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Chief Petty Officer Stuart O’Brien
Australian Defence Forces

a sailor's sailor


Denny Meyer

Australian Defence Forces' Navy Chief Petty Officer Stuart O'Brien recently returned from his second voluntary tour of duty in Baghdad where he was awarded a United States Meritorious Service Medal for his service in Iraq.  With his soft spoken Aussie twang, he is the sort of ruggedly handsome sailor that makes romantically minded Yanks break into a sweat and gives you goose bumps.  He is, perhaps, Australia's most openly gay service member and has unassumingly led the way in that nation's progress towards LGBT equality in it's armed forces.

After several years of e-mail exchanges and live internet chats between Baghdad and New York, I finally met with Stu in Washington DC in March 2008 when he spoke at an international conference on Sexual Orientation and Military Preparedness at Georgetown University Law Center.  We had a brief interview about his life and service.

He'd grown up in a rather religious, Church of England, Australian family in a small town in rural New South Wales.  As a student he was more interested in math than sports (cricket and football); yet aside from vague inklings, he really had no idea about being gay.  After completing school, when a friend joined the Navy, he thought that military service seemed like a good idea.  Leaving behind small-town life was part of the motivation, and sea service seemed to be the most exciting and interesting thing he could possibly do.  The Navy, also, was the service that offered him the job he wanted to do: being a writer (Yeoman, clerk - Administration).  In Australian military recruiting, apparently, such promises are genuine; he is now a senior writer, a Personnel Officer.

It was only after he had served for about five years, in the mid 1990s after the Australian armed forces began to allow gay service members to serve openly, that he began to realize he was gay.  Other than the usual sort of self realization, there was no trauma from societal nor military discrimination.  He told a few friends and was able to be honest with anyone who asked.  As word spread, he routinely let his superiors know as well.

The only real shock came when he was home visiting for his grandmother's 90th birthday celebration.  He'd been told that his mother was going to ask him about his newly realized orientation.

At the gathering, she asked him, "Anything you want to tell me?"

Still being a bit shy about the whole business, he replied, "No, not really.."

And she said, "it's all right, we've always known, for a long time."

Quite surprised, he told her, "Well you could have told me, it would have been a lot easier."

In typical Australian mentality, not only was his family not in the slightest concerned; on the contrary, his mother was so proud of him being gay in the service that she went all over town telling everyone!

March 2008 Washington DC Conference

I asked him how he had become, essentially, the Australian Defence Force's gay poster boy.  He said, "Idon't think I am; I just have the loudest voice."  People knew him and the work he was doing to develop equal rights for LGBT military personnel; they came to him to ask questions on how to proceed.  This led him to launch DEFGLIS (Defence Gay & Lesbian Information Service) which has become a resource that is even used by the armed forces as a reference and guide.

It all began in 2001 when he and his partner requested military recognition as a couple for the purpose of certain benefits routinely available to opposite sex partners in Australia (a couple need not be married, in Australia for access to benefits.  He wanted his partner to be considered a dependent, just as spouses and opposite sex partners are in Australia). When the then Chief of Defence denied the privilege, saying that he would not change military internal policy as it was linked to Federal Legislation and would only do so if directed to by the government, O'Brien wrote to Australia's Sex Discrimination Commissioner to inform her that Australia's non-discrimination act was being misinterpreted to actually discriminate against lesbian and gay service members in the military.

He continued to campaign for his rights, within the system.  In 2005 the new Chief of Defence responded to that and similar requests, and simply changed the policy in favor of same sex partner recognition.

At sea duty, O'Brien had not heard about the change until he got an e-mail, "Congratulations on the policy change!"  "WHAT policy change?" He e-mailed back, clueless.  When the next message told him that ,"same sex recognition has just gone through Defence," he said, "I ran around the ship, like a chicken with it's with my head chopped off, trying to find a copy of the signal advising of the change." His shipmates joined him in celebrating that evening; they had assumed that he'd had those rights all along, along with his right to serve.

Although Defence did not publicize the policy change, it was in all the Australian newspapers the next day, with positive response from the public and veterans groups all of whom supported the new policy and were surprised that it had not already been in effect.

The policy change process in Australia began in 1992 when a government directive caused the Defence Forces to issue new rules of behavior that applied equally to heterosexuals and homosexuals, which essentially removed discrimination against open service.  This was the culmination of a process begun in the 1980s when Australia adopted international human rights accords.  The military had initially resisted the change with the usual objections and had tried to use the earlier human rights legislation to exclude homosexual service in the armed forces.  Prime Minister Paul Keating's order reflected the accepting nature of the Australian culture aswell as the attitude of younger military personnel who also were willing to serve alongside gay and lesbian service members.  In the years that followed, the ADF has had an ongoing evolving process of developing enhancements  to assure monitoring, education, training, equal rights privileges such as the opening  up of Defence housing to same sex couples in 2005, and the enabling of benefits for children of same sex couples.  Chief O'Brien has been instrumental in many of the initiatives that have led to improvement for LGBT service members.

The week before Chief O'Brien's visit to Washington DC saw the first official contingent in the Sydney Gay & Lesbian Mardi Gras of Defence Force personnel. "We had approximately 80 personnel representing the Navy, Army, Air Force and Defence Civilians.  It was truly an amazing night; this is something that the Gay and Lesbian members of the Defence Force has been waiting for for a long time".

Has there been any discrimination or harassment since the policy change?  As with all the other of our allied countries that have allowed open gay service for nearly 15 years, there have been almost no problems at all.  In Australia, according to Chief O'Brien, harassment of any kind is taken very
seriously, with some cases dealt with by civil police; cases have seen service members discharged for continuing to harass and/or discriminate.  In essence, there is no tolerance for bigots in Australia's armed forces.

©  2008  Gay Military Signal