Out and proud

MAJOR BRENDAN WOOD: 'I'm proud to come from a country that enables us to be who we are.'
MAJOR BRENDAN WOOD: 'I'm proud to come from a country that enables us to be who we are.'

As the United States continues its wrangle over the ban on gays serving openly in the military, gay and lesbian personnel from the New Zealand Defence Force talk about their lives. 

Major Brendan Wood's office is heavily laden with books and art - mainly war art with medical themes, but also a portrait of the Queen Mother and a Don't Mess With Texas poster signed by George Bush Sr.

Lucas, a miniature schnauzer, sleeps on a camouflage-covered cushion in the corner. His owner considers himself "profoundly gay".

As chief instructor of the joint services health school, Wood turns new recruits from army, navy and air force into "operationally deployable medics".

"My staff relate to me as their major, their boss. I'm not their gay major, or their gay boss," he says.

In his 30-year career with the army, Wood has attended conferences with officers from American services. The notable difference is that Wood can stand alongside his partner of seven years, Gerald Johnstone, and introduce him as such.

"The reaction is quite interesting," Wood says. "It just feels so right to include your partner and I'm proud to come from a country that enables us to be who we are.

"There are people in America who dearly want to serve their country and are prevented from doing that."

What prevents military personnel from being openly gay in the American armed forces is a policy called Don't Ask Don't Tell (DADT).

DADT allows gay people to serve, but only if they keep their sexuality secret by not speaking about it and not being affiliated to any group supporting it. The policy requires servicemen and women to be discharged if they do, saying it would create an "unacceptable risk to the high standards of morale, good order and discipline, and unit cohesion that are the essence of military capability".

Before DADT, it was an outright offence. Now they just can't talk about it. Since DADT was introduced in 1993, almost 14,000 people have been discharged from American military troops under the policy.

By contrast, 1993 was the year in which the ban was lifted in the New Zealand Defence Force (NZDF), after the passing of the Human Rights Act, which prevents discrimination on grounds such as ethnicity, gender and sexual orientation.

As the act came into law, so came the removal of a passage in the NZDF manual of law that referred to homosexuality as an "unnatural offence".

Before 1993, even though the Homosexual Law Reform Act had been passed in 1986, officer training included the actions they ought to take upon the discovery of personnel caught in such "unnatural" acts.

For three decades, Wood, 48, has served his country as a reserve and fulltimer. Although, he wasn't "out" when he joined the army, signing up felt like a logical step.

"I just enjoy the company of my fellow men," he says. "I consider myself a masculine gay man. Three things that make me are my gender, my orientation and my identity. My gender is male, my orientation is profoundly gay and my identity is masculine.

"The image of a gay man in spandex on the back of a Hero parade float might exist, but the majority of gay men don't relate to that at all."

His first step in coming out was to tell his parents. An older brother had already paved the way. In fact, Wood is one of 10 siblings, four of whom are gay, including his identical twin brother, Gerard, a lieutenant colonel based in Wellington.

"Making that decision is the hardest thing, but the rest of the journey is the most empowering process. The army only wants you to fit into the team. It's about cohesion."

Wood says he had "absolutely no issue" being an openly gay man in the army, which he puts down to the combination of having a strong personality, being articulate and the fact that he works in a specialist area.

Being openly gay, Wood says he is sometimes approached by commanding officers wanting advice on how to react when a subordinate comes out or by newly enlisted people wondering about the best way to break their news to colleagues.

For these reasons, and because the services seem to love acronyms, the DEFGLIS NZ (Defence Force Gay and Lesbian Information Service) is being formed and will be set up by Christmas. Officers involved hope the support network will act as a sounding board, advice group and social network for regular, reserve and civilian members of the troops.

Part of the group's role will be to advise on using inclusive words such as partner instead of wife, or letting people know that a saying such as "that's gay" has made it into common parlance while the term "homo" is offensive.

"It's refreshing to see young people entering the forces already out, but for people of our vintage, we kept it a secret," Wood says.

One who kept it a secret, even from himself, was Kevin Sanderson. From the mid-1970s, Sanderson was a Balclutha high-school chemistry teacher with interests in amateur theatre and badminton.

But he wasn't gay.

These days, he is an openly gay lieutenant commander at Defence Headquarters in Wellington. He doesn't even mind In the Navy jokes.

While he was completing a PhD at the University of Otago, a poster seeking volunteer naval reserves caught his eye. In 1989, he joined the ranks as a junior officer, going full time in 1996.

"But I still wasn't gay," he says.

The "real decider" was a six-week trip around the world in 2002, which culminated with a week in Thailand. Navy buddies encouraged Sanderson to put the red-light district of Patpong on a must-do list.

"So there I was in this bar, surrounded by three lovely young ladies and one of them slid her hand up my trousers. There was no reaction whatsoever and I thought: 'Hm, this isn't good'. So I went to a boy bar and things did happen. That decided it. I finally admitted it to myself."

He says he was "cautious but not worried" about revealing his sexuality to colleagues, choosing to tell more conservative colleagues in the company of more liberal people.

With some people, Sanderson cushioned the information, perhaps using the term "partner" for a while, then dropping in the specific pronoun "he".

"I spent 25 years playing it straight. Now I wear a purple-going-pink shirt, but I don't walk around waddling my bum.

"If someone tells a gay joke, you laugh if it's funny. If it's offensive, you tell them. But I'm not some new boy on the block. I was 45 when I came out."

Sanderson's post is land based, but he knows another openly gay naval officer in a mid-career position who spends much of his time at sea.

"Every time he goes out, he is approached by three or four guys asking if it's safe to be gay in the navy. He tells them it is, but they just have to be prepared for a nickname and a bit of ribbing.

"Let's be honest, there have been aspersions cast on the navy for years. You just ask the army people."

When asked what he thinks of the United States' Don't Ask Don't Tell policy, he speaks of fear and regret.

"My only regret is that I didn't accept myself until later in life. But the positive side is that my partner and I came out late, so we avoided the seedier side and being pushed underground. We missed the stigma.

"I know what it's like to be a closet gay within a defence force that has a positive policy, so I was able to operate with no implications if anyone found out. But in the American system there would have been no way I could have belonged to the gay choir or be seen at a mardi gras. You'd shut your whole life down.

"The thing that makes you come out is how sick and tired you get of wearing a front, no matter if you've had two wines or five.

"It takes so much energy to always be on your guard not to give anyone a hint that you weren't one of the good old heterosexual community."

It was the structure, discipline and travel offered by the air force that lured Flight Sergeant Annette Walding to join up 22 years ago.

Back then, Walding lived in barracks on the Whenuapai base near Auckland where she heard rumours that a couple of the women were gay.

"I wasn't gay at the time, but I know it was thought of as inappropriate."

Today, the 41-year-old works in the "safety and surface" trade, which is an air force way of saying she looks after equipment like parachutes and life rafts.

She has what the services refer to as a "recognised relationship" with her partner of nine years, who is also in the air force.

However, like other gay officers who spoke to Your Weekend, Walding moderates her behaviour in the company of fellow servicemen and women.

"I am a little bit wary. I don't want to do anything to make other people uncomfortable because it may not be the norm for them. I wouldn't expect a male and female to have a great big passionate kiss in front of people, so I don't."

Before realising she had feelings for females, Walding was married but kept it under her hat for three years of "internal turmoil".

"Then I vividly recall thinking, 'I've had enough, I want people to know', so I went to my boss at the time and told him. He came around my side of the desk, gave me a great big cuddle and said, 'You are who you are and that's all that matters'.

"From there on, it was 'phew'. It wasn't like I went out of his office and started waving a rainbow flag with 'I hate men' on my forehead. People ended up knowing by osmosis.

"The biggest fear is people worrying what other people will think. Well, who gives a s..., really? It's a significant decision, but once you get over that, you won't have to live a lie for the next however many years."

Flight Lieutenant Stu Pearce lives on the Whenuapai base with his partner, Dave Fenwick.

The pair transferred from England, where they were both part of the Royal Air Force.

Pearce, 34, came out to close friends in 2000, the same year it became legal to be gay in the British military, but like many others, he kept his sexuality on the down-low at work.

"But I wanted the company of people who were the same as me, so I would drive to one of the nearby cities, sit in a gay bar and shake quietly to myself, drink too much Diet Coke, and drive home again."

Pearce and Fenwick began to think about an overseas move, but wanted to be confident they would be accepted as a gay couple.

"So we went to a Kiwi recruitment drive. If we sensed any resentment or negativity at that stage, we'd have taken it as a sign. It was slightly nerve-racking, but we were happy with the reception we got."

The couple have been living on base for four years and are part of that community.

"We don't have children's toys on the front garden and the usual signs of a happily married couple, but in the main, it's no big deal.

"The key thing that weighs on our mind is that we are different. Around our close friends, we're pretty open, but at bigger events, we don't want to rock the boat too much.

"The serving gay community tends not to stand out."

However, on a trip recent trip back to England, Pearce says he has noticed a huge shift in attitude.

"I'd left a homophobic and hostile environment and I came back to an environment where a gay couple living in married accommodation on base were throwing a barbecue and no-one batted an eyelid."

He believes the NZDF will greatly benefit from DEFGLIS. "There are people in the defence force who are undoubtedly coming to terms with their sexuality and going through feelings of isolation and self-doubt.

"I'm not picking a fight between air force, army and navy. In the air force, we do deploy and go overseas, but we have specific and technical tasks to do.

"With the army, there is a lot more of a macho bravado. There's this perception that if you're homosexual, you're a wimp or less strong. I think that might be more prevalent in the army than the air force, but in terms of career, I have no doubts whatsoever.

"When all is said and done, we're servicemen and women first and foremost. The fact we're also gay makes no difference to how well we do our jobs."

Posters in the gatehouse at Burnham Military Camp remind personnel and visitors to keep secrets for the sake of Queen and country.

"Don't drink and drivel," one poster says.

But a military secret that no longer has to be kept is an officer's sexual orientation.

The Press