WASHINGTON, D.C. – During a Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Pride Month event at the Pentagon, the highest-ranking openly gay member of the Defense Department described his experiences witnessing the evolution of the law that banned openly gay service members, from its implementation to its eventual repeal.
Acting Air Force Secretary Eric Fanning noted the significance of Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel kicking off the DOD’s pride celebration, as just two years ago, gay and lesbian service members could not openly serve in the military.
Absent, an association like DOD Pride to lend support, Fanning described the difficulties and sense of isolation that he and others at the Pentagon endured as the repeal process ran its course. “There were no other open LGBT appointees, and anyone serving openly in uniform was surely in the process of being discharged,” he said.
Fanning began working in the Pentagon 20 years ago, a time he described as a personally painful experience as DOD began to implement the law that came to be known as “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.”
“It was a deeply conflicting time for me,” the Air Force’s top civilian official said. “I was launching a career with strong support from amazing bosses who knew about my personal life. … I was being given opportunities that were being denied to people just like me. I was working for an institution that discriminated — against people just like me.”
He also recalled how during that time, people spoke about gays and lesbians in “blistering and emotional ways,” denigrating them for simply wanting the right to serve their country while being honest about who they were.
Still, Fanning said, the military underwent the difficult process of opening doors to those it previously denied or constrained: women, immigrants looking to prove their patriotism and earn their citizenship, and to gays and lesbians.
“At times, it seemed agonizingly slow, or even that we were losing ground,” Fanning said. “But never once did we doubt we were on the right path.”
Relying on the diverse talents of a broader pool of people who are willing and able to serve has fortified the military, Fanning explained. “We are stronger for looking more like the society we are charged with protecting, and we are today … the finest military the world has ever known,” he said.
In the two years leading up to the repeal of “Don’t Ask Don’t Tell,” the debate had a remarkably different tone, due in great part to the support of the president and the then-chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Navy Adm. Mike Mullen.
“I cannot escape being troubled by the fact that we have in place a policy which forces young men and women to lie about who they are in order to defend their fellow citizens,” the admiral testified before Congress. “It comes down to integrity — theirs as individuals and ours as an institution.”
Looking back to almost two decades earlier as a junior aide, Fanning said, he could never imagine having a chairman say things like Mullen did.
Fanning said most people had begun to accept the possibility of repeal long before it occurred, though he was fortunate enough to be present when the president signed the historic document.
Among the celebrations and congratulations, he said, many supporters asked what it was like to be in the Pentagon after the repeal.
“I answered honestly, and I think disappointingly, that … we went back to the building, and in my view, the building had already moved on past the decision and we talked about what we talk about every single day: the budget,” he said in a deadpan tone.
Fanning also said he’s received a bit of attention since he was nominated to be undersecretary of the Air Force — not all of it welcome, some quite negative, and some that he described as “rather imaginative.”
“Many have speculated as to my agenda, what color I’ll paint the planes, what designs I have on the uniforms,” he said. But like almost everyone else, he added, he remains focused on simply doing his job, and chiding comments are dwarfed by the outpouring of support he’s received in and out of the Pentagon.
“It reminds me that, as important as events like this are for our community, they’re also important opportunities for our allies to identify themselves and to let us know they’re right alongside us,” Fanning said. “Events like this give voice not just to us, but to those who support us.”