Defending with Pride exhibition opens

A new exhibition at Melbourne’s Shrine of Remembrance opened on Monday, supported by the Australian Government’s Saluting Their Service Commemorative Grants program.

The first of its kind for an Australian war memorial, Defending with Pride: Stories of LGBTQ+ Service showcases the history of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer (LGBTQ+) people in military service.

Lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer people have been proudly defending Australia through their military service since the formation of the armed forces. Today, anyone identifying as LGBTQ+ can serve openly in the Australian Defence Force (ADF). But it has been a long and difficult journey for LGBTQ+ people to be recognised, accepted, and celebrated for their service.

Assistant Minister for Veterans’ Affairs and Defence, Matt Thistlethwaite, said he was honoured to attend the launch of the exhibition on Sunday.

‘All Australians who serve in our defence forces should be honoured for their service to our country,’ he said. ‘The stories of service from across our great country are as unique as the individuals who share them, and each one deserves to be told.’

A special Last Post ceremony took place after the launch. Curator Kate Spinks said the ceremony was especially moving because of the presence of RAAF veteran Phil Neil who on Anzac Day in 1982, was one of five members of the newly formed Gay Ex-Services Association who were prevented from laying a wreath to honour their ‘fallen gay and lesbian brothers and sisters’ at the Shrine. Phil is the last survivor of the group and had not been back to the Shrine in the intervening 40 years.

The exhibition includes objects from the Australian Queer Archives. Kate believes its centrepiece to be video interviews she conducted of four serving and ex-serving personnel. These people range from a doctor who served in Vietnam to a contemporary member of the RAAF.

‘Their testimony speaks to the richness and diversity of experiences of LGBTQ+ people in service, highlighting their continuing journey,’ she says. ‘These are important because they reflect what was happening not only to the individual but within the ADF and the broader community.

‘One thing that stands out is that even though some of these people were negatively impacted by the policies and laws of the time, everyone is so proud of their service. One participant, Yvonne Sillett lost her job in 1989 because she was investigated for being a lesbian. Despite being forced out because of her sexuality, and experiencing life-changing impacts because of this, her sense of pride when speaking about her service shines through.’

The exhibition has been curated in partnership with an advisory group of veteran and current LGBTQ+ service personnel.

The exhibition will be open until July 2023.

There is also a series of podcasts available from the exhibition’s webpage.

Defending with Pride is the final of a three-part series of exhibitions at the Shrine concerning identity in the armed forces. The others are:

  • Lust Love Loss – explores issues around love, sex and relationships during wartime (closes November 2022)
  • For Kin and Country – explores the history of First People’s service in the armed forces (closes March 2023)
Exhibition space with main banner saying 'Defending with pride'