When the Defence Force gave its blessing for uniformed members to march in Mardi Gras, Facebook commenters were not happy. “WAT A DISGRASE,” wrote one on the official Air Force page, with that misspelt fury characteristic of entrenched intellectual poverty. Others questioned whether the muted khaki, blue, and white dress uniforms were suited to such a feathervescent rainbow spectacle, their prejudices masquerading as heartfelt concern for visual aesthetics.
But others still, servicemen among them, were warmly supportive. Twenty years after homosexuals were first permitted to serve, and five years after they first marched in plain clothes, the Defence Force was finally ready to acknowledge – if cautiously – the diversity inexorably rolling its way. And so last Saturday, a hundred Army, Navy, and Air Force members paraded in formation, alongside the police, fire brigade and State Emergency Service.
The original directive was explained to the media in clinical, corporate language: “Diversity is a strength and asset for today’s employers. Workplace inclusion… is a high priority for the organisation as it undergoes cultural change.” But this belies the significance of the gesture. On one hand, it marks an aggressive attempt to reform an institution beset by allegations of systemic misogyny and homophobia – the result of a few mismanaged scandals, but also, occasionally, of a criminally discriminatory esprit de corps. On the other hand, that our most potent symbol of virility has thrown itself behind Mardi Gras might, at last, discredit the humiliating association of homosexuality with emasculation, femininity, or inferiority.
In Full Metal Jacket, Kubrick’s obnoxious Gunnery Sergeant Hartman remarked that ‘only steers and queers come from Texas, Private Cowboy. And you don’t look much like a steer to me, so that kinda narrows it down.’ Defence leadership now understand that this crude dichotomy is irrelevant in determining whether someone can fire a weapon, operate a radar, or refuel a jet – and irrelevant in determining their commitment to their country.
As for the bristling naysayers: when the military is more progressive than you, you are probably on the wrong side of history. Our most destructive, intractable myth is that venerable institutions must be socially conservative and resistant to change. In the face of change, the Defence Force has chosen to advance and not retreat.