Simon Collins

Simon Collins is the Herald’s social issues reporter.

Award for forces' gay group

Military unit saluted for advice service helping young recruits and their supervisors

Petty Officer Brad Harris shared armed forces housing with his gay partner and says they found their military neighbours "great". Photo / Sarah Ivey
Petty Officer Brad Harris shared armed forces housing with his gay partner and says they found their military neighbours "great". Photo / Sarah Ivey

A gay and lesbian support group in one of our most conservative institutions - the military - has won the supreme award in this year's Equal Employment Opportunities Trust diversity awards.

The OverWatch group, named after a military tactic where one unit protects another, was formed in January last year by pioneers who were among NZ's first openly gay officers.

It now has about 100 members in its online networking group and 306 likes on its Facebook page, NZDF Overwatch. It also provides informal advice to officers supervising staff welfare and to young people with problems such as asking how to come out.

Devonport-based naval policeman Petty Officer Brad Harris, 31, joined the navy at 19 but only came out five years later when he declared a partnership.

"I lived in service housing with my partner," he said.

"To my knowledge we were the first males to be approved de facto status, which is declared via a report and put through your command chain. It makes them your next-of-kin for casualty notifications if anything happens to you, and entitles you to service housing as a couple."

He said his colleagues in neighbouring houses were "great" and he had never been bullied in the navy for his sexuality. But that was partly because he had built up friendships before he came out.

"If you were to join the navy being gay, I don't know how difficult it would be," he said. "So I'm glad we have a support network for them.

"It's for the young ones who are struggling and don't find it easy. They have somewhere they can go for advice and support. It's great the Defence Force understands the importance of providing support mechanisms to its personnel."

Air Force Squadron Leader Stu Pearce, 37, had come out when he and his partner, Dave Fenwick, a weapons engineer, joined the NZ air force in 2006 after many years with the Royal Air Force in Britain.

"We didn't realise at the time when we came from the UK that we were actually going to be, as far as we were aware, the first openly gay male couple living in service accommodation on base," he said.

"But the support we got from the base community was fantastic. I spent quite a bit of my first two years serving overseas, and knowing that Dave was supported by the Wellbeing [staff welfare] organisation was a real weight off my mind."

Squadron Leader Pearce and Mr Harris were among about 30 OverWatch members who came out to a wider public in Auckland's Pride Parade this year. "It was pretty nerve-racking," Squadron Leader Pearce said. "I think one of the surprising outcomes of it was that the Defence Force was getting some of the loudest applause of the day."

Diversity awards

Supreme award: NZ Defence Force gay & lesbian support group OverWatch.

Work and life award: Coca-Cola Amatil's Zero Harm health and safety campaign.

Skills highway award: Pacific Homecare's literacy programme.

Tomorrow's workforce award: Work & Income cadetships.

Walk the talk award: Peter Potaka, Statistics NZ, for recruiting 22 ethnicities for this year's Census.

- NZ Herald

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