By SOPHIE STONE

 

As Trump’s proposed ban on transgender inclusion in the US military draws controversy from all over, it’s safe to say that we have a long way to go before LGBT+ inclusion in the military is enforced and supported worldwide. For trans people in particular, the military has never seemed a particularly inviting prospect. Australia, New Zealand, Belgium, The UK, Norway, Spain, Germany, France, Sweden, Bolivia, Denmark, Estonia, The Czech Republic, Finland, The Netherlands, Israel and Canada make up the 18 countries who allow openly transgender people to serve. Just 18.

Is the military more tolerant to other factions of the rainbow community? Well, while most developed countries allow non-heterosexuals to serve, there are still over 40 countries, such as China and Turkey, who don’t. Even within the ranks of many countries that are more progressive, there is still an element of discrimination present. This means that for queer youth looking into careers to pursue, joining the military often isn’t the most appealing or viable path.

However, my focus today lies within the New Zealand Defence Force. While I think we can unanimously agree that total acceptance of LGBT+ personnel worldwide is something of a future dream, how does New Zealand stack up against the rest of the world in terms of how inclusive our military is?

It’s a little sad to think it took until 1993 for the New Zealand Defence Force to repeal its ban on openly gay personnel, as part of passing the Human Rights Act. However since then, real progress has been made towards making the military a supportive environment for LGBT+ troops. In 2014, a report from the Hague Centre of Inclusive Studies ranked the New Zealand Defence Force as being the most inclusive in the world. Pretty cool, right?

A huge part of this was the establishment in 2012 of Overwatch, a queer support network comprised of a team of volunteers from across all the services and civilian ranks. The New Zealand Defence Forces’ page describes Overwatch as being an organisation that “is a visible, vocal and valued part of our Defence Force” which takes part “in many public events that challenge stereotypes, promote the Defence Force as an equitable employer and send a positive message to people who may feel the need for visible role models.”

In addition to this, Overwatch hosts conferences with the aim to develop inclusive techniques and guidelines, and educating personnel so that they’re able to understand and support one another, reducing the potential for any kind of discrimination. Queer and straight members alike have proudly marched in the Auckland Pride Parade for the last few years in a row, an example of Overwatch’s visibility and support of queer service members.

The group was founded by squadron leader Stuart Pearce. Initially from the UK, he joined the Royal Air Force as an engineer in 1999, spending seven years in the role before moving to New Zealand. Being in a same sex relationship, he experienced the pressure that came from the Air Force only just beginning to lift their ban on open homosexuals in the UK. Many queer people lost their homes and income, as well as respect when they were outed by others. An element of suspicion and secrecy reigned as service members were forced into taking drastic actions, some going as far as marrying people of the opposite sex in order to hide their true orientation and keep their jobs.

Once Stuart moved and found the New Zealand Defence Force to be far more tolerant, he implemented Overwatch. Initially starting within the Air Force, after proving successful it was made service-wide, and has the full support of the Chief of Defence.

As Chair of Overwatch, Harry Poulter explains, “Overwatch is a term defining a military tactic by which one unit provides support to another and as such is a fitting name for a military peer support network such as this. Membership of Overwatch is open, on a totally voluntary basis, to all NZDF personnel (i.e. Regular Armed Forces, Territorial Forces, and members of the Civil Staff) who align themselves with the aims and objectives of the organisation.”

The establishment and ongoing mission of an internal support group for queer service members is an awesome step towards progress in a traditionally masculine, heteronormative environment. It’s accessibility means that all service members can easily obtain support and information from the group. This reduces any potential for service members to feel isolated within their rank or like they have to hide their identity from others, the very opposite from how the military used to be.

One can only hope the rest of the world will draw inspiration from Overwatch and look into implementing similar groups within their own militaries, to help foster a feeling of inclusiveness for those who offer their services.

 

Want to know more? You can keep up to date with NZDF Overwatch on their Facebook page.

 

This post was brought to you in association with…

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SOPHIE STONE is a geeky 19-year-old who loves Doctor Who and has been writing for TEARAWAY for two years. Currently trying to navigate her gap year, wishing she could pursue a degree in chicken nugget tasting. Check out some more of her work:

Glamberts and the Gift of Unity

Rainbow Youth: Know Who You Are, Be Who You are

What it’s like to be Intersex

In Review: How to Win at Feminism

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