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Soaring at the Air Force

Under Secretary Fanning on his career and vision for an LGBT-inclusive military

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Eric Fanning, United States Air Force, gay news, Washington Blade, military
Eric Fanning, United States Air Force, gay news, Washington Blade, military

Under Secretary of the Air Force Eric Fanning (Washington Blade photo by Michael Key)

 

After being bitten by the politics bug in 1988, a gay Dartmouth college student would abandon plans to pursue a career in architecture and instead move to D.C. where, years later, he would ascend the ranks to take on the second-highest civilian position in the U.S. Air Force.

It was the New Hampshire primary after eight years of Ronald Reagan that led Eric Fanning to shift his career trajectory to politics and policy.

“The campaign hooked me on politics. I found my way into an internship on the Hill and decided I wanted to come back,” Fanning said. “I got a great job on the House Armed Services Committee, which is not easy to do. I was very lucky to get that. The chairman of the committee, for whom I was research assistant, was, within 16 months, Clinton’s first defense secretary, so I was over here in the Clinton Pentagon. The path kind of wrote itself very early on.”

Fanning, 44, reflected on his career path and vision for an LGBT-inclusive Air Force during an interview with the Washington Blade in his office at the Pentagon on Wednesday — the first media interview he’s granted since the U.S. Senate confirmed him last month as under secretary of the Air Force by voice vote.

After  his initial work on Capitol Hill, Fanning worked as special assistant to the Secretary of Defense, and associate director of political affairs at the White House. During the Bush administration, he worked for Business Executives for National Security, a D.C.-based think tank before joining the Commission on the Prevention of Weapons of Mass Destruction Proliferation & Terrorism.

Once President Obama assumed office, Fanning went to work as Deputy Chief Management Officer for the Department of the Navy and continued in that role until he was nominated in July for his role as Air Force under secretary. In that role as part of Air Force leadership, Fanning is responsible for affairs on behalf of the secretary of the Air Force, including organizing, training and equipping the service. Fanning, who’s single, lives in Logan Circle and works at the Pentagon.

Throughout his service in the government, Fanning has witnessed the enactment of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” in 1993 as well as the ban on openly gay service members being lifted after President Obama signed repeal legislation in December 2010.

“‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell was implemented when I got here,'” Fanning said. “That wasn’t a particularly fun experience listening to the senior generals and admirals talk about those issues — now it was 20-plus years ago. It made this last round more rewarding just to see the change in the attitudes in the senior uniform leadership.”

Although he said he’s never felt like he’s been discriminated against while working at the Pentagon, Fanning said working for an institution that would have discharged him for being openly gay if he had served on the uniform side was “challenging” and he was on pins and needles as legislation to repeal the law met obstacles in Congress.

“I left the Pentagon before the re-election and then didn’t come back until this administration when we had a president who said he was going to end it,” Fanning said. “It was very difficult when we were getting to the end of the first two years and it wasn’t clear if we were going to be able to repeal ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.’ I didn’t know what I was going to do if we didn’t get the repeal through because some people couldn’t work because they were openly gay or lesbian.”

Fanning isn’t a stranger to LGBT advocacy work. From 2004 to 2007, he served on the board of the Gay & Lesbian Victory Fund. Fanning said he’s limited in the degree to which he can take part in LGBT organizations, but does contribute to pro-LGBT causes. Among them was a recent donation to Scouts for Equality, the organization the led the way for the Boy Scouts to approve a resolution ending its ban on gay youth.

“I think those organizations are important,” Fanning said. “It’s one of the reasons I gave so much time to the Victory Fund. But I don’t think there’s anything as important as just living an open life of integrity and productivity. … The more of us that are out and just doing the normal course of work of what we do as brothers, sisters, sons, colleagues, neighbors, I think that’s one of the most important things we can do.”

Chuck Wolfe, CEO of the Victory Fund, said Fanning represents what LGBT Americans can achieve and said his new role in the Air Force appropriately fits someone who helped elect LGBT people as a Victory Fund board member.

“Eric’s appointment is another positive step for LGBT Americans, who have begun to reject the idea that authenticity and public service are incompatible,” Wolfe said. “As a Victory Fund board member, Eric worked to make it possible for talented, committed leaders to serve the public regardless of their sexual orientation or gender identity. It’s fitting that he has now become a high-profile example of that mission.”

Like many gay Americans, Fanning said he’s closely monitoring the proceedings at the Supreme Court on two prominent gay rights cases: one challenging California’s Proposition 8, the other challenging the Defense of Marriage Act. Fanning said the case against DOMA is also professionally important to him because that law precludes major partner benefits — including health and pension benefits — from flowing to service members with same-sex partners.

“It has a significant impact on the Department of Defense as well because so many of these benefits conversations are tied up with DOMA, which is a federal law that we have to follow,” Fanning said. “In some ways, DOMA, which I think is a terrible law, made the repeal of ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’ easier because it took some of the more emotional issues off the table, but in terms of extending benefits, I think everyone who serves in uniform should have full access to legal benefits, and so, DOMA is the main roadblock to that.”

Fanning also takes the helm of the Air Force after an announcement in February that the Pentagon would extend to service members with same-sex partners limited benefits that are available to them under DOMA. Most of these benefits are the result of issuing these partners military IDs so they have access to commissaries and other programs. The goal to implement these is by  by Aug. 31, but no later than Oct. 1.

“When we deploy airmen in this case, they need to know their families are being taken care of when they’re back home,” Fanning said. “The families are involved in deployments; we’re taking families away for extended periods of time. So, I think extending those types of benefits to people who are serving in uniform, volunteered for those risks is very important. So, I’m glad to see that it’s going forward.”

With the process leading to those benefits underway, Fanning also said he supports other outstanding initiatives sought by advocates — in particular the LGBT military group OutServe-SLDN — on behalf of LGBT service members while emphasizing he was speaking in a personal capacity in support of those ideas.

One of them was an explicit non-discrimination policy on sexual orientation in the military that would protect gay service members who feel they’re suffering discrimination or harassment. Currently, service members have no recourse for anti-gay discrimination outside of their chain of command. In respect to calls for an explicit non-discrimination policy, the Pentagon has consistently said it treats all service members with respect without committing to a new policy.

“Speaking personally, I always think it’s important to have non-discrimination policies codified to include everyone,” Fanning said. “The military, because it has a chain of command, has a different attitude about this and a different way to try to go about protecting airmen, sailors, soldiers, Marines — but Eric Fanning? Yes. I personally like to see these things in writing and codified.”

While some advocates have said President Obama should issue a non-discrimination executive order to protect gay service members, OutServe-SLDN has shifted its focus to calling on Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel to include out service members in non-discrimination and anti-harassment protections. Fanning said his preference is for the policy to originate from the Pentagon.

“My view about government is you should always use those resources that are available to you first before you move up to the next level, so I think there are a number of things we can do inside this building for the Department of Defense,” Fanning said. “If the president wanted to do that for the government at large, that’s a different issue, but we have the ability within the Department of Defense to codify this without having the president issue an executive order.”

Fanning also said he backs the idea of openly transgender service in the military. Currently, openly transgender people are unable to serve in the armed forces and face a medical discharge if their gender identity becomes known.

“I think that the military is stronger, institutions are stronger, and society is stronger the more inclusive that we are,” Fanning said. “So, wherever we can root out discrimination, I think it’s a positive thing.”

Allyson Robinson, executive director of OutServe-SLDN, praised Fanning for expressing support for the initiatives and said his vision for the military brings the institution into alignment with the 21st century.

“Under Secretary Fanning shares the same vision we have at OutServe-SLDN: a U.S. military that leads the nation in LGBT inclusion rather than lagging behind it,” Robinson said. “The steps he’s suggested would bring our armed forces in line with proven best inclusion practices of some of America’s most effective organizations, including our largest defense contractors, and of some of our strongest allies, like Great Britain and Israel. It’s encouraging to see this kind of forward thinking from one of our top military leaders.”

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10 Comments

10 Comments

  1. Michael Bedwell

    May 30, 2013 at 6:03 pm

    BRAVO to Fanning. To be clearer, there is already in place an apparatus to which LGB service members could immediately be added. The Military Equal Opportunity Program grew out of the persistence of racism in the military for years after physical integration was complete. It includes an array of mechanisms to discourage discrimination not just on the basis of race but also gender, ethnicity, and religious or political affiliation. The President's role would simply be to order that LGBs be included. Our paid advocates in Washington are not doing nearly enough to even draw attention to this arbitrary discrimination let alone end it, as well as failing to demand that ALL benefits for gay military couples not EXPLICITLY banned by DOMA be IMMEDIATELY provided. Despite typical bureaucratic excuses to the contrary, that could and should have happened WITH repeal implementation over a year and a half ago. WHY hasn't it?

  2. Brent Ramsey

    May 31, 2013 at 6:25 pm

    Transgendered? I don't think so.

  3. James Harris

    June 22, 2013 at 9:30 pm

    Pink reflective PT belts for everyone!

  4. Anonymous

    June 23, 2013 at 1:53 pm

    This guy is a activist first. Serves his constituency first and his country only as it fits his advocacy. This is an outrage.

  5. Richard Oberlander

    June 25, 2013 at 10:29 pm

    Loves Corporal Klinger!

  6. Anonymous

    June 26, 2013 at 1:23 pm

    A shame for our country.

  7. Drew Buchanan

    June 27, 2013 at 1:35 pm

    Congratulations, Mr. Fanning! Thanks for speaking out and keeping focused.

  8. Rocky Thomas

    July 4, 2013 at 12:51 am

    Geeee…. Isn't it amazing what you can achieve as a homosexual, when the president is reportedly a regular at gay bath houses in Chicago! And, gay rights organizations contribute heavily to the Democrats' Campaign Funds. Especially when said president is doing everything humanly possible to demoralize our military!

    This is absolutely ridiculous, Fanning has no qualifications to serve as secretary of the Air Force when he has never served in the military. I guess Obama would think it perfectly normal to appoint a mechanic to head of the medical board, because he drove by the hospital everyday, and changed the oil on an ambulance or two in his life.

  9. JASON BUCKWHEAT

    July 11, 2013 at 11:55 am

    Hey jerk if you want live an immoral life thats your business but i don’t need to see it, or hear about it and you choose the life style and your should have any special laws, rules. we have laws that cover everybody, it doesn’t say except queers. A FAMOUS LESBIAN AUTHOR CAMILLE PAGLIA WROTE ” NO ONE IS BORN GAY, THIS IS RIDICULOUS”. You choose your life style, live with and quit crying about and want special privileges.

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Biden recognizes 10th anniversary of end to ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’

Pete Buttigieg, Gina Ortiz Jones named in White House statement

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President Biden recognized in a statement on Monday the tenth anniversary of the end to “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” a law that once discharged service members from the military for being openly gay or bisexual.

“Ten years ago today, a great injustice was remedied and a tremendous weight was finally lifted off the shoulders of tens of thousands of dedicated American service members,” Biden said. “The repeal of ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,’ which formally barred gay, lesbian, and bisexual service members from openly serving, helped move our nation closer to its foundational promise of equality, dignity, and opportunity for all.”

Biden recognized high-profile openly gay appointees in his administrations who are also veterans, naming Air Force Under Secretary Gina Ortiz Jones and Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg. Biden also names Shawn Skelly, assistant secretary of defense for readiness, who would have been discharged from the military under President Trump’s transgender military ban.

“On this day and every day, I am thankful for all of the LGBTQ+ service members and veterans who strengthen our military and our nation,” Biden said. “We must honor their sacrifice by continuing the fight for full equality for LGBTQ+ people, including by finally passing the Equality Act and living up to our highest values of justice and equality for all.”

Technically speaking, the anniversary of Obama signing repeal legislation was in December. Today is the anniversary of defense officials certifying the military is ready, which put an end to the policy.

Read Biden’s full statement below:

Statement by President Joe Biden on the Tenth Anniversary of the Repeal of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell
Ten years ago today, a great injustice was remedied and a tremendous weight was finally lifted off the shoulders of tens of thousands of dedicated American service members. The repeal of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell, which formally barred gay, lesbian, and bisexual service members from openly serving, helped move our nation closer to its foundational promise of equality, dignity, and opportunity for all. It was the right thing to do. And, it showed once again that America is at its best when we lead not by the example of our power, but by the power of our example.

Despite serving with extraordinary honor and courage throughout our history, more than 100,000 American service members have been discharged because of their sexual orientation or gender identity—including some 14,000 under Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell. Many of these veterans received what are known as “other than honorable” discharges, excluding them and their families from the vitally important services and benefits they had sacrificed so much to earn.

As a U.S. Senator, I supported allowing service members to serve openly, and as Vice President, I was proud to champion the repeal of this policy and to stand beside President Obama as he signed the Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell Repeal Act into law. As President, I am honored to be Commander-in-Chief of the strongest and most inclusive military in our nation’s history. Today, our military doesn’t just welcome LGBTQ+ service members—it is led at the highest levels by brave LGBTQ+ veterans, including Under Secretary of the Air Force Gina Ortiz Jones and Assistant Secretary of Defense for Readiness Shawn Skelly, who served under Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell. I was gratified to appoint the first openly gay Senate-confirmed Cabinet member, Secretary Pete Buttigieg, a lieutenant in the U.S. Navy Reserve and Afghanistan veteran who joined the military under the Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell policy. And during my first week in office, I proudly delivered on my pledge to repeal the discriminatory ban on open service by patriotic transgender service members.

On this day and every day, I am thankful for all of the LGBTQ+ service members and veterans who strengthen our military and our nation. We must honor their sacrifice by continuing the fight for full equality for LGBTQ+ people, including by finally passing the Equality Act and living up to our highest values of justice and equality for all.

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Biden campaigned on beating epidemic by 2025

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HHS Secretary Xavier Becerra hailed the contribution of more than $48 million to beat HIV/AIDS. (photo public domain)

The Biden administration has awarded more than $48 million to medical centers under Health Resources & Services Administration in localities with high incidents of HIV infection as part of the initiative to beat the disease, the Washington Blade has learned exclusively.

Xavier Becerra, secretary of health and human services, said in a statement the contributions are key component of the initiative, which is called “Ending the HIV Epidemic in the U.S.” and seeks to reduce new infections by 90 percent by 2030.

“HHS-supported community health centers are often a key point of entry to HIV prevention and treatment services, especially for underserved populations,” Becerra said in a statement. “I am proud of the role they play in providing critical services to 1.2 million Americans living with HIV. Today’s awards will ensure equitable access to services free from stigma and discrimination, while advancing the Biden-Harris administration’s efforts to ending the HIV/AIDS epidemic by 2025.”

The $48 million contribution went to HRSA centers 271 HRSA-supported health centers across 26 states, Puerto Rico and D.C. — areas identified with the highest rates of HIV infections — to expand HIV prevention and treatment services, including access to pre-exposure prophylaxis (PrEP) as well as outreach and care coordination, according to HHS.

The Ending the HIV Epidemic was set up under the Trump administration, which made PrEP a generic drug after an accelerated effort and set a goal of beating HIV by 2030. Biden has continued the project, after campaigning on beating HIV a full five years earlier in 2025. Observers, however, are skeptical he can meet that goal.

Diana Espinosa, acting HRSA administrator, said in a statement the $48 million will go a long way in reaching goals to beat HIV/AIDS.

“We know our Health Center Program award recipients are well-positioned to advance the Ending the HIV Epidemic in the U.S. initiative, with a particular focus on facilitating access to PrEP, because of their integrated service delivery model,” Espinosa said. “By integrating HIV services into primary care, and providing essential enabling services like language access or case management, HRSA-supported health centers increase access to care and improve health outcomes for patients living with HIV.”

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Melania Trump announced as guest for Log Cabin Republicans’ annual dinner

Former first lady Melania Trump is set to be a special guest at the annual “Spirit of Lincoln” dinner hosted by Log Cabin Republicans.

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Former first lady Melania Trump is set to be a special guest at the annual “Spirit of Lincoln” dinner hosted by Log Cabin Republicans, the organization announced on Tuesday.

The event — which will take place Nov. 6 at Mar-a-Lago in Palm Beach, Fla., marking a change of tradition in holding the dinner in D.C. — will likely mark an attempt for Melania Trump to develop her image as an LGBTQ ally and tamp down the reputation the Trump administration was hostile to LGBTQ people.

Charles Moran, managing director for Log Cabin Republicans, hailed Melania Trump in a statement for her work as first lady and breaking barriers for the Republican Party.

“Melania Trump’s work as First Lady, from helping children reach their full potential to championing a more inclusive Republican Party, has been historic,” Moran said. “Her vocal support of Log Cabin Republicans has been a signal to Republicans everywhere that it is possible to simultaneously be conservative and support equality under the law for all Americans.”

According to the Log Cabin Republicans, Melania Trump at the dinner will be awarded with the 2021 Spirit of Lincoln Award. Other high-profile Republicans in the past who have appeared at the annual event are Carly Fiorina, Newt Gingrich, Massachusetts Gov. Charlie Baker and Mary Cheney.

Moran, in response to an email inquiry from the Washington Blade, said Melania Trump will not only be an award recipient, but is set to deliver remarks at the event.

It won’t be the first time Melania Trump has collaborated with Log Cabin. During the 2020 election, she appeared in a video for Outspoken, the media arm for Log Cabin Republicans, saying “nothing could be further from the truth” her husband, former President Trump, is against LGBTQ people.

Among the anti-LGBTQ policies under Trump were a transgender military ban, religious freedom carve-out seen to enable anti-LGBTQ discrimination and the U.S. Justice Department arguing against LGBTQ inclusion under civil rights law when the issue was before the U.S. Supreme Court. Nonetheless, Trump connected with a certain faction of LGBTQ people and his administration included high-profile LGBTQ appointees, such as Richard Grenell as the first openly gay person to serve in a Cabinet role.

As first reported by the Washington Blade, Melania Trump said in 2020 she wanted to light up the White House in rainbow colors similar to the display during the Obama years after the U.S. Supreme Court ruled for same-sex marriage nationwide. However, the vision never came to pass at a time when White House Chief of Staff Mark Meadows had a role in quashing an symbolic support for LGBTQ people in Pride Month.

The Log Cabin announcement comes at a time when Melania Trump is facing new scrutiny over her response to the Jan. 6 insurrection at the U.S. Capitol and whether she erroneously believes, like her husband, he was the winner of the 2020 election.

According to a preview in Politico, former White House press secretary and Melania Trump aide Stephanie Grisham says in her upcoming book she texted the former first lady on Jan. 6 to ask: “Do you want to tweet that peaceful protests are the right of every American, but there is no place for lawlessness and violence?”

A minute later, Melania replied with a one-word answer: “No,” Grisham reportedly writes of her account. At that moment, Grisham writes she was at the White House preparing for a photo shoot of a rug she had selected, according to Politico.

The Blade has placed a request in with the office of former President Donald Trump to confirm her appearance at the dinner and comment on what went into the Melania Trump’s decision to appear at the event.

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