‘Witch hunt’: Lesbian soldier forced out of army over her sexuality

yvonne sillett lesbian soldier adf australian defence force army veteran suicide royal commission
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It was Yvonne Sillett’s lifelong dream to serve in the Australian Defence Force.

But at the age of 28, the lesbian soldier was surveilled and interrogated by superiors and ultimately driven out of her job because of her sexuality.

The veteran started in the Army at the age of 18, and explained she took to army life “like a hand in a glove”.

In 1985, she was the first female corporal responsible for training recruits at a regional New South Wales army base.

“I didn’t have a plan B. [The army] was going to be my life. It was going to be my career,” she said.

But Sillett has told the Royal Commission into Defence and Veteran Suicide that it all changed in July 1988.

She was targeted in a prejudiced “witch hunt” that would eventually end the career of her dreams.

Sillett explained to the Sydney hearing on Monday she was already years into her service when she personally discovered she was a lesbian in the 1980s.

“Up until that point, I’d always dated men,” she recalled.

“But I thought, I’m in love with a lady, but only this person.

“I’m not gay. I can’t be gay, I’m in the Royal Australian Signal Corps.”

She kept her same-sex relationships quiet for fear of reprisal under the army’s policies at the time.

Those policies prohibited homosexual behaviour, partly on the basis it a “security risk” and a “national threat”.

“There would have been consequences. I potentially would have lost my security clearance,” she said.

“I could’ve been discharged. It was an emotionally tough time for me.”

‘The most humiliating and degrading experience of my life’

In July 1988, Yvonne Sillett’s worst fears came true. The soldier was called to what appeared to be a routine interview to discuss her security clearance.

However the interview was an aggressive, three-hour interrogation. Sillett said her superiors told her they had followed and surveilled her and her friends.

“The sergeant said words to the effect of, ‘Let’s stop beating around the bush. We have reason to believe you are homosexual’,” she recalled.

“There was no empathy there was no sympathy. They were just throwing questions at me.

“I was in there for approximately three hours. I got treated like a criminal.

“They became aggressive. They tried break me down.

“It was the most humiliating and degrading experience of my life.

“The whole time it was just bullying, just demanding things from me, demanding that I give names or ‘If you give names, we might go too soft on you’.”

Her superiors threatened to rescind her top-secret security clearance and effectively extinguished her hopes and chances of future career progression.

Sillett, who became emotional addressing the inquiry, said she knew it was “the end of my career and my dream.”

“I was shocked. I felt I was losing everything right before my eyes,” she said.

“Everything that I’ve worked so hard for, for nearly 10 years and my childhood dream.”

Sillett recalled she then felt if she stayed in the army, she’d have “a target on her back”.

Eventually, the soldier took an honourable discharge in 1989, at age 28.

“I couldn’t really tell anyone. The only people that knew were people closest to me,” she said.

“I didn’t want to break my parents’ hearts.

“I began experiencing suicidal thoughts.”

Yvonne Sillett still waiting for an apology for ADF treatment

Prime Minister Paul Keating would later repeal the army’s anti-gay policies in 1992.

Yvonne Sillett says while the policies have changed, she is still fighting for justice and recognition.

The former soldier is still waiting for an apology for her treatment all those years ago.

“I didn’t get the opportunity to have 20 years of superannuation, I didn’t get the opportunity to have a pension for life,” she said.

“I didn’t get an opportunity to serve overseas in peacekeeping.

However Sillett said it is “not the money for me. It’s about the principle.”

“No one really wants to listen or take responsibility for the way we were treated.

“That’s what I’m fighting for, and that’s why I’m here today.”

In 2016, Sillett wrote to the Defence Ombudsman seeking a formal apology for her ordeal.

“The claim was denied as my case was not deemed as serious bullying,” Ms Sillett said.

“I received a letter stating that, again, it wasn’t bullying. There was nothing they could do.”

Yvonne Sillett is still pushing for a national apology and redress scheme for ADF personnel and their families impacted by the historical policies.

Royal Commission into Defence and Veteran Suicide continues in Sydney

Since her discharge, Yvonne Sillett became a key member of an organisation supporting LGBTIQ+ personnel in the Australian Defence Force.

She has previously shared her own story in the book Serving in Silence by Noah Riseman, Shirleene Robinson, and Graham Willett.

Last year, the Royal Commission into Defence and Veteran Suicide began and is holding public hearings in Sydney this week.

The inquiry has received more than 1100 submissions from many people, ex-service organisations and experts.

Compared with the general population, suicide rates are 24 per cent higher for ex-serving men and double for ex-serving women, according to government data.

If you need someone to talk to, help is available from Lifeline on 13 11 14, QLife on 1800 184 527 or online at QLife.org.au, Kids Helpline on 1800 55 1800, or beyondblue on 1300 22 4636.

For the latest lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, intersex and queer (LGBTIQ) news in Australia, visit qnews.com.au. Check out our latest magazines or find us on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and YouTube.

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1 Comment

  1. Harper
    20 February 2022

    Like Yvonne, I spent the entirety of my career saying, “I can’t be Gay. I’m in the Army.” , Knowing the derision I would suffer, I kept denying my true sexuality, even to myself. Thankfully, that’s in the past. I luckily avoided the treatment meted out to her.

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