The year 2012 marked two decades since the Australian Defence Force lifted the ban on gays and lesbians serving openly in our military. To celebrate, Time Out spoke to four ‘out and proud’ Sydney servicepeople who will march with their heads held high this ANZAC Day. [Story originally published in 2012.]
Neal Fischer, 26, air force
Brychan Hawker, 27, army
You can imagine the duty nurse’s surprise, ticking through her chart, when she asked corporal Neal Fischer if he’d had a recent bowel movement and he announced: “I’m gay.” But the nurse didn’t blanch at the injured bloke’s surprising response – she just hugged him and pushed the buzzer by his bed. The other nurses at the RAAF Base Richmond hospital rushed in and broke out in applause. It was the first time Fischer had said the words out loud.
It had taken a pretty nasty accident to push Fischer ‘out’: three weeks earlier, his car hit loose gravel on a road between Penrith and Richmond and slammed hard into a tree at 80kph. The SES cut him out of the vehicle and Careflight choppered him to Nepean Hospital where he spent a week in emergency. His right knee was severely dislocated, his right eye socket fractured in three places and he was covered in cuts – a friend had to identify him. “I decided as I was laying in hospital that if there’s a chance of dying, you might as well be happy beforehand.”
Brisbane-raised Fischer, who joined the air force at 17 and works as a technician on communications equipment, soon found the happiness he was looking for. The story has a You’ve Got Mail ring: while training in New Zealand in 2009, Fischer went online to find other gay military guys to talk with about his experiences; he connected with corporal Brychan Hawker, a soldier who worked within 20 metres of him in Richmond, rigging up cargo to planes for aerial drops, but whom he’d never met. They spoke for a month, and when Fischer came home, met up at the base pool.
It was a good first date: they swam and then went for dinner. “Eventually, we pulled ourselves way from each other, went home and just texted – all night.” When asked what drew him to Fischer, Hawker says it was simple: “His smile.”
Hawker grew up playing state-level basketball in Daylesford, north of Melbourne, and enlisted when he was 22. “I struggled with sexuality growing up and thought the army would be a way of almost fighting it – people think army guys are straight and tough,” he says. “But I found that Defence is so open about it, I didn’t have to change who I was at all.” When Hawker started telling his mates he was gay a couple of years after enlisting, they took him to the local pub to celebrate.
The guys live together in a house they rent through Defence Housing Australia. But with deployments and off-site training, they’ve only spent about half of their relationship physically together. In 2011, Hawker was stationed for eight months outside of Dubai at Al Minhad Air Base; Fischer is currently training in Brisbane. He was granted leave to march with Hawker and about 80 others at last month’s Mardi Gras parade, as part of the Defence Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender and Intersex Information Service (DEFGLIS), and hopes to be marching this ANZAC Day in Sydney, too.
The distance is tough, Hawker says, but “you just have to put up with it in a way”. For Fischer, the fact they both serve helps them deal with their time apart. “Having both of us in the military, we understand why the other person has to go away. It’s hard, but it’s true what they say about absence, and my love for Brychan hasn’t diminished one bit because of it.”
Vince Chong, 32, air force
Squadron leader Vince Chong’s coming out story is a fairly typical one for young gay Australians. Chong knew from an early age he was gay, but “wasn’t quite OK with it”. He kept mum about his orientation at school, and stayed mum when he joined the air force at 17, moving to Canberra to study electrical engineering at the Defence Force Academy. It wasn’t until he was 25, stationed at Richmond, that he said to himself, “Yeah, I’m gay, and I need to stop mucking around.” When he started telling people, their responses were pretty typical, too. “Everyone already pretty much knew – and they were cool with it.”
Chong, originally from Castle Hill, is today based in Laverton, Victoria and is in charge of ensuring the safety of aviation software. He is also chairman of DEFGLIS, which provides support for Defence personnel and consults with leadership. Chong didn’t know about the group when he first enlisted – “I found out about it when I met another serviceperson out in a bar in Sydney of all places!” – but he quickly realised its importance.
“Even though there’s no ban on serving in the defence force, I’ve heard comments,” says Chong. “It’s mostly just ‘heteronormativity’ – people just assume everyone is heterosexual around them. But there was one comment that stuck in my head: someone said, ‘It’s legal to be gay, but if it was found out, they’d be encouraged to leave the service.’”
That never happened to Chong, and his time in the air force has been as rewarding as the high-octane ads promise. He supported Australian aircraft in the Middle East at the beginning of the Iraq War, has risen to leadership ranks and developed a strong respect for Defence’s place in Australia’s history. Hailing from a non-military family – mum was born in Malaysia, dad in Brunei – he never attended an ANZAC Day march growing up. On his first, he proudly formed part of the guard at the War Memorial in Canberra. But it was the dawn service at the Academy that got him. “The dim lights, the hymns, the sun slowly rising as the service ended – it was moving, it really captured the spirit of what we need to remember.”
What he wants others to remember is that while he never faced the bigotry he feared, “Fairness and inclusion isn’t something that just happens. It’s something that needs to be worked at.”
Amy Kelly, 28, navy
Leading Seaman Amy Kelly describes herself as a military cliché: a young girl who joined the army six weeks after a charismatic recruiter swept through her Forster-Tuncurry school and sold her on a “career”. But her journey from that point veers into rarely charted waters. Two years after enlisting, Kelly came out as gay. She then switched to navy – or “saw the light”, as her nautical buddies say. And last year, Kelly gave birth to her son, Hugh, with her ex-partner, a “civvy.” He’s an IVF baby and “he’s absolutely perfect”.
Kelly still remembers the first step on this unconventional path. She was stationed in Canberra working for the Selection Cell and, after more than two years of secrecy, decided that it was time to come out to her workmates. “It was the difference between living one life, a fulfilled life, and that good old cliché, staying in the closet,” she says. She took a close colleague to lunch and said she something to tell her. “In the next breath she turned around and said, ‘You’re gay.’ Apparently it was written all over me.”
Years later the two women went for lunch again, and stirred by Kelly’s strength, her friend had something she had to tell her.
Kelly moved over to the navy in 2006 and says, “I made a conscious decision not to hide who I was from day one in the navy; because of that, everyone took me for who I am.” She’s now based at the navy’s headquarters in Potts Point, and says the military has been very accommodating in allowing her to fulfill her obligations as a seaman and a mum.
She will march in Sydney this ANZAC Day, and still remembers her first march in Melbourne back when she was just 18. After walking to the Shrine of Remembrance, Kelly went for lunch with some of the older women veterans she sat with during the speeches and wreath-laying. “They were all in their mid-80s,” she says, “and they were looking at me and pulling my cheeks, they just thought I was the best thing ever.” Listening to their stories, she knew she’d made the right decision following that high school recruiter into a career in Defence. “I just remember this overpowering feeling of saying to myself, ‘You can do this. If they could do it back then, then I can do it now.’”
For information on the dawn service and more, check out our full ANZAC Day guide