An Openly Gay Man Runs the Army
By THE EDITORIAL BOARD
MAY 21, 2016
Last week an openly gay man, Eric Fanning, became secretary of the Army. Read that sentence again and contemplate what it reveals about how much and how quickly American society has changed. Only five years ago, openly gay people were barred from serving in its armed forces. During Mr. Fanning’s lengthy confirmation process, his sexual orientation was simply not an issue. That is a tribute to those who fought so hard to repeal the ban, and a measure of the nation’s at times uncertain, but as yet unfailing, march toward equality.
In retrospect the fight that convulsed this country over whether gay Americans should serve in uniform seems senseless, almost absurd. Yet it is instructive, if only because a Pentagon plan to allow transgender Americans to serve openly in uniform remains stalled by a similar, albeit quieter, debate.
There is broad agreement that prohibiting openly gay people from serving was a cruel policy that abetted bigotry. It legitimized the notion that being gay was shameful and incompatible with the valorous profession of arms. It cut short the careers of talented people who had been performing vital work in wartime, which weakened the military.
It is embarrassing now, even shocking, to revisit the arguments and laments of those who sought to keep the military gay-free.
In 2007, Gen. Peter Pace, then the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told The Chicago Tribune, “I believe homosexual acts between two individuals are immoral and that we should not condone immoral acts.” A year later, Elaine Donnelly, who founded an advocacy group that has sought futilely to keep military personnel policy frozen in the mores of the 1950s, warned during a congressional hearing about “a sexualized atmosphere in our armed forces.” She expressed alarm about “forced cohabitation” and the spread of H.I.V.
Two years after that, when Congress appeared to be on the brink of repealing the ban, Gen. James Amos, then the commandant of the Marine Corps, cautioned that openly gay troops would be a distraction that could cost lives on the battlefield. “We’ve got Marines at Walter Reed with no limbs,” he pleaded in a last-ditch effort to keep service members in the closet. Senator John McCain indulged the general’s fearmongering. “Today is a very sad day,” Mr. McCain said somberly during the Senate debate on Dec. 18, 2010, as he acknowledged that he and other like-minded lawmakers had been outgunned.
The policy was repealed without a hitch. It didn’t result in weakened unit cohesion, lower morale or missing limbs. As service members came out to their supervisors, they were embraced. “Millennials just don’t care about sexuality the way past generations did,” said Lt. Col. Paul Larson, a straight Army infantry officer. “The rest of us didn’t care. We all knew gays were serving with distinction.”
The controversy over lifting the exclusion of openly transgender service members has been less caustic and less public. After Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter pledged last July to repeal that ban within six months, a few senior military officials pushed back. They steered clear of framing their misgivings on morality grounds, instead voicing concerns about “military readiness” and unit cohesion. Gen. Mark Milley, the Army chief of staff, has been one of the leading skeptics at the Pentagon. In a recent interview, he said that “serious, significant issues need to be completely vetted and studied” before transgender people are allowed to serve openly. “I have to focus on the readiness of the force,” he said.
Those concerns cannot be indulged any longer at the expense of the civil rights and dignity of Americans who volunteered to serve in wartime. There is every reason to believe that repealing the transgender ban will be seamless. The Pentagon already has a blueprint of what it would take. Mr. Fanning, who was the first senior defense official to endorse military service by openly transgender people, is well positioned to help overcome the lingering misgivings of those upholding the Pentagon’s last discriminatory personnel policy.
“I’m ecstatic,” said Staff Sgt. Patricia King, a soldier in Colorado Springs who was the first person in the infantry to transition on the job.“To know that the secretary of the Army is supportive of open trans service, supportive of me not only as a soldier but as a person, is a comforting feeling.”