Air Commodore Tracy Smart is the Australian Defence Force’s (ADF) highest ranked lesbian officer and the first openly gay officer to reach its upper "star" ranks. 25 years ago Smart signed up as a medical student to subsidise the cost of her degree. Since then she’s risen rapidly to become a leading role model within Defence.
She’s represented Australia on numerous overseas deployments and exchange tours, including with the U.S. Air Force, where gays are still banned. In fact, Smart moved in with her American-born partner of ten years, Lisa Padzensky while on exchange in the U.S. Although Defence entitlements took many years to catch up with the existence of same-sex partners and families within their ranks, the ADF is now a committed supporter of diversity and equality.
Tracy: I got involved because it thought that it would be a good opportunity to talk about some of the ways that these laws affect people in the Defence Force.
Lisa: I’m Lisa Padzensky. I’m Tracy’s partner, her PA, the person that keeps her life on target, and I’m here because Tracy’s here.
Lisa: I think it keeps our heads grounded as to not forgetting where we’ve come from. Like we said, for us it’s been so easy. And it’s easy to sit back and relax and to forget that it took a lot of people a lot of struggling and a lot of heart ache and a lot of energy and a lot of hurt at times to get so that we can sit here and be so nonchalant about it and enjoy the life that we’re given. So I think it’s a good memory for me to wear it, and it’s a good reminder for those people that might not realise that there was such a struggle, that there is a history behind it.
Tracy: Especially for the younger people I guess. They’re coming out into this environment and wondering, “what’s all the fuss about?”
Tracy: Well we’ve noticed a difference. We’ve been together now for ten years or so, back in Australia for around eight. Certainly when we first got together, I was recognised as a single member for Defence purposes, for removals, for accommodation and things like that. We had a few hiccups from time to time with that lack of recognition.
A couple of years ago Defence took the first step down the track and actually recognised de facto couples for the purposes of most aspects, including married quarters. So that meant when we came to Canberra, that we could actually get a married quarter (a Defence house) allocated to us instead of having to go and buy our own house, or look at rental accommodation as if I was a single person.
So these changes have meant a lot to us in terms of housing. It’s also meant that we can get a housing loan as a couple the same as a heterosexual couple or a married couple can get. So we can get a Defence housing loan that recognises the service that our Defence people give to our country.
Lisa: Well, I just remember coming over here bringing all my stuff from Detroit to Virginia and Tracy saying, well, we can’t take too much because it needs to look like it’s all still my stuff, because the laws hadn’t quite arranged themselves the way they needed to. So it was kind of like, pick and choose the things. It was like I was Tracy’s friend. But this was all still Tracy’s stuff.
Tracy: Even when I was on exchange in the US, the Air Attaché at the embassy was very supportive and invited Lisa to all the functions and everything else. So individually, people were very supportive, but the laws hadn’t changed. So that was the big difference. We even had trouble initially, when I was posted to Timor. They were saying that I couldn’t have rental accommodation, because I was going to Timor and I was single and therefore I shouldn’t need accommodation when I was away. They actually changed their minds on that, which was good. But that sort of thing is just automatic now.
Lisa: Well see, it’s been different for me. I think two things are different. First of all, being a woman…I think I tend to get away with a lot more, being a lesbian and being out in the community, more so than maybe some men get to take advantage of. But the other thing is that, coming from the States, it was something that you just didn’t mention. Some people knew, I never lied about it if somebody asked me but it’s something you just didn’t talk about. But here in Australia, I can just say, “Yeah, my partner Tracy and I are going to such and such a place”, and people don’t even flinch. Its just life!
Tracy: And in quite a cross-section of the community. I mean, things like SES, which has got a lot of people who do volunteering and has got a lot of typical Australians, average Australians there, there it’s not an issue.
Lisa: No, there’s not. Nobody flinches. People that I’ve met seem to look at our character and who we are as people before they even give two thoughts about who we sleep with. I’m spoilt to it. It’s just been so irrelevant. And I mean, I never forget what people are going through that don’t have it as easy as we do. But it’s easy to forget that it can be a problem.
Tracy: But certainly during my service career, there have been incidents. It was only in 1992 that Defence officially acknowledged that gay and lesbian members could serve. One friend was told that he had to leave the RAF base that he was on exchange at when they found out that he was gay. So there certainly have been cases in the past. But again I think that the more benefits we get, we are getting a bit spoiled I suppose, and shouldn't forget how much people have struggled in the past, and how much humiliation they’ve faced.
Tracy: Yes. Eliminated “Rule Number One: No Poofters” as they say!
Tracy: It’s a little hard to tell, as I’m at the senior level. Therefore life’s a little bit different for me than for people at the lower rank levels. So it’s a bit hard to say. Certainly I haven’t come across any issues for many, many years.
Lisa: And I mean, it’s been like family for you, because most of these folks have known you for so long, that…
Tracy: It’s just me!
Lisa: Yeah, it’s just you.
Tracy: But certainly, I remember in the mid 90s, and I wasn’t really out myself and we had an openly gay chap posted into our unit, and the Commanding Officer at the time, brought up the issue at a strategic planning meeting to see what people thought about it. Even back then, people went “so what”, you know. But a couple of people had quite extreme reactions. One of them was an older guy. But as soon as he met him, all the issues went away. But one of the others started talking about some very strange perceptions that she had. But now I don’t think it’s an issue. I think, as we were talking before, that some people in positions of authority sometimes might not know how to handle things – they almost want to go on the opposite way to make sure they’re being seen as fair and equal.
But I think that Defence is a very equity and diversity focused employer. We do training every year on equity and diversity. I did mine yesterday in fact! And the emphasis there is on the fact that by having a diverse work culture or work group we actually get different points of view and it actually aids our capability. It brings up things to the table, national, ethnic, religious, all sorts of diversity in Defence.
Lisa: See I would think that the last group to follow would be in Defence. If Defence is leading the way for that kind of acceptance, then it must be ok!
Tracy: I think its going back to what Australia is fundamentally all about, which is equity, which is a fair go for everybody. I think it just goes back to the fundamentals of Australia, which means that you don’t have to worry about hiding who you are or what you are. You know you can be treated fairly based on how you behave, how you perform and what you are as a person.
Lisa: It goes with my pants!
Tracy: It’s very striking. When I heard that we were going to have a red t-shirt…I don’t wear a lot of red, but it actually, the red and the symbolism I think work really well. And it is a very simple design in many ways, but it is very effective.
Lisa: The fist is a sign of power. Again, coming from the US, and being so excited about the Obama years that we’re having now, in spite of some of the other politics, it goes back to that whole struggle, and that whole, what it took to get somebody like him where he is. I mean Tracy looked at it and said, “oh, it’s like flag football!” And I just thought, no, it’s just that power symbol. And it reminds me of the Olympics one too – the raised fist.
Tracy: In the 68 Olympics. But also a flag of conquest as well I suppose, with so many achievements being made.
Lisa: Well back in the day, of Xena Warrior Princess, 1999 I suppose. As I was sitting at my keyboard that was attached to my TV set, there was a chat group of people that were just talking about Xena Warrior Princess. And, Tracy was on it, I was on it, and a bunch of other fans were on it and we just got to talking.
Tracy: I was Warriordoc.
Lisa: I was just Lisa. And we just got to talking, there was a medical conference in Detroit. Never to have occurred, ever again. And Tracy was going to it, and it gave me a chance to actually meet her.
Tracy: And then the following year I was already trying to get an exchange posting to the US anyway, for career purposes.
Lisa: It had nothing to do with me!
Tracy: And I got the exchange so we were in the same country, and eventually Lisa moved down to Virginia where I was, and then to Australia.
Lisa: And then she packed me in her luggage and she bought me over here.
Tracy: And the Australian government, unlike some other governments, allowed her to become a citizen eventually, based on our relationship rather than on any other criteria. That again, was something that completely amazed Lisa.
Lisa: Yeah, because I came from somewhere where being gay is an issue to a place where it was like, “No problem, just give us the paperwork, let people verify the fact that you are a couple and cool.”
Tracy: Well I think as I said the main thing for Defence is that it’s a good place to work and you know, I don’t see that the whole equity and diversity thing is just lip service. There will always be some people who don’t embrace that, as there always are in a community, but we’re all human beings, we’re not perfect. But I do think that from the Chief of the Defence Force down there is certainly an understanding that equity and diversity is not just something to tick the box on, it actually value adds to the organisation.