An official contingent from the Australian Defence Force will march in the Mardi Gras parade for the first time this year, but almost half the 100 servicemen and women who volunteered will be turned away.

New Mardi Gras has imposed a limit of 60 marchers on the historic float.

“We were overwhelmed by numbers keen to march and get their faces out there, to show the rest of the defence force that we are here,” Chief Petty Officer Stuart O’Brien said. “For Defence this is a major step. I don’t think Mardi Gras understand that.”

The Chief of the Defence Force granted consent to march for the first time only a few days before the 2007 parade – too late for that year, but the authorisation remains in effect.

O’Brien, who also runs the Defence Gay and Lesbian Information Service, said the float would prioritise the many personnel returning from overseas deployment and interstate to attend.

“I do understand there are restrictions. They’ve already said they’ve got 10,000 people and can’t go over that. I’m sure there are other groups that won’t use their full allocation,” he said.

Parade organisers told SSO if withdrawals were made, other groups would be considered.

“No one group, event or entry can be considered more or less meaningful than another as their value cannot be measured simply by the number of people in the group,” a parade spokesman said.

Uniforms have not been permitted during the parade, but O’Brien and his team are hopeful for next year. Instead, they will wear shirts with Defence’s branding to be inclusive of its many non-uniformed public servants.

Several of the participants will meet for the first time at Fair Day this Sunday to swap stories of gay life in the military.

Since the Australian Defence Force removed the ban on homosexuality in 1992, service life has steadily improved for gay men  and lesbians, with the Force often implementing same-sex equality reforms ahead of other areas of the public service.

“This is another major step to show the community that the Defence Force is a fair and inclusive workplace,” O’Brien said.

“I am honoured to represent Defence at this community event and prouder still of the Defence Force for showing the leadership in allowing us to do so.”

O’Brien has been invited to address the Sexual Orientation and Military Preparedness – An International Perspective conference next month at America’s Georgetown University.

Its law school banned military recruiters on campus over the discriminatory nature of the anti-gay Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell policy, but the conference will discuss the counterproductive effect of the ban on the US Military itself, and how countries like Australia overcame them.

O’Brien said honesty was one of the core values of the Australian Defence Force.

“If you’re open and honest, people can trust you more. We need people to be up front and honest. But if you’re hiding one thing you’re probably going to hide more,” he said.

“I am proud to be in the service and, with senior leadership acknowledging this, they know I will shine a good light on Australia.”

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