Days before the confirmation hearing for President Obama’s pick as the next defense secretary, an LGBT advocacy group called on the nominee to address outstanding LGBT military issues when speaking to U.S. senators.
The head of the American Military Partner Association, an organization for LGBT military families, told the Washington Blade she wants Ashton Carter to address the ban on transgender service and the lack of an LGBT non-discrimination rule in the U.S. military during his hearing Wednesday before the Senate Armed Services Committee.
“From non-discrimination protections for gay and lesbian service members, to lifting the ban on open and honest service by transgender service members, critical challenges remain for LGBT troops — challenges that impact their families as well,” said Ashley Broadway-Mack, president of the American Military Partner Association. “For the sake of our modern military families, we urge Ashton Carter to address these remaining challenges in his confirmation hearings and soon after he is confirmed as secretary of defense.”
Broadway-Mack emphasized Carter could build on the pro-LGBT work of other defense secretaries in the Obama administration, who acted to lift “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” and expanded benefits to the same-sex spouses of U.S. service members after the U.S. Supreme Court struck down the Defense of Marriage Act.
“Carter is being presented an opportunity to continue the enormous amount of progress made by the administration since the repeal of ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,’ and it is the hope of our military families that he will seize that opportunity,” Broadway-Mack said.
It wouldn’t be the first time a nominee for defense secretary committed to moving forward on LGBT issues during a Senate confirmation hearing. In 2013, now outgoing Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel pledged in his written Q&A he’d “move forward expeditiously” on same-sex partner benefits for service members. Following the ruling against DOMA, Hagel acted on that pledge.
But the situation is different this time around. For starters, Republicans are now in control of the U.S. Senate, which could put Obama’s nominee for defense secretary in a more uncomfortable position when publicly expressing support for LGBT rights. While a Senate with a Democratic majority would be more comfortable approving such a nominee, Republicans arguably could see that as a reason for impasse.
Moreover, Hagel was under pressure to express a commitment to LGBT rights because advocates were concerned about his generally anti-LGBT voting record as a Republican U.S. senator from Nebraska. In 1998, Hagel said he couldn’t vote to confirm openly gay U.S. ambassador to Luxembourg Jim Hormel because he’s “openly, aggressively gay.”
During a news briefing on Friday, White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest dodged when asked by the Washington Blade if Carter would address LGBT issues during the hearing, deferring to members of the Senate Armed Services Committee and the Pentagon.
Asked whether the nominee would address openly transgender service and LGBT non-discrimination in the U.S. military, Earnest replied, “If asked, I’m sure that he will.”
Earnest demurred when asked if Carter would volunteer anything about these topics.
“Well, I don’t know that there’s a lot of volunteering that goes on in those kinds of settings, I think usually they’re asked questions — and I’m sure that he’ll answer them if he’s given the opportunity to do so,” Earnest said. “So, one thing you could do is you could go and ask members of Congress if they’re going to ask him.”
Earnest also dodged when asked if the Pentagon could implement these measures either before or after confirmation, saying, “I don’t know, you’ll have to check with the Pentagon about that.”
The Pentagon was no more forthcoming about the upcoming hearing. James Swartout, a Defense Department spokesperson, said a preview of Carter’s testimony is unavailable.
According to a 2012 report from the Williams Institute at the University of California, Los Angeles, an estimated 15,500 transgender people are serving in the U.S. military, but must do so in silence because DOD Instruction 6130.03 prohibits them from serving openly. Unlike with “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” the Pentagon could change this policy at any time because it’s a regulation, not a law.
As for non-discrimination, the Military Equal Opportunity Program enumerates race, color, religion, sex and national origin as protected classes, but says nothing about sexual orientation or gender identity. That means LGBT service members have no recourse other than their chain of command if they feel they’ve experienced discrimination within their ranks.
The nation’s largest LGBT group, the Human Rights Campaign, didn’t respond to a request for comment for this article. The San Francisco-based Palm Center, which has made transgender service its priority issue, declined to comment.
Allyson Robinson, policy director for the LGBT military group SPARTA, took a different approach when asked what she wanted Carter to address during the hearing and spoke about defense issues at large.
“As with most members of the military and their families, SPARTA’s members want to hear Dr. Carter speak to two issues,” Robinson said. “First, where will he stand in the coming debate over military compensation, benefits and retirement reform? Second, how will he influence the Obama administration’s ongoing conversation about how best to deal with ISIS? Dr. Carter’s positions on these two issues will have a tremendous impact on the lives of LGBT service members and their families not only for the remaining months of the president’s term, but for years to come.
Robinson, who’s transgender and has been a leading voice for transgender service in the U.S. military, didn’t respond to a follow up email on whether she wanted Carter to address the issue during the hearing.
Previously, in an MSNBC interview last week, Robinson said Hagel should be the one to implement the change in policy before his planned exit from the Pentagon and said Carter has “far more important things” to keep him occupied.
Mara Keisling, executive director of the National Center for Transgender Equality, spoke generally about the need for openly transgender service and non-discrimination – as well as addressing sexual assault — when asked what she’d like Carter to say during his confirmation hearing.
“Like many transgender people, we are becoming very impatient with the slow or no pace of movement on trans military service,” Keisling said. “There are about 15,000 trans service members serving in fear. But also have a deep interest in the incoming secretary moving quickly on discrimination against LGBT service members and the overall problems of sexual assault and suicide in the military.”