The announcement that Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel is stepping down came as a surprise on Monday for many political observers, as advocates praised his efforts on behalf of LGBT service members.
In a brief, five-minute speech at the State Dining Room of the White House speaking between President Obama and Vice President Joseph Biden, Hagel announced his intention to resign after serving less than two years as head of the Defense Department.
“You should know I did not make this decision lightly,” Hagel said. “But after much discussion, the president and I agreed that now was the right time for new leadership here at the Pentagon.”
Speculation has swirled about the reasons for the early exit, though Hagel will stay in his role until the U.S. Senate confirms a replacement.
Although Obama called him “an exemplary defense secretary,” media reports say he clashed with National Security Adviser Susan Rice and was frustrated with Obama’s unwillingness to make a stronger push for defense spending. White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest noted during the news briefing Monday that Hagel was confirmed when the Islamic State of Iraq & Syria was less of a threat; his departure presents a new opportunity for leadership in that conflict.
Hagel came into the office of defense secretary after the lifting of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” in 2011, which enabled openly gay people to serve in the armed force. Hagel took inclusion of gay, lesbian and bisexual service members and LGBT civilian workers at the Pentagon a step further by ensuring recognition of their relationships for the purposes of military benefits.
In 2013, Hagel was the first member of President Obama’s Cabinet to issue a statement upon the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling against the Defense of Marriage Act, saying spousal benefits — including health and pension benefits — previously denied to the spouses of service members would begin to flow to those couples.
“That is now the law and it is the right thing to do,” Hagel said. “Every person who serves our nation in uniform stepped forward with courage and commitment. All that matters is their patriotism, their willingness to serve their country, and their qualifications to do so. Today’s ruling helps ensure that all men and women who serve this country can be treated fairly and equally, with the full dignity and respect they so richly deserve.”
When Hagel put teeth into that plan by signing a memo on Aug. 14 mandating the flow of those benefits, a number of state National Guard units resisted, including those in Texas, Louisiana, Mississippi and Oklahoma, saying state laws barring same-sex marriage prohibited them from enrolling same-sex couples into the Defense Enrollment Eligibility Reporting System for the purposes of benefits.
In October 2013, Hagel announced during a speech before the Anti-Defamation League’s centennial meeting in New York City he would issue an edict mandating those National Guard units comply with his memo on benefits because the military IDs governing them are federally funded.
“Not only does this violate the states’ obligations under federal law, their actions have created hardship and inequality by forcing couples to travel long distances to federal military bases to obtain the ID cards they’re entitled to,” Hagel said.
By December, after negotiations with each of the National Guards that had previously refused to enroll same-sex couples in the benefits programs, all states were deemed compliant, enabling members of the National Guard with same-sex spouses to access benefits throughout the country even if they resided in a non-marriage equality state.
In April, Hagel and other top military brass signed for the first time since 1998 a Human Goals Charter that lists sexual orientation in both the military and civilian side as a goal for inclusion in the military. Although the document doesn’t have the force of law, it for the first time affirmed inclusion of gay, lesbian and bisexual service members, although transgender troops were left out.
It wasn’t always certain that Hagel would be an LGBT rights supporter as Pentagon chief. When media outlets began reporting Obama was considering Hagel for the position, concerns were raised over the Nebraska Republican’s vote in favor of the Federal Marriage Amendment as a U.S. senator and refusal in 1998 to vote to confirm James Hormel as U.S. ambassador to Luxembourg, calling him “openly, aggressively gay.” Hagel apologized for the remark as his confirmation process began, and although Hormel was initially unhappy with the apology, he accepted it later and endorsed Hagel’s confirmation.
After the Senate voted to confirm Hagel, that initial mistrust from the LGBT community came full circle to acceptance in June 2013 when he agreed to speak at the Pentagon’s LGBT Pride month observance, making him the first sitting defense secretary to make a live appearance at a Pentagon Pride event.
“Our nation has always benefited from the service of gay and lesbian soldiers, sailors, airmen, coast guardsmen and Marines,” Hagel said at the time. “Now, they can serve openly with full honor, integrity and respect. This makes our military and our nation stronger — much stronger.”
Ashley Broadway, president of the the LGBT military group known as the American Military Partner Association, said the totality of work from Hagel on LGBT issues leaves a significant legacy — even though more work is needed to advance LGBT rights for members of the armed forces.
“While there is certainly still a tremendous amount of work to be done for full LGBT equality in the military, Secretary Hagel’s leadership has made a profound impact on the lives of the families of our nation’s LGBT service members,” Broadway said.
But one glaring issue remains for the Pentagon: Lifting the ban on openly transgender troops from serving in the military. Repeal of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” enabled openly gay people to serve in the military, but transgender troops are still barred from service because of medical regulation under DOD Instruction 6130.03.
As transgender advocates continue to push the Pentagon to adopt a policy enabling military service regardless of gender identity, Hagel said in May the issue “continually should be reviewed” in response to a question from ABC News’ Martha Radditz. Although the White House has said it backs those efforts and later referenced an “ongoing review” at the Pentagon, no movement toward a review has taken place. On the day Hagel announced his resignation, Lt. Cmdr. Nathan Christensen, a Pentagon spokesperson, confirmed “no review of the policy has been ordered.”
Allyson Robinson, a transgender Army veteran and director of policy for the LGBT military group SPARTA, said Hagel should cap off his work on LGBT issues by initiating a review of transgender service during his remaining time at the Pentagon.
“Secretary Hagel’s leadership has been critical to the steady progress LGBT service members and their families have experienced during his tenure, and we commend him for living up to his belief that ‘Every qualified American who wants to serve our country should have the opportunity to serve,’” Robinson said. “In his remaining days in office, we call upon him to uphold those values by initiating a review of the Department of Defense’s obsolete policies that bar fully qualified transgender Americans from serving. Mr. Secretary, six months ago you promised 15,000 transgender service members and their families a review would happen. We expect you to keep your promise to them.”