For the first time, a sitting defense secretary on Tuesday made a live appearance at a Pentagon event to observe June as Pride month and to thank LGBT troops for their service to the country.
Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel led a trio of high-ranking Obama administration officials at the event, giving opening remarks in which he called gay and lesbian service members and LGBT civilian workers “integral to America’s armed forces.”
“Our nation has always benefitted from the service of gay and lesbian soldiers, sailors, airmen, coast guardsmen and Marines,” Hagel said. “Now, they can serve openly with full honor, integrity and respect. This makes our military and our nation stronger — much stronger.”
Alluding to the now lifted policy of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” Hagel emphasized America is a nation that has the capability to evolve.
“For more than two centuries, our democracy has shown that while it is imperfect, it can change, and it can change for the better,” Hagel said. “All of us should take pride in the role the U.S. military has played in this endeavor and continues to play. The military continues to fulfill this country’s promise. Our commitment to equality requires us to continue building a culture of respect for every member of the military, our society, and for all human beings.”
The event, which was organized by the LGBT affinity group DOD Pride, was the second-ever Pride celebration at the Pentagon and the first ever in which a sitting defense secretary participated. Last year, then-Defense Secretary Leon Panetta delivered remarks by video, but didn’t appear in person.
Hagel’s participation is also noteworthy because his nomination was controversial in the LGBT community. In 1998, Hagel reportedly called then-nominee for U.S. ambassador to Luxembourg Jim Hormel “openly aggressively gay.” Hagel apologized when these remarks resurfaced during his confirmation process and Hormel eventually endorsed the nomination.
At the event, Hagel received a warm welcome from the audience. Attendees, who mostly filled the 350-seat Pentagon auditorium, gave resounding applause when he approached the podium before his remarks.
Representing the White House at the event was senior adviser to the president Valerie Jarrett, who during her keynote speech emphasized the significance of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” repeal and President Obama’s leadership in the effort.
“As you know, change has been the defining theme of the Obama administration,” Jarrett said. “When I look back over the last four-and-a-half years since President Obama took office, nothing better exemplifies that kind of profound, meaningful and historic change than repeal of ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.'”
Recalling the start of the legislative process to repeal “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” Jarrett said she heard stories of gay service members at the White House and relayed them in the Oval Office to President Obama, who assured her repeal would happen.
“He put his hand on my shoulder and he said that he was determined, no matter what, that we would find a path to the repeal of ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’ so that the next time these men and women came to the White House, they could do so in uniform, proudly and openly, with their heads held high and their loved ones at their side,” Jarrett said.
Jarrett also touted the announcement in February that the Pentagon would start the process for providing partner benefits to gay troops available under current law. She said the military would be able to issue these benefits “this fall.”
Additionally, Jarrett also spoke at length about efforts to stop sexual assault in the military and alluded to future plans to enhance the health of the military.
Acting Air Force Secretary Eric Fanning, the highest-ranking openly gay civilian official within the Pentagon, was third to deliver remarks and spoke about his personal experience working at the Pentagon 20 years ago as “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” was implemented and the path toward its repeal.
“It was hard to imagine we’d ever be where we are today, but during these 20 years, the military’s gone through the difficult process of opening itself up by providing opportunities to those for whom it was previously denied or constrained, to women, to immigrants looking to prove their loyalty to this country and earn their citizenship, to gays and lesbians,” Fanning said.
Fanning, who said he was in the same room with Obama as he signed the certification for “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” repeal, also recalled the feeling of it being a non-event within the Pentagon.
“I kept getting asked, ‘What was it like when you went back to the building after the repeal was signed? Was that what everyone was talking about? Was there a buzz in the building?'” Fanning said. “And I answered honestly — and I think disappointingly — that, no, 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.”
In accordance with military tradition, a quintet of service members presented the colors at the start of the event by bearing the Americans flag as well as flags for each of the military services. One service member, Marine Corps Cpl. Joey Gutierrez-Alvarez, sung the national anthem.
While each of the speakers talked generally about making more progress in the country for greater equality, they didn’t explicitly address two outstanding items LGBT advocates have sought for the U.S. military: the implementation of a non-discrimination policy and openly transgender service.
Allyson Robinson, outgoing executive director of OutServe-SLDN, nonetheless told the Blade in the auditorium after the event she was encouraged by what she heard on stage.
“I think it was historic,” Robinson said. “I was especially moved, though, by the acknowledgment … that there is so much work left to be done. Absent from much of this discussion is the need to include transgender people who are willing and qualified to serve to be a part of armed forces. We’re looking forward to completing that work as well.”
In his remarks, Hagel made the effort to exclude transgender service members — referring to “gay and lesbian service members and LGBT civilians” — even though he was addressing at least one transgender veteran in the audience. Robinson herself served in the Army before she transitioned.
The event took place the day after Robinson announced that she would leave OutServe-SLDN following a tumultuous two days of media reporting that she was ousted by the group’s board. At the event, Robinson declined to elaborate on why she was leaving.
Army Capt. Valerie Palacios, a member of the interim board with DOD Pride, told the Blade after the event the mere presence of the secretary of defense was significant.
“First of all, this is somebody so high, like the secretary of defense, and a senior adviser to the president at an event like this,” Palacios said. “As service members, we had a similar event last year, but it wasn’t quite as big … So this year is very important to us, especially because Secretary Hagel is very supportive of our community.”
Also in attendance at the event was Army Brig. Gen. Tammy Smith, the first openly gay flag officer in the U.S. military and deputy chief in the Army Reserve Office of the Chief in D.C.. After the event, she spoke highly of the speakers’ remarks.
“They were inclusive, they were about diversity, but they also focused on the military, the total force, and about the importance of the military and where it plays in the strategic security of our nation,” Smith said. So, we are a piece of that, we are not a whole of that, we are not a whole of that, and we recognize that as part of that diversity, we’ll make the military better.”