A word from RSL Victoria.
RSL Victoria is proud to share the story of Philip Neil, one of our amazing members from Mildura. Philip hasn't always been an RSL member. In 1982 an incident at the Shrine of Remembrance drove him away from the RSL for a number of years.
RSL Victoria acknowledges and apologises for past behaviours and attitudes of the League that may have caused harm to some within the ex-service community, both past and present.
You can read our full statement of reflection and apology here.
Never in his lifetime did Philip (Phil) Neil think he would witness the day.
Now, 40 years later he's preparing to return to Melbourne's Shrine of Remembrance, with the help of his local RSL Sub-Branch.
He says he's doing it for those no longer here, with the hope of building recognition and acceptance.
Raised in a conservative, religious family in Melbourne, there was no way Phil was prepared to embrace his sexuality.
Looking for an opportunity to progress his future, maybe travel and as he puts it "try and further myself and get away from the things that were happening at home," Phil set his sights on serving with the Australian Defence Force.
This decision was, perhaps, unsurprising given his father served in WW2, his mother worked in essential services during WW2, and his maternal grandfather served in WWI.
"Dad was army and he said, 'if I had my chance again, I'd want to join the Air Force.' So, I thought I'll join the Air Force because it would have been something he would have liked to have done and didn't have a chance, but I did."
Enlisting in February 1971 Phil served for three years.
"It was difficult because I was still trying to find who I was sexually. I found it difficult to live with a group of guys that I felt more than just friends with. I was almost scared to look at anybody in case anyone thought things about me. I just couldn't be myself. After three years I thought I just can't do this anymore, I've got to move on and get out. I didn't want to, but I just felt like I couldn't stay."
At the time, being found out would have meant a dishonourable discharge.
Phil never told his parents the truth behind his discharge.
An attempt on his life at the age of 27 culminated in Phil coming out to his parents.
"My parents were upset that I left [the Air Force] but they didn't know the real reason why I left. To the day they passed away I never told them. I didn't want to have to put them through any more pain."
He says his time in the ADF was life-shaping, with a lot of good to takeaway.
"It teaches you a lot of discipline, self-worth, respect, trust, team work, and it also grounds you and the three years in the Air Force helped to make me the person I am today."
Proud of his service time, Phil speaks of the ADF with no ill-feelings.
"I don't blame them for what happened. At that time, that's how people thought, that's how the world lived."
"Not for a moment do I regret joining, I regret leaving as early as I did because of the situation."
Having faced a rocky transition out of the Air Force and back into civilian life, Phil carved out a long and fulfilling career in various industries up until his retirement and relocation to Mildura six years ago.
Now aged 69, Phil has only recently been able to confront his past in an open and honest way. While it hasn't always been an easy or enjoyable process, he acknowledges it has been cathartic.
"It’s been so good for me because it’s things I’ve kept to myself for over 40 or 50 years that I’ve never told anybody, I’ve never discussed with anybody. Now I feel that I’ve opened up I feel a lot of pressure gone. I feel a lot happier.”
Perhaps it has come about in a way Phil least expected.
Today, Melbourne’s Shrine of Remembrance is launching a new exhibition – the first of its kind for an Australian war memorial.
Defending with Pride: Stories of LBGTQ+ Service will showcase the history of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer (LGBTQ+) people in service.
In a prelude to the official opening, Phil will lay a wreath at the Shrine’s Last Post Service on July 31st to honour the contribution of LGBTQ+ personnel.
For Phil, it’s bittersweet.
In April 1982, Phil and four other men from the Gay Ex-Service Association wanted to pay tribute to and recognise the service of the LGBTQ+ community.
Side by side with purpose, the five men carried a wreath to the Shrine of Remembrance dedicated to ‘all the brothers and sisters who died during the wars’.
But their moment was short lived.
As Phil remembers it, and was reported in the media, the then Victoria RSL President Bruce Ruxton pierced the contemplative silence with, “stop those men!”
Photographs show a tense confrontation between the men and Bruce Ruxton on the steps of the Shrine.
“[Bruce Ruxton] had us escorted off the premises.”
The men were, of course, caught off guard.
"We went away absolutely dumbfounded and shellshocked and questioned if it was all worth it? Why did we do it? We felt like we had achieved absolutely nothing. We just gave up. Everybody went quiet, all our friends went quiet, we got no support from anybody."
Feeling betrayed by the RSL, Phil distanced himself from the organisation until he moved to Mildura and became a member of the Mildura RSL Sub-Branch six years ago.
"After I moved here, I realised I can only be bitter for so long. I thought I’ll join [the RSL] and see what happens."
Emboldened by his positive experience with the Mildura RSL Sub-Branche, Phil shared his story. The response from the RSL was nothing short of a relief.
“[They] we’re very keen, interested and supportive."
All those decades ago, Phil thought his actions were all in vain. Now, he looks back and realises he and his service mates were paving the way for change and due recognition.
"I’m very proud and humbled by it. I still find it very hard to believe that the exhibition at the Shrine is happening."
If this article has raised any concerns for you, please contact:
Lifeline suicide and crisis support on 13 11 14.
Suicide Call Back Service: 24/7 counselling service for suicide prevention and mental health. 1300 659 467
QLife: Australia’s first nationally oriented counselling and referral service for LGBTI people. 1800 184 527
Veterans and their families can access free and confidential 24/7 support from Open Arms — Veterans and Families Counselling on 1800 011 046
You can find out about the support offered by DEFGLIS, the Defence LGBTI Information Service, at https://www.defglis.com.au/.
To access support through RSL Victoria, please contact Veteran Central