Deborah Stone

When Yvonne Sillett joined the Australian Defence Force (ADF), sex was the last thing on her mind. She was the 18-year-old daughter of two navy officers, and she planned to follow her parents’ footsteps with a 20-year career, at least, in the armed forces.

But just under 10 years later she was forced to resign from the army after a witch-hunt conducted against her and her female partner. It was 1988 and LGBTI people were still forbidden from serving in the ADF.

Sillett’s story is one of those uncovered by historians Professor Noah Riseman from Australian Catholic University and Dr Shirleene Robinson, from Macquarie University.

They have curated Serving in Silence, an exhibition based on their book of the same name, to be held at the Convent from 27 February, as part of the Chillout Festival. The exhibition is being staged by the newly formed Discharged LGBTI Veterans’ Association, which has been founded to support and advocate for Australian Defence Force personnel, their families and their friends who were adversely impacted by the Defence Department’s historic anti-LGBTI policies.

Professor Riseman said the project highlighted the importance of history research in giving a voice to unrecognised groups and individuals.

“For some of the veterans I interviewed, it was the first time they had spoken about what happened to them and it was so emotionally significant that their stories were being told.  They talk about degrading practices including intense questioning that could go on for days, interrogation about graphic details relating to their sex lives, secret searches of their homes and sending undercover police to follow or photograph them.”

“There is a lot of post-traumatic stress and knowing that their stories matter can be healing.”

Yvonne Sillett is proud of her army career. She is also proud of her sexual identity and relieved to be able to speak openly as a gay veteran.

“I loved what I did and I had been a bit of a trailblazer for women in the army. I was absolutely shattered when I was forced out. The trauma I experienced was up there with losing my mother, and there were suicidal thoughts.”

Professor Riseman and colleague, Dr Shirleene Robinson, have recently published a new book on LGBTI service people. Pride in Defence explores the changing attitude of the ADF to LGBTI service people.

“It’s been a really radical transformation. The ADF has gone from persecuting, hunting and discharging LGBTI members to embracing them as valued members who enhance the Force’s capabilities,” said Professor Riseman.