Eric Fanning Is A Symbol Of Major Progress

by Joseph D. Lyons

Five years after "Don't ask, don't tell" was repealed, a gay man will now lead the U.S. Army. Meet Eric Fanning, who was confirmed as Army secretary on Tuesday, May 17, after a long delay in the Senate. He's making history as the first openly LGBT civilian leader of any military branch.

The historic milestone — yet another for the U.S. military and the Obama administration — amazingly unfolded with little to no opposition from the GOP. And the opposition that did emerge had nothing to do with Fanning being openly gay. That alone shows the progress that has been made since 2011. Matthew Thorn, the executive director of the LGBT military group OutServe-SLDN, acknowledged the significance of Fanning's confirmation:

Eric’s sexual orientation has absolutely no bearing on his ability to do this job; nor was it the reason for his nomination. But this milestone of having an openly gay individual in this high-level position within the Department of Defense will help to continue to set a tone of understanding and respect for the LGBT community throughout the armed services.

Although Fanning was first nominated in September, his confirmation was held up by Republican Kansas Sen. Pat Roberts, but it had nothing to do with Fanning's sexual orientation. In fact, they actually didn't even ask him about it in the confirmation hearings. Rather, it was all about the prison in Guantanamo Bay. The Obama Administration has said that it is hoping to close the facility and move the prisoners to the United States. One possible site was Ft. Leavenworth in Kansas, and Roberts wanted assurance from the administration that that would not happen.

Alex Wong/Getty Images News/Getty Images

Ultimately, Roberts was convinced that Kansas wasn't on the table for relocation. Roberts had a meeting with Deputy Defense Secretary Robert Work, in which Work explained that current funding stipulations from Congress prevent any Guantanamo prisoners from being resettled in the United States. And so, in the end, Sen. Roberts (who was Fanning's main obstacle to confirmation) had only good things to say:

I look forward to voting for Mr. Fanning, who has always had my support for this position. My hold was never about his courage, character or capability, but rather about our nation's security if the detainees were moved to Ft. Leavenworth.

Other elected officials from both parties quickly voiced their support on Twitter. Maybe Nancy Pelosi's support is a given, but even Sen. Dan Sullivan, a Republican from Alaska, pitched in, noting Fanning's acknowledgement of Alaska's importance and his commitment to growing the Army. Ellen Degeneres also had a great comment (which Fanning retweeted).

Fanning, who's 47, released a brief statement Tuesday, but didn't mention the historic significance of his confirmation. "I’m honored by today’s Senate confirmation and thrilled to return to lead the total Army team," he said in this statement. Fanning has 25 years of national security experience, has served as both the undersecretary and acting secretary of the Air Force, and as deputy under secretary of the Navy. He also served as chief of staff to Defense Secretary Ashton B. Carter.

While his sexual orientation didn't come up in his confirmation, he has spoken out in the past about gay service members:

There is a much larger community out there that is looking for opportunities to show its support of us — that's certainly been my experience as I've come out in my professional network, and it's picking up steam. It's gone from tolerance to acceptance to embrace.

Transgender individuals are still not allowed to serve openly, for example, even with reports showing that it would not be "burdensome or complicated." Meanwhile, Fanning's confirmation is a strong step in the right direction for the U.S. army.