There is something that happens when a group of like-minded individuals take the first concrete step in the leg of a journey they have been planning together; when the hours of discussion and argument, the frantic emails and clipped phone calls, the sweat and swearing finally come to fruition.
Because as you take that step everything that came before suddenly becomes irrelevant, overtaken instead with the enormity of what is about to be.
For OverWatch, the New Zealand Defence Force’s GLBT networking and support group, that moment came just after 4.30 on a sunny afternoon when group members formed up, and rounded the end of Auckland’s Ponsonby Road to take their place – float 33 – in the Auckland Pride Parade 2013.
This first step was no small one – certainly not for such a small defence force. It took courage, commitment and support at the highest levels to allow a group of military and civilian personnel and their supporters to take their place in this very public celebration of diversity.
What made it even more significant was that for the first time in its history, the New Zealand Defence Force had given permission for its military personnel to take part in uniform.
Squadron Leader Stu Pearce, chairperson of OverWatch, spoke to me about formally requesting OverWatch’s participation in Auckland Pride Week 2013.
“We, as a Defence Force, have come a long way in the past 20 years,” he said. “The face of our people has changed. Where once the military was very much a male oriented career we now have women serving in combat roles. We’ve seen a Māori Chief of Defence Force, our ranks are full of a broad variety of skin tones and accents – all adding a valuable diversity to what is now a very modern military.”
“However I was still acutely aware of the fact that asking permission for a group of GLBT members of the New Zealand Defence Force to publicly march in celebration of diversity, was unprecedented. I was obviously nervous the answer would come back in the negative.”
The opposite, it turns out, would be true. The Chief of Defence Force Lieutenant General Rhys Jones not only gave his permission for OverWatch to participate, but for military members to wear their uniforms if they chose to.
“I am incredibly grateful that I work for an organisation that, knowingly or not, has taken such a public stand in support of its GLBT personnel,” Stu says. “I know for many militaries this is not the case.”
“It really cemented for me the fact that the Chief of Defence Force places a huge priority on the wellbeing of his people – and that he fundamentally understood the importance of OverWatch, and of our participation in the parade.”
For many, the thought of a Pride Parade means rolled eyes, or questions around why. Why should we put ourselves so publicly on display? What will it actually achieve? Why do we even need pride parades?
An article by New Zealand ex-pat Christopher Banks – a journalist and filmmaker now living in Australia – shone a spotlight on the reasons behind the importance of our participation.
He wrote that in order to be an effective advocate of any cause you must be visible, vocal and valued. As members of OverWatch, we feel comfortable being the visible face of GLBT personnel within our Defence Force – but we are also acutely aware that for many others this is not the case.
“That’s why it was so important we take part,” says Stu. “We marched for those people who felt that they could not.”
“Military and civilian personnel within the Defence Force who are looking for help or advice should know that support is here for them, backed by our top leaders,” Stu says.
“Taking part raised the visibility of our group, not only to GLBT personnel but also to their commanders and managers, friends, families and colleagues – highlighting that they have a source of support, and for answers to questions they may have.
“Allowing serving military personnel to wear their uniforms, supported by civilian GLBT personnel and friends, also sends a very clear message to the rest of New Zealand – indeed the world – that the New Zealand Defence Force is a modern military organisation in which GLBT people can enjoy a fulfilling and rewarding career, both in and out of uniform,” he says.
And the reaction OverWatch received during and after the event has been extraordinary.
“It had been widely touted by the organisers of Auckland Pride that the NZDF would be a crowd favourite in the parade, but we were a small group of people walking unaccompanied and unadorned but for our uniforms, a car and a banner. How could we possibly compete with the colour and noise of the 32 floats ahead of us, or with the Pride Marching Boys directly behind us?”
As it turned out, the hype was true. As the OverWatch contingent made its way down the parade route we were met by a noticeable swell in cheering: general applause becoming a standing ovation, as person after person showed their respect for the New Zealand Defence Force being part of their parade, their celebration, their community.
“To walk alongside my colleagues and listen to the crowd’s response was unforgettable,” says Stu, “and I don’t think their response was based solely on the Defence Force having serving GLBT personnel, civilian members of staff and willing allies walking in the parade. I think this was also about the support and respect New Zealanders have for their Defence Force in general.”
Yes, there is something that happens when a group of like-minded individuals take the first concrete step in leg of a journey they have been planning together.
As we wended our way down the length of Ponsonby Road, from my vantage point walking as a civilian member of OverWatch, I noticed a tangible change in our small group.
Although they were not marching drill, our uniformed members stood a little taller and walked with more purpose – chest out, shoulders back, standing almost to attention as the inevitable pauses took place.
Beside me the civilian members of staff and supporters, joined by two members of the Australian Defence Force who had self-funded their trip to join us in the march and show the Anzac spirit that binds our countries, smiled a little broader and waved a little harder.
There was for us, I believe, a real sense of acceptance, a greater sense of belonging and, probably most importantly, an overwhelming sense of pride.
| Matt Boulton
Matt Boulton is a civilian proud to be working for the New Zealand Defence Force and an even prouder to be a member of the OverWatch Management Group. OverWatch is a GLBT networking and support group for military and civilian members of NZDF, their commanders and managers, colleagues, families and allies.
Photos from top: Group photo courtesy of OverWatch, marching in the 2013 Auckland Pride Parade taken by Yvonne Shearer.