How New Zealand's military became the most gay inclusive in the world

by Guyon Espiner / 06 March, 2014

Stuart Pearce. Photo/Stephen Robinson

Thanks in part to the actions of Squadron Leader Stuart Pearce, New Zealand’s military ranks No 1 in the LGBT Military Index.

The Auckland Army Headquarters is stranded in an ugly and unloved section of the central city. It occupies a chunk of Great North Rd, which is straight and long and wide and lined with car yards and commercial businesses. The HQ is how you would picture it.

Squat and square and staunch, it has a wire fence and white signs with red and black capital letters warning of the consequences of certain behaviours. Tonight the forces are preparing for a parade. That’s what armies do. When they are not killing people, they march.

But this parade is different, explains my host, Squadron Leader Stuart Pearce, a s­tudious, considered man in his late thirties, with short, sharp, dark brown hair and a crisp, light blue uniform with epaulets that can’t quite cover his broad shoulders.

“For us as a Defence Force we have made a conscious decision that it is not a parade for gays, it is a parade for the Defence Force and it is an opportunity for us to publicly demonstrate our commitment to diversity.” His tone is sober, professional and perfunctory. This is the military, after all. This may be a parade – hell, it’s the Pride Parade on Ponsonby Rd – but it is also a deadly serious business.

If there’s one thing Defence Force members know how to do, it’s stand out in a parade. Photo/Stephen Robinson

If there’s one thing Defence Force members know how to do, it’s stand out in a parade. Photo/Stephen Robinson

Strategic manoeuvres

Pearce has achieved something quite remarkable without ever bringing too much attention to himself. The 37-year-old Englishman has convinced the military – the tough guys, typified by Willie Apiata – to embrace GLBTI: gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender and inter-sex soldiers. And not just to be “tolerant” – as in tolerate them with a legalistic nod to the Human Rights Act – but to get out there and display it: to get out there and march.

Let’s be clear. The march is not for some fringe group in the military. This year the parade includes the Chief of Navy, the Warrant Officer of Navy, the Warrant Officer Joint Forces New Zealand, the Assistant Chief of Personnel and other senior officers.

The march is the visible and fun side of some very serious work over the five years since Pearce began putting together a support group for GLBTI military personnel. “There were some who were cautious about what this might mean and what it was we were actually promoting,” Pearce says.

So he took a strategic approach. Initially believing a service-wide group would be too ambitious, Pearce started with just the Air Force, where he’s an engineer. “Because that was generally regarded as a successful project, we were able to secure approval from Chief of Defence Force to grow that out into a defence-wide organisation.” In January 2012 the OverWatch group was born. It is quite an achievement when you consider that just over a decade before that, Pearce was part of a military that banned gays altogether. Now gay couples in the services share the same rights as any others, right down to cohabitation.

Photo/Stephen Robinson

Pearce was born and raised in the UK and joined the Royal Air Force as an engineer in 1999. “At the time they were going through the process of lifting their ban on gay and lesbians,” he says. “If there was any suspicion that you were gay or lesbian, then that was enough to launch an investigation. You could be detained and your room and your email could be searched.”

His partner, Dave, served 18 years in the British military and saw the stress the policy caused. “For him it was a case of having to keep your head down. It put a lot of people under an awful lot of pressure. People got into relationships with [the opposite sex] because of the pressure to conform. He got incredibly close to marrying somebody and pulled out at the very last minute.”

Pearce says there were cases of people outed by their colleagues and sacked. “They lost their home, they lost their pension, they lost their income, respect and reputation.” Pearce narrowly escaped this environment. “Thankfully I joined as we were coming to the end of that, and in 2000 the ban was lifted and things moved on from there.”

After seven years with the Royal Air Force, he was approached by recruiters for the New Zealand Air Force and decided it was time to be more open about his identity.

“My partner and I were out to close friends and family in the UK but we weren’t really out to the British military. So we made a conscious decision, when we were looking at New Zealand, that we would be 100% transparent about our relationship and who we were.” Pearce says he was amazed by the reaction – or the lack of it. “During the recruiting process we were quite blown away by how unfazed the recruiters were.” He and Dave moved to New Zealand later that year and have been here ever since. Their wedding is planned for 2015.

Photo/Stephen Robinson

Photo/Stephen Robinson

Ranked and filed

New Zealand has just been ranked the world’s No 1 military – not in size, of course, but in terms of its tolerance to gay people. The LGBT Military Index looked at how more than 100 countries treated lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender personnel. Australia was fifth, the US 40th and Nigeria last.

Pearce can take some credit for New Zealand’s ranking, although he’s reluctant to do so. “The establishment of a fully integrated support network within the armed forces was a factor in the scoring,” he allows himself, noting that Australia has a support group but an external one, independent of its military. The ranking comes on top of the Defence Force winning top prize in the 2013 Diversity Awards run by the ANZ and Equal Employment Opportunities Trust.

Assistant Chief of Personnel Brigadier Howard Duffy received that award on behalf of the Defence Force and is happy to tip his hat to the work of his junior colleaugue. “If you want things to work well you need passionate people like Stuart Pearce to drive the change and bring it on,” he said. Tonight the Brigadier is proud to march with 70 Defence personnel: the guys, gals, gays and their straight mates, as he put it.

Sure, the Defence Force has become more tolerant over the course of his career, but then so has New Zealand

“We’ve changed, but let’s face it New Zealand has become a much more liberal place and is far more accepting of diversity. I guess you could say the Defence Force has just moved with the times.” Despite the accolades, the mission is not yet accomplished, Duffy says. “We have got a long way to go. The message I have given them is that we need to keep it real and we’ll know that has happened when more people, especially in the junior ranks, feel comfortable that they can come out and be confident that it won’t affect them having a sucessful career.”

Brigadier Howard Duffy. Photo/NZ Defence Force

The sensitive subjects

Of course, it hasn’t all been good news for gays in the New Zealand military. In April 2012 Corporal Douglas Hughes took his own life in Afghanistan after a confrontation with a superior about his feelings for a colleague. Pearce says the coroner has asked him not to talk about the case, but like Brigadier Duffy, he stresses the military still has issues to confront.

“We recruit from society, so we take a slice of society with us. So in some respects we get the good with the bad. There will always be, in mainstream society, racism, sexism and less progressive views,” he says, with generous servings of euphemism and diplomacy.

Pearce says most cases OverWatch deals with are not bullying or harassment but pleas for advice. “We’ll have young folk within the organisation contact us and say: ‘I’m out to a few friends at home. I am thinking of coming out to my unit. What is the best way of handling this?’”

This is a sensitive subject to handle, as I am about to find out with my line of questioning. It’s my habit of trying to quantify things that gets me in some difficulty later in my conversation with Pearce.

Are gays prevalent in the military: more or less so, than say, the automotive industry or hairdressing or journalism? It’s hard to know, Pearce says. They don’t keep numbers on them because, well, that’s part of the point of equality. Pearce does say he’s noticed there are more gay men in the logistics wing of the military. “We tend not to see too many in some of the more front-line roles, like the New Zealand infantry, but we are starting to see people put their heads above the parapet.”

Photo/Stephen Robinson

Photo/Stephen Robinson

Those gay All Blacks

Then I get into genuine difficulty. I weigh my next question and preface it with the admission that it may be a poor question and possibly one that reveals a prejudice. And then I ask it anyway. The stereotype would probably be that gay men would be less likely to be as aggressive and brutal and less willing to be in those front-line roles. Is that mistaken, I ask. Why don’t we see as many in the infantry or perhaps the SAS? Or do we?

He laughs and lets my question hang in the air where it clouds what has been a pleasant discussion. He leaves me to dig my hole deeper and I oblige. It’s the same as the All Blacks isn’t it, I stumble on. Is it that the pressure to conform to the heterosexual, masculine stereotype is so strong that we just never hear about them or is there some truth to that? The question never quite materialises but he knows what I mean, doesn’t he?

His answer is smooth and reasoned, unlike my question.

“I would say that the reasons for coming out and being out vary so greatly,” he says. “A lot of people who are members of the OverWatch group are out because they see that they have a need to be visible. Others happily have partners and live authentic lives but they simply don’t feel the need to declare it.”

So it may be with the All Blacks, he says, kindly picking up my analogy. “We may have a gay All Black. All the other All Blacks might well know about it and might still be able to perform really well as a team, but for whatever reason they have chosen not to go public with it.”

Photo/Stephen Robinson

Identify your target

But I’m not done yet. Does your sexuality affect what type of solider you are? No, he says bluntly. “The perception that gay men are weaker or lacking in emotional robustness is unfounded. I genuinely believe that an individual’s orientation has no bearing on their ability to perform right at the cutting edge of this organisation.” In case I’ve missed it, that’s the point: focusing on the job. That is actually what OverWatch is about. It is not about focusing on gay people but allowing gay people to focus on their jobs. “We put people into some extremely challenging and dangerous environments and if they are not focused 100% on the job, it is not safe for them, it is not safe for the people around them and it is not safe for the mission.”

But Pearce says New Zealand is in a good space, especially compared with many countries where anti-gay prejudice seems only to be growing.

“I am certainly very grateful to live and serve in a country that respects me and my freedoms as an individual and as a serviceman. I am very happy to be here.”

Tonight’s mission is to march down Ponsonby Rd in the Pride Parade. But what is the target of the mission? “If by being here we could send a message to one group of people, it would be to those people within the Defence Force who are sitting in their barrack room, anxious about coming out, and letting them know that there are other people in the Defence Force who are like them, who have been able to come out and are respected for being good soldiers, sailors and airmen.”

This article was first published in the March 15, 2014 issue of the New Zealand Listener.

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