Open Service in New Zealand

An Ally’s Perspective

By Hemi Frires

It was the 2011 OutServe Armed Forces Leadership Summit in Las Vegas that really opened my eyes to how lucky I am to be a service member in New Zealand. While I was aware of the American “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” (DADT) and previous policies banning homosexual service, it had clearly never impacted me directly, and I had no idea just how difficult it could be to serve under such a policy. The Summit changed that.

I’ve never known a New Zealand without openly gay military service. Homosexuality was decriminalized in 1984, and in 1993, the New Zealand Human Rights Act was passed, which outlawed discrimination on the grounds of gender, marital status, religious belief, ethical belief, color, race, ethnic or national origins, disability, age, political opinion, employment status, family status and sexual orientation. The New Zealand Defense Force (NZDF) took up the guidance of the Act and ceased discrimination on the grounds of sexual orientation within the service. At the time, I was three years old.

So what does the Human Rights Act mean? First of all, it means that service members can serve openly, without fear of organizational discrimination. It also means that all the support provisions available to mixed-gender couples are now afforded to same-sex couples, including service housing, deployment support and next-of-kin designation, among others. Essentially, the NZDF declared that from the policy point of view, sexual orientation was a non-issue.

The NZDF also has a robust mechanism for dealing with harassment, discrimination and bullying. It identifies the harmful behaviors and declares them unacceptable, regardless of the circumstances. Any identified harassment or bullying is dealt with fairly and swiftly. Service members’ careers are unaffected by their sexual orientation, and any partnership, gay or straight, is afforded the same welfare support.

Unfortunately, there are some challenges that still remain. While official policy declares sexual orientation to be a non-issue, individual service members have not always agreed. While LGBT service members have the protections afforded by the Human Rights Act and the support of the NZDF policy, they still must navigate around individual prejudices.

For instance, a series of high-level discussions occurred after an openly gay soldier was selected to attend Officer Training School overseas in a country where the law regarding homosexuality is somewhat more restrictive than in New Zealand. It was suggested at the time that the NZDF could not send an openly gay soldier, which was at odds with the NZDF non-discrimination policy. While the discussions ultimately resulted in the soldier being able to attend the school after being fully briefed on the legal constraints in that country, the incident highlights the challenges of individuals’ perceptions and the lack of international acceptance of LGBT service.

Also, service life is more than just professional employment. It includes an element of personal life as well. While open service is allowed, there are still challenges to some service members’ personal prejudices.

2011 OutServe Armed Forces Leadership Summit, "How our Military Allies Did It" Panel, moderated by Nathaniel Frank with guests from the Canadian Forces, Israeli, Australian and New Zealand military.

For example, a junior officer approached his commanding officer, out of courtesy, to indicate that he would be bringing a same-sex date to his service birthday celebrations. Initially, misguided and offensive instructions were given to the junior officer, outlining high expectations of conduct not normally preached to straight service members. However, the commanding officer later apologized for the comments. He stated it was the first time he had knowingly dealt with an openly gay service member and he was flustered.

In another instance, a close friend of mine chose to confide in a workmate. This workmate then outed him to his colleagues and friends. Fortunately, none of the other people involved had any concerns with the gay service member, but rather were disappointed in the confidant’s conduct. Another case involved a young airman who came out and had a vocally homophobic senior noncommissioned officer in his chain of command, indirectly making his workplace unpleasant. Fortunately, these incidents seem to be relatively uncommon. The experiences also reflect on individuals within the service, not the NZDF as a whole.

What is the biggest challenge that our LGBT service members have to face? I believe it is internalized and perceived homophobia. For me, and for many I have spoken with, the biggest struggle in the Service to-date has been coming out and serving openly, whether due to fear of rejection from friends and colleagues, marginalization from the Service, or simply the fear of the unknown. In most cases, the fear has been unfounded, and the experiences have been overwhelmingly positive.

A lack of visibility of LGBT personnel in the service may contribute to these fears. The total NZDF organization (the three services plus civil staff) numbers less than 14,000. Only a small number identify as LGBT, and an even smaller number are out. Those who are out tend to be less visible, because there is more to the service member than his or her sexual orientation. When I was preparing to come out, I knew of very few LGBT service members, and had nobody with whom to discuss my experiences. When a colleague told me he was gay, I finally had someone to talk to, and the discussions we had gave me the confidence to come out, after which, I learned of a gay couple who were living on my base.

If there is a negative side to the Human Rights Act changes that occurred so long ago, I believe it’s the perception that sufficient action had been taken, and that open service is sufficient. The challenges faced by LGBT service members are largely ignored, and until recently, no specific support was established for LGBT service members in the NZDF. While the organization has stopped discrimination and afforded protection under its policies, LGBT service members were, until recently, left to address any other challenges individually.

The NZDF established OverWatch on Jan. 20, 2012, as an equity and diversity network focusing on LGBT service. The group began as an unofficial network for peer support, but is now officially sanctioned by the Welfare Branch of the NZDF. Not only does this give the group credibility, but it also allows members to attend meetings during work time and make use of Defense resources where appropriate. Welfare branch also provides infrastructure support such as website access, email accounts and the use of base facilities. OverWatch provides networking opportunities for LGBT service members, while providing subject matter support to commanders, welfare and support staff, and all other service members. Finally, OverWatch feeds back into the greater welfare and equity branch, providing information on the effectiveness of policy, welfare support and other challenges faced by LGBT service members.

OverWatch was founded under the stewardship of Squadron Leader (equivalent to an O-4) Stu Pearce and had an initial management committee consisting of three Air Force personnel, an Army officer and former Navy officer who is now a defense civilian. I currently serve as the enlisted representative for the committee. Although still in its infancy, OverWatch is a positive step in ensuring visibility of and support for the LGBT community within the NZDF. While the NZDF actively supports equity and diversity, and effectively deals with serious problems, it struggles to address the less serious issues.

If a new service member is outed and bullied, the Service can act effectively to stop that. If, however, the service member is in the closet and feels isolated from others, the Service has difficulty initiating support. OverWatch also exists to support heterosexual service members dealing with LGBT matters, such as an SNCO whose son comes out, or a service member whose friend is gay and wants to support that friend effectively.

OverWatch provides a safe channel for dialog and support in any situation arising from a sexuality or gender diversity perspective, and is a positive step towards addressing the broader issues associated with LGBT service members and their families.

My sexuality and private life aren’t relevant in defining my service until they impact it–and the same goes for every other service member out there. I go to work, do my job, participate in social activities and talk about my private life in the same way that my colleagues do. When I brought my boyfriend to a unit dinner one evening, there was no reaction whatsoever from my colleagues; the response was actually underwhelming. They accepted and included him in the evening and we all had a good time.

That’s the way it should be.

I firmly believe that the New Zealand Defense Force is handling open LGBT service well. There is still work to be done, but the establishment of OverWatch demonstrates progress. New Zealand and the NZDF have made many positive changes–changes that let this airman wear his uniform with pride.

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