LGBT rights supporters are seeking more from Defense Secretary nominee Chuck Hagel in the aftermath of testimony in which he expressed a commitment to gay and lesbian troops.
In written testimony before the Senate Armed Services Committee on Thursday, Hagel built upon earlier comments to express support for “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” repeal and committed to “move forward expeditiously” on the issue of outstanding partner benefits for gay service members.
LGBT advocates say they appreciate Hagel’s commitment, but want him to make good on his promises and act on LGBT military issues that he hasn’t yet addressed.
The Human Rights Campaign emphasized the importance of Hagel taking action upon confirmation to extend benefits to troops with same-sex partners. Among the outstanding benefits that could be extended administratively are military IDs, joint duty assignments and access to family programs.
“We were glad to see Sen. Hagel’s clear statement of support for gay and lesbian service members and their families,” said HRC Vice President of Programs Fred Sainz. “If confirmed, we expect Sen. Hagel to make good on his statements and act immediately to ensure that all military families have equal access to all military benefits available to them under the law.”
Rea Carey, executive director of the National Gay & Lesbian Task Force, said she’s happy Hagel articulated a commitment to gay troops, but hopes he’ll “exercise future leadership” to lift the barriers for transgender service members.
“Sen. Hagel’s commitment toward full implementation of DADT repeal and providing equal benefits to the same-sex spouses of service members was encouraging,” Carey said. “If confirmed, we hope he will exercise further leadership on LGBT issues and work to remove Defense Department barriers that prevent transgender people from serving their country openly.”
Another request came from Allyson Robinson, executive director of OutServe-SLDN, who issued a statement following the hearing calling on Hagel to extend non-discrimination protections in the military to LGBT troops. Currently, gay service members have no recourse for claims of discrimination and harassment other than their chain of command.
“If Sen. Hagel is confirmed, he must use his authority to ban discrimination and guarantee equal opportunity for lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender members of the military,” Robinson said.
GetEQUAL, among the LGBT groups that had come out in opposition to Hagel, seemed to budge a little in the wake of the confirmation hearing, but also was looking for a greater commitment.
Heather Cronk, managing director for GetEQUAL, said she’s glad Hagel made the commitments for gay service members, but is looking now for “specifics behind that commitment” to offer support.
“Our key questions are whether Hagel will implement a non-discrimination policy, since DADT repeal didn’t include one, and whether that policy will immediately allow transgender service members to serve openly,” Cronk said. “If he will answer both of those questions in the affirmative, we’ll be more convinced that his values align with the stated values of the Obama administration.”
White House Press Secretary Jay Carney deferred Blade requests to elaborate on Hagel’s LGBT military policy views to his previously stated testimony:
Washington Blade: Jay, following the confirmation hearing yesterday, the LGBT military group OutServe-SLDN issued a statement saying Sen. Hagel as defense secretary must “use his authority to ban discrimination and guarantee equal opportunity for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender members of the military.” That non-discrimination, unlike the benefits issue, has heretofore gone unaddressed during the confirmation process. Does the White House expect Hagel to make this policy happen if he’s confirmed as defense secretary?
Jay Carney: I would just point you to numerous answers the senator gave in response to questions about his support for the president’s positions on issues regarding LGBT rights, including with regard to service in our military. I don’t have anything more you, but the president’s positions on these issues are clear, and he continues to intend to make progress them as he made clear in his inaugural.
Blade: Sen. Hagel did express in written responses to questions that he’d move “expeditiously” on the benefits issue, and you said last week the issue has the president’s attention. But when will these benefits be enacted?
Carney: Well, I think expeditiously is when they will get attention, as Sen. Hagel rightly answered, and, hopefully, with him at the Pentagon as soon as possible.
Carney’s remarks suggest that LGBT advocates will have to wait for Hagel to take the helm of the Pentagon for action on partner benefits for gay troops as opposed to having them enacted under the watch of outgoing Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, who’s been under pressure to make the changes.
The time when Hagel will be faced with these issues may come soon. Senate Armed Services Chair Carl Levin (D-Mich.) said during the hearing a committee vote will take place Thursday, and a floor vote should take place soon after.
However, without a single Senate Republican expressing support, questions persist over whether 60 votes are present in the Senate to overcome a filibuster of his nomination.
The Log Cabin Republicans, which took out a full-page ad against Hagel in the New York Times and another in the Washington Post, remains opposed to the Hagel nomination even in the wake of his confirmation hearing.
Gregory Angelo, Log Cabin’s interim executive director, echoed some Republicans who accused Hagel of flip-flopping in his positions as he pursues the position of defense secretary.
“Sen. Hagel did so much flip-flopping, waffling and walking back on his prior statements on Iran, Israel and Iraq yesterday that we find no reason to assume he won’t shift his opinion on his opportunely timed, new-found support for the repeal of ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’ as well,” Angelo said. “Yesterday’s hearings only underscored what Log Cabin Republicans has been saying all along: Chuck Hagel is the wrong choice for Secretary of Defense.”
One key voice in the LGBT community who hasn’t yet articulated a final position on Hagel one way or the other is lesbian Sen. Tammy Baldwin (D-Wis.) — even though other Democratic senators who have pro-LGBT records like Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) and Mark Udall (D-Colo.) have come out in favor of the nomination.
During an appearance on MSNBC’s “Hardball” last month, Baldwin said she’d ask Hagel “tough questions” about his vision for the post-“Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” military but hasn’t yet commented publicly on the issue further. Her office didn’t respond to a request to comment.