s defence force. Some of the central questions that will inform the exhibition include: how has being LGBTiQ+ and being part of the Australian Defence Force shaped people’s lives and personal stories; and what does a Queer history of service and sacrifice look like?

The exhibition is an opportunity for the voices of people who have served their country to be heard, celebrated and acknowledged, without stripping them of an essential aspect of who they are. it is well known that history has been (and often continues to be) shaped by heteronormative views and assumptions. Exclusion has been the way to maintain this illusion of homogeneity and heteronormativity.

The Shrine itself has contributed to maintaining a heteronormative view of Australia’s military history. This is not just evident in the exclusion of the five gay veterans who attempted to pay their respects to fellow service men and women in 1982, thereby denying their very existence as part of the Anzac tradition; it is also evident in the permanent Galleries at the Shrine where representation of LGBTiQ+ service people and their stories have been absent.

Rainbow wreath laid by DEFGLIS members on Anzac Day 2021

Rainbow wreath laid by DEFGLIS members on Anzac Day 2021

Image courtesy of DEFGLIS

The upcoming exhibition and programming offers the beginning of what is intended to be a new path for the Shrine and for the memorial’s relationship with the LGBTiQ+ service community: something productive and, maybe, something that has healing potential. in setting out on this new path, the Shrine will liaise closely with Victoria’s LGBTiQ+ service community as well as researchers and authors who have, in recent years, done much to shed light on the previously hidden stories and history of LGBTiQ+ service members.

Thankfully, the 1982 wreath laying incident at the Shrine was not the last word on the subject. in fact, one significant legacy of this event is that it gave rise to something called the Rainbow Wreath Project. Established in 2015, a rainbow wreath has been laid every year on Anzac Day at the Shrine, as well as other memorials around the country, to honour the diversity of those who have served and died for Australia.

The annual ritual was started by the Defence Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender and intersex information Service (DEFGLiS), a non-partisan volunteer charity that supports LGBTi serving members, exservice members and veterans of the Australian Defence Force and their families. Nathan White, President of DEFGLiS says:

DEFGLIS participates in Anzac Day because this day is important to all Australians. The Rainbow Wreath Project allows us to celebrate our brave history, and the identity and shared values that were forged in battle and make us proud of who we are. DEFGLIS Members and ex-serving personnel are honoured to continue this tradition annually, as it is an important part of recognising the rich diversity of those who served and sacrificed in war and non-warlike operations. Wreath laying is an important commemorative tradition that recognises all who served. The Rainbow Wreaths placed by DEFGLIS are a colourful tribute to remember LGBTI personnel who served, the sacrifice of all who served and to recognise the families who supported them.

Whilst there has been an external reclaiming of the Shrine by some members of the LGBTiQ+ service community through the Rainbow Wreath Project, it is important that changes from within the organisation are championed. This is the path to establish meaningful and lasting connections and transformation between the Shrine and those it serves and represents.

Almost 40 years have passed since the Shrine was embroiled in the very public exclusion of the LGBTiQ+ service community. it is beyond time to reestablish the true purpose of the Shrine as a place of commemoration for all Australians, honouring all who have served or died for the country.

Kate Spinks-Colas is Curator: Exhibitions and Collections at the Shrine of Remembrance.