Military steps up for LGBTQ+ community

'One key thing to acknowledge is that it's not 'mission accomplished' – there's always work to be done to support Rainbow communities'

Military steps up for LGBTQ+ community

A new report published by Deloitte last week found that less than half of Aotearoa, New Zealand’s LGBT+ employees feel comfortable being out in their workplaces.

"While a large majority of respondents attach a high level of importance to being able to freely express their sexual orientation or gender identity in the workplace, less than half of respondents feel comfortable being out about their sexual orientation (43%) or gender identity (47%) with everyone at work,” said the Deloitte Global 2023 LGBT+ Inclusion @ Work report.

But one Kiwi organisation prioritizing LGBT+ inclusiveness – perhaps surprisingly – is the New Zealand Defence Force (NZDF).

“I think when people look at defence, we do hide ourselves behind these big gates and walls and not a lot of people get to see what’s going on and some of the great people, the great work and the real progressive attitudes towards diversity and inclusion,” said Brad Poulter, NZDF’s Senior Advisor, Diversity and Inclusion.

Long-time focus on diversity and inclusion

In fact, it’s been a focus at the NZDF for some time – way back in 2013, the Hague Centre for Strategic Studies reported the force to be the most inclusive military in the world.

“There have been consistent efforts since then and I’m really proud of all the work we’re collectively doing now” said Poulter.

The work for the LGBT+ community in the NZDF started organically back in 2009 when a group of Air Force personnel wanted to create a better sense of community and peer support. They started an LGBT+ group and it quickly gained traction, expanding support to Navy, Army and the NZDF civilian workforce. 

The organisation then saw the need to make something more official for the community. So in 2012, the Overwatch Network was formed, and reporting lines were established to support the LGBT+ community within the NZDF. The network has marched proudly in full uniform with support from the senior leadership team in Pride Marches since 2013.

But Poulter says that while the network paved the way, the real work for him began when he left the Navy and embarked on a new career as a civilian within the NZDF in the Directorate of Diversity and Inclusion in 2019, 

“There was a time where I was the Chair of the OverWatch network, which included organising events and supporting the LGBT+ community, but when I got the role within the directorate, my scope changed in terms of what I could do individually and at a higher level to be able to support the network,” he said.

Rainbow Tick helps boost DEI efforts

Poulter a 22-year stalwart of the NZDF serving the majority of his career as Military Police Officer, said it was a “different place” when he joined the military as a young, gay man, and while it had nothing to do with the organisation, his coming-out experience “wasn’t great.”

“I knew when I joined in 2001 that it wasn't a safe place for our rainbow communities,” said Poulter. “It's quite a cool thing when you're in a job where you can support people like you — you want to lower the rope ladder down to those to bring them up with you and make it a better experience for them. So that's what I tried to do for the network.”

One of the first major projects Poulter took on in his new role was to look at the strategic direction of rainbow inclusion within NZDF and to work towards gaining the Rainbow Tick.  NZDF gained the Rainbow Tick in 2019 — a certification mark for organisations that complete a Diversity & Inclusion assessment process — which was a good vehicle to facilitate the change and has been further enhanced by NZDF partnering with Pride Pledge in 2022.

“[Rainbow Tick] facilitate an audit, this information was incorporated into our strategy document where we were able to operationalise it to be able to push us forward,” said Poulter.

NZDF then published a comprehensive 33-page document that touched on every level of the organisation and outlined what each person could do to support rainbow inclusion – from leadership to the newest recruit walking through the gate – and the force’s work won them a gong at the Rainbow Inclusion Awards in 2021.

“You can have the flashiest bit of paper in the world with great structure and lovely pictures but unless you can bring that document to life and have champions throughout the organisation that are on the same page and waving that flag for you, then nothing's going to happen — and that document really helped us to achieve that,” said Poulter.

Figures provided by the NZDF in 2022 show the average number of roles filled by females across the defence force is around 27%, and while the organisation doesn’t keep data on the LGBT+ community, Poulter hazards a guess that it would probably reflect society at around 10%.

Support from male-dominated workforce

Despite the high percentage of men in the organisation, most are supportive and inclusive of the changes brought in by the Overwatch network and the Directorate, he said.

“We have inherited the systems and structures that we currently have,” said Poulter. “Men are very much valued and an important part of the organisation, but we’re acknowledging that the systems and structures that the military is based on were built for men, so what we’re doing now is changing the system, removing any barriers and making it a place where everyone can feel at home and thrive.”

In addition, Poulter is also the programme lead for the NZDF Tāne Toa programme of work aimed at valuing and including those who identify as men, which operates in partnership with the broader NZDF Directorate of Diversity and Inclusion’s gender equality work programme.

Despite the thriving rainbow community represented on each base, Poulter’s work isn’t finished as he now looks to the diversity challenges that lie ahead of him.

“I think one key thing to acknowledge is that it's not ‘mission accomplished’ — there's always work to be done to support Rainbow communities,” said Poulter. “Like many organisations, we are on a journey, and it’s important to support the most marginalised groups within rainbow communities.”

Poulter highlighted media reports that opposed the work done in D&I, saying that despite the naysayers, there was is real community feel within the NZDF that this is the right thing to do.

“The way I look at it is, without the role I'm in now, and the establishment of the directorate, it's always been the community fighting for themselves and banging their own drum,” said Poulter.

“I’m really proud of the work that is going on and the incredible support from NZDF leadership. Although the LGBT+ work stream is only one of many work programmes that I am now involved in, it feels good to know that I have helped shape the strategic direction of rainbow inclusion — and when the time comes to leave the NZDF, I can proudly say I did my part alongside the awesome work of the whole Directorate of Diversity and Inclusion.”

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