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Decades of pride in two services

2016 02 23 StuPearce

Squadron Leader Stuart Pearce (Royal New Zealand Air Force) reflects on decades of his service and his family experience in the UK and New Zealand Air Forces.

In 2004, my partner Dave who was serving with the Royal Air Force deployed to Afghanistan. As a serviceman myself I was more aware than most perhaps of the dangers he would face and the possibility he might return home broken, emotionally, mentally if not physically. Like every service spouse I waited back home, hanging on every email, every snippet of information, counting the days.

Unlike most service spouses, however, the Royal Air Force did not know I existed. Neither Dave nor I were out to anybody but our closest friends and family.

I wasn’t listed as Dave’s ‘next of kin’ or NOK. If he was injured or killed I would be amongst the last to know – there’d be no support from the Service. I’d be entitled to no widower’s pension, nothing.

In the eyes of the Service I was invisible. And Dave and I were happy with that. The UK military had only a few years earlier lifted its ban on open service and neither of us was ready yet to test the military’s acceptance of a gay couple in the ranks, let alone a same-sex relationship between an Officer and an Non-Commissioned Officer [an Airman].

So the deployment dragged on and eventually Dave returned home. He was slimmer than before he deployed, slightly gaunt and visibly exhausted from the flight from Kabul via Akrotiri in Cyprus. Aside from a few bumps and scrapes Dave survived the deployment physically unscathed. He doesn’t talk about Afghanistan much not even now some 13 years later.

I often wonder how much he doesn’t tell me or simply wants to forget. For Dave, returning home marked the start of a change – he soon submitted his papers for Premature Voluntary Release and we began the process of moving to New Zealand. I transferred to the Royal New Zealand Air Force and this year marks 10 years in the Service of New Zealand. Dave enrolled into a Bachelor of Veterinary Technology degree, graduating in 2014, and now works at a small clinic in our hometown of Feilding. Afghanistan, thankfully, is a dim and distant memory.

For some soldiers who return from combat, switching off is less easy. Some find adjusting to life without incessant air raid sirens and the risk of IEDs to be alien. The close-knit familiarity of mates – living in each others pockets, knowing people are watching your back takes a hold and adjusting to normality, for some, is a challenge. Perversely perhaps, despite the hardships, the dangers, the fear, the austere conditions, losing mates or colleagues, the constant possibility, and occasional probability of death or injury, some returning veterans miss war.

Journalist Sebastian Junger gave a TED talk recently on his experience being embedded with a military unit. He spoke of his experience with American troops in Afghanistan, of the adrenaline, the brotherhood, the connection and the sense of purpose. He also spoke of how hard it was for veterans to adapt when all that was taken away upon returning home.

In 1986, fierce battles were fought in an attempt to decriminalize homosexuality. There was a clear enemy, there was a clear mission, there was a purpose, a cause and for those on the pro-LGBT side, that cause was noble and just and defeat was not an option. Eventually the Homosexual Law Reform Act was passed and the community celebrated that victory. Life improved for our people. Later in 1993, it improved again. After fierce campaigning, the 1993 HRA was passed and it was no longer legal to discriminate on the grounds of sexual orientation. Another victory.

For decades our people have been fighting. We have been fighting to be legal, we have been fighting for equality, we have been fighting against discrimination. We have been fighting for employers to put the welfare of their employees, all of their employees at the fore, for employee non-discrimination policies, for anti-bullying and anti-harassment policies, we’ve been fighting for employee support networks, for peer support groups for employment standards that treat LGBTI people with dignity and respect. We have been fighting for a better future.

Many of those battles have been won. Who would have thought 20 years ago, that New Zealand’s military, that final bastion of homophobia and bigoted attitudes, would be leading the world in LGBT inclusion, supported by a multi-award winning support group -- OverWatch. Are we perfect? No, we still have a way to go but who would have thought major employers such as ANZ, Air New Zealand, WestPac would have policies empowering queer employees and internal support groups for LGBT staff, fully supported from the very top of the organization? New Zealand of 2016 is a far cry from the dark days when police faced off with queer activists in a desperate attempt to prevent change.

But even today, in 2016, 30 years after the decriminalization of homosexuality, there are still battles to be fought. But that does not mean we should not celebrate our victories, the champions who fought for change or encourage and support those still fighting for equality.

Today I serve in a military that embraces my diversity. Dave and I married in Ohakea’s Service Chapel in March 2015, surrounded by our friends, family and colleagues. The Air Force's Battle Honours hanging from the chapel's ceiling.

A far cry from those days of farewelling Dave with a manly pat on the back and a firm handshake, fighting back the tears in case any of his service-mates were to suspect I was more than just a buddy, giving him a ride to his base before he shipped out to war. I, and others like me owe a debt of gratitude to those who fought ferociously for the change I now enjoy today. Change, I believe is absolutely worth celebrating.

Pride has always been about change. But like those veterans of past wars who struggle to adjust to life outside of the combat zone, its time some of our old warriors, rather than bemoan the presence of pro-LGBT corporate organizations on parade, recognize that this was the victory we, they were fighting for. The war is not over, not by a long shot, but one day a year we should take time to celebrate our victories, acknowledge those whose actions and sacrifice brought them about and together, as a community, regroup for one final push for full, unequivocal equality for all.

As I see it, we have two choices – look to the light on the horizon or dwell in the dark of our past. Personally, I’d rather feel the sun on my face.


2016 05 10 ReflectionsThumb


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