In a move that's sure to become part of his LGBT legacy, President Obama nominated the first openly gay military secretary this week. The president appointed current Eric Fanning to serve as secretary of the U.S. Army, a civilian leadership position. Fanning currently serves as the undersecretary of the U.S. Army, and before that, he acted as secretary of the U.S. Air Force in 2013. Since stepping into the position as acting secretary of the Air Force, Fanning has been known as the highest-ranking gay staff member of the Pentagon.
"Eric brings many years of proven experience and exceptional leadership to this new role," Obama said in a statement Friday. "I am grateful for his commitment to our men and women in uniform, and I am confident he will help lead America's Soldiers with distinction."
Secretary of Defense Ash Carter also released a statement congratulating Fanning on the appointment. "Eric served as my first chief of staff at the Pentagon, and it has been a privilege over the course of my career to work alongside him and watch him develop into one of our country's most knowledgeable, dedicated, and experienced public servants," said Carter. He added that under Fanning's leadership, the U.S. Army will be able "to confront a new generation of challenges."
Fanning's appointment is big news for the Pentagon, which is still trying to shake off its long history of discrimination and secrecy. Although Fanning was able to work as an openly gay civilian in the Defense Department, members of the military were forbidden for years from discussing their sexual orientation. It's still a bit of a taboo subject among Defense Department staffers, but the Obama administration has taken the initiative over the years to foster LGBT rights and equality at the Pentagon and among the boots on the ground.
Here's how the U.S. military has become more gay-friendly over the years.
Repealing Don't Ask, Don't Tell
In 2011, the Obama administration officially ended the "don't ask, don't tell" policy, which barred openly gay, lesbian or bisexual individuals from serving in the military (the rule did not apply to civilians like Fanning). Although the policy stipulated that the Defense Department couldn't discriminate or harass gay, lesbian, or bisexual service members who were "closeted," the rule was still pretty discriminatory. The policy specifically noted that openly gay, lesbian, or bisexual service members would create a distracting and risky presence that would disrupt the "high standards of morale, good order and discipline" of a military unit.
But while Obama and his administration made progress by eliminating "don't ask, don't tell," the military isn't all that equal for transgender individuals. The Pentagon still bars people who exhibit "transsexualism, exhibitionism, transvestism, voyeurism and other paraphilias" — aka people who are transgender or transitioning — from serving openly. The Pentagon, however, is moving to allow transgender troops to serve.
Stronger Protections For Gay Members
In June, the Pentagon announced it would extended its legal discrimination protections to gay, lesbian, and bisexual active-duty members of the military. "Recognizing that our openness to diversity is one of the things that [has] allowed us to be the best in the world, we must ensure that everyone who's able and willing to serve has the full and equal opportunity to do so," Defense Secretary Carter announced at a Pentagon LGBT Pride event in June. "And we must start from a position of inclusivity, not exclusivity."
Now, discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation will be treated the same as race, sex, religion, or age discrimination.
Full Benefits To Same-Sex Spouses
In September 2013, following the Supreme Court decision striking down a key provision of the Defense of Marriage Act, the Pentagon announced that the spouses of gay and lesbian service members would be able to receive full military benefits, including military ID cards, pensions, medical care, and survivor benefits. It was ground-breaking for the military — and controversial. Although bases in numerous U.S. states, including Texas, tried barring same-sex military couples from receiving military ID cards, then-Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel stepped in, deploying the National Guard to make sure these rights weren't being violated.