President Obama officially announced on Monday he would nominate former Sen. Chuck Hagel for defense secretary, a move that has stirred controversy in the LGBT community.
Obama appeared with Hagel in the East Room of the White House to name the Nebraska Republican as his choice — calling him “the leader that our troops deserve” and praising him for his service as a U.S. senator and Vietnam veteran — in addition to nominating John Brennan as director of the Central Intelligence Agency.
“Chuck Hagel’s leadership of our military would be historic,” Obama said. “He’d be the first person of enlisted rank to serve as Secretary of Defense, one of the few secretaries who have been wounded in war, and the first Vietnam veteran to lead the department. As I saw during our visits together to Afghanistan and Iraq, in Chuck Hagel our troops see a decorated combat veteran of character and strength.”
Obama also alluded to outstanding work at the Pentagon on LGBT issues without enumerating any specific initiatives, saying the nation must move toward “continuing to ensure that our men and women in uniform can serve the country they love, no matter who they love.”
Hagel made no reference to LGBT issues during his remarks, but more generally said he was grateful to have another opportunity to serve the country as well as “men and women in uniform and their families.”
“These are people who give so much to this nation every day with such dignity and selflessness,” Hagel said. “This is particularly important at a time as we complete our mission in Afghanistan and support the troops and military families who have sacrificed so much over more than a decade of war.”
The news was met with varied reactions in the LGBT community — ranging from full support to outright opposition — based on Hagel’s anti-gay record and lingering inequities faced by LGBT service members.
First, there are the anti-gay remarks that Hagel made in 1998 about James Hormel, whom the senator referred to as “openly, aggressively gay” in remarks published in the Omaha World-Herald while questioning his ability to serve as a U.S. ambassador to Luxembourg. A U.S. senator representing Nebraska from 1997 and 2009, Hagel also had a poor record on LGBT issues. He voted for the Federal Marriage Amendment in 2004, but didn’t cast a vote in 2006.
Just last month, Hagel delivered an apology to media outlets over his 1998 remarks, saying he backs open service and is “committed to LGBT military families.” Major LGBT groups like OutServe-SLDN and the Human Rights Campaign quickly accepted the apology.
But questions linger on outstanding LGBT issues at the Pentagon. Gay service members still aren’t afforded partner benefits offered to straight troops in the U.S. military — such as joint duty assignments, issuance of military IDs, use of the commissary and family housing — which could be changed administratively at any time even with the Defense of Marriage Act in place. Pentagon officials have said they’ve been looking into this issue since the time “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” was lifted in September 2011, but no action has been taken. Another lingering issue is the prohibition on openly transgender service in the military — another problem that could be changed administratively.
Baldwin seeks answers on Hagel
Lesbian Sen. Tammy Baldwin (D-Wis.), who after being sworn in last week as the first openly gay senator, will be faced with voting on whether to confirm Hagel, told MSNBC’s Andrea Mitchell on Monday that she plans to “ask some tough questions, to give a thorough review and to be fair.”
“But I do want to speak with him … to see if his apology is sincere and sufficient,” Baldwin said. “I want to hear how he’s evolved on this issue in the last 14 years because the significance to the post to which he’s been nominated is the respect for now openly gay members of the military … We need to see [repeal of Don't Ask, Don't Tell] implemented successfully especially because the security of this nation is at stake.”
Another group seeking additional information from Hagel is the National Gay & Lesbian Task Force, which issued a statement on Monday expressing concerns about the nomination.
Rea Carey, the Task Force’s executive director, called on Hagel to address how he’d advance LGBT issues at the Pentagon — as well as abortion rights for female service members — during his upcoming confirmation hearings before the Senate.
“We continue to express our concerns about the nomination of former Sen. Chuck Hagel as secretary of defense due to his poor track record on LGBT equality and reproductive rights,” Carey said. “Though Chuck Hagel has recently apologized for past anti-gay remarks, we expect him to fully explain his views during the confirmation process and what steps he intends to take as defense secretary to demonstrate his support for LGBT members of the military and their families.”
Another group that’s seeking a specific action from Hagel — after initially accepting the senator’s apology — is OutServe-SLDN, which issued a statement calling for a plan on partner benefits and non-discrimination policies.
Allyson Robinson, OutServe-SLDN’s executive director, said she wants Hagel to expand on what he means by being “committed to LGBT military families” by articulating policy plans on these issues.
“A commitment to support LGBT service members and their families must be a commitment to action,” Robinson said. “It’s past time to extend all benefits available to married same-sex military couples and families while the so-called Defense of Marriage Act is still on the books. It’s past time to put in place military equal opportunity and nondiscrimination protections so that all qualified Americans who wish to serve this nation in uniform may do so without fear of harassment or discrimination.”
The Human Rights Campaign, the nation’s largest LGBT group, has been relatively silent on the Hagel nomination after accepting Hagel’s apology a couple weeks ago and issued no public news statement on the day of the announcement.
Fred Sainz, HRC’s vice president of communications, said in response to an inquiry from the Washington Blade that his organization is looking to hear more from Hagel during the confirmation hearings without offering an explicit position on the nomination.
“The next secretary of defense will be critical to the implementation of ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’ repeal,” Sainz said. “We look forward to Senator Hagel’s testimony on how he intends to end the discriminatory behavior against gay and lesbian service members’ families.”
White House says Hagel values inclusion
The White House has responded to LGBT concerns about Hagel’s record through its chief advocate handling LGBT issues — Senior Adviser to the President Valerie Jarrett — who addressed the issue on Monday in a blog posting on the White House website.
“The President is fully committed to ensuring that all of our service members and military families are treated equally,” Jarrett writes. “He is confident that, as Secretary of Defense, Senator Hagel will ensure that all who serve the country we love are treated equally — no matter who they love.”
Noting that Hagel issued an apology for the remarks and expressed a commitment to LGBT military families, Jarrett said “one of the great successes of the LGBT civil rights movement” is providing people the opportunity to evolve on those issues.
“The President would not have chosen him unless he had every confidence that, working together, they will continue to ensure that our military and DOD civilian workforce are as welcoming, inclusive, and respectful as possible,” Jarrett concluded.
A White House spokesperson didn’t respond to a request for comment on whether Hagel would lay out more specific plans during his confirmation process to address outstanding issues regarding benefits or non-discrimination policies.
Former gay Rep. Barney Frank appeared to have a change of heart on Hagel. In an interview with the Boston Globe on Monday, Frank reversed his earlier stated opposition to the former senator’s confirmation as defense secretary, saying he was initially hoping Obama wouldn’t nominate him.
“As much as I regret what Hagel said, and resent what he said, the question now is going to be Afghanistan and scaling back the military,” Frank was quoted as saying. “In terms of the policy stuff, if he would be rejected [by the Senate], it would be a setback for those things.”
Frank, who’s now vying for an appointment as interim U.S. senator of Massachusetts, also reportedly said, “With the attack coming out of the right, I hope he gets confirmed.” If appointed to the Senate seat, Frank would be in a position to vote on the confirmation.
Perhaps the strongest support in the LGBT community in favor of the nomination came from Rick Jacobs, chair of the California-based progressive grassroots organization known as the Courage Campaign, who declared his support for Hagel in a column for The Huffington Post.
“Chuck, like most Americans, has evolved has changed his views on homosexuality,” Jacobs said. “He gave his word that as DoD chief he supports the law, that openly gay and lesbian soldiers will be treated equally to ‘straight’ ones. Remember when the Commandant of the Marine Corps opposed repeal of ['Don't Ask, Don't Tell'] and then when it passed said the Marines would implement it better than any other branch?”
Speaking with the Blade, Jacobs also said he’d like to see Hagel address outstanding LGBT issues at the Pentagon during his upcoming confirmation hearings.
“It would be great to have that addressed as we move forward,” Jacobs said. “It’s a good idea; we should do that. The more we can discuss openly the policies and implementation of policies to make equal LGBT people in service, the better off we are.”
Jacobs told the Washington Blade he hadn’t spoken to any groups prior to writing his column urging him to come out in support of the Hagel nomination.
On the other end of the spectrum is the Log Cabin Republicans. For the second time, the organization on Monday published a full-page ad in a major newspaper opposing the Hagel nomination. The ad, which follows a similar one published in the New York Times last month, is titled “Chuck Hagel’s Record on Gay Rights” and offers a timeline of remarks on LGBT issues made by Hagel.
In addition to the 1998 anti-gay remarks against Hormel, the ad also notes Hagel has expressed support for DOMA and says in 2005, when a federal judge in Nebraska determined the state’s ban on same-sex marriage was unconstitutional, Hagel opposed the decision, saying, ”I am hopeful the federal appeals court will recognize the rights of Nebraskans to determine their own laws governing marriage and reverse this decision.”
Gregory Angelo, Log Cabin’s interim executive director, said his organization continues to oppose Hagel after examining the “‘totality’ of his public record on gay rights.”
“Until his name surfaced as a potential nominee for Secretary of Defense, he has stood firmly and aggressively against not only gay marriage, but also against gay people in general,” Angelo said. “Log Cabin Republicans helped lead the charge to repeal Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell and is extremely invested in seeing that we don’t lose any ground due to a lack of sincere commitment to gay people and their families on the part of the incoming Defense Secretary.”
The move by Log Cabin raised questions about how a small organization can afford to buy full-page ads in major newspapers amid speculation that neo-conservative opponents of Hagel are influencing the group. Additionally, Log Cabin applied a different standard to 2012 Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney by endorsing the candidate even though he backed a Federal Marriage Amendment.
Speaking to the Blade, Angelo said “there’s some potential” for more ads, but declined to comment on the costs of the ads, saying they’re “part of a larger communications effort” that has come from the board of directors. Angelo also denied that other groups had asked Log Cabin to run the ads, saying they came “exclusively from within Log Cabin Republicans.”