Questions from LGBT advocates about implementing openly transgender service and non-discrimination in the U.S. military are now being redirected toward Ashton Carter following his nomination by President Obama as the next defense secretary.
On Friday, President Obama formally announced in the Roosevelt Room of the White House his intention to nominate Carter as defense secretary following the recent announcement from the current Pentagon chief, Chuck Hagel, that he would resign his post. Prior to his nomination, Carter, a physicist, served in various capacities at the Pentagon in both the Clinton and Obama administrations, most recently as deputy secretary of defense from October 2011 to December 2013.
“When our troops in Iraq and Afghanistan were struggling to defend against roadside bombs, he moved heaven and Earth to rush them new body armor and vehicles,” Obama said. “It’s no exaggeration to say that there are countless Americans who are alive today in part because of Ash’s efforts. When our forces sat down for Thanksgiving dinner far from home, or as our wounded warriors recovered in the hospital, or when our fallen heroes returned to Dover, Ash was there, often on his own time, without any publicity or fanfare. And I know that Ash will be there for them now as Secretary of Defense.”
If he’s confirmed by the Senate, outstanding LGBT military issues following “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” repeal will be placed squarely in his lap for implementation.
Chief among these issues is openly transgender service. Although repeal of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” enabled openly gay people to serve in the U.S. armed forces, the Pentagon cites medical regulations under DOD Instruction 6130.03 as a reason why it cannot allow openly transgender people to serve in the armed forces.
An estimated 15,500 transgender troops are serving in silence in the U.S. military. Hagel said months ago during an ABC News interview that policy “continually should be reviewed,” but since that time the Defense Department has said no formal review has been initiated.
Another issue is non-discrimination in the armed forces. Currently, sexual orientation isn’t an enumerated class in the Military Equal Opportunity Program complaint process. That leaves the chain in command for gay, lesbian and bisexual service members their only resource if they feel they’ve suffered discrimination based on their sexual orientation.
Advocates have called for a written policy explicitly spelling out non-discrimination protections in the U.S. military based on sexual orientation and gender identity — either within the Pentagon itself or from Obama.
Ashley Broadway, president of the LGBT group known as the American Military Partner Association, is among the LGBT advocates calling on Carter to take on these initiatives.
“We congratulate Ashton Carter on his nomination and look forward to working with him on the challenges that remain for LGBT service members and their families once he is confirmed,” Broadway said. “Despite the clear progress made over the last several years, the Defense Department has yet to update significantly outdated policies impacting LGBT service members and their families. We have high expectations for Ashton Carter and hope he will address these challenges head on.”
David Stacy, government affairs director at HRC, also said Carter should address LGBT military issues “expeditiously” to build on the success the U.S. military has seen as a result of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” repeal.
“We look forward to working closely with Ashton Carter on the important challenges to equality that remain for LGBT service members,” Stacy said. “While there has been a tremendous amount of progress made in the armed forces over the past several years starting with the repeal of ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’, transgender service members are still forced to serve in silence because of outdated regulations. There is no valid reason for this to continue. Once confirmed, Ashton Carter should address this expeditiously.”
HRC didn’t respond to the Washington Blade’s request for comment on whether it expects U.S. senators to raise questions on LGBT military issues with Carter during his confirmation process, whether his nomination should be rejected if he doesn’t say he’ll implement the proposed policy or whether the organization has privately received any indication from the Obama administration that Carter will implement these policies if confirmed.
In many respects, the questions for Carter that persist on LGBT military issues are similar to concerns over Hagel two years ago, although the major LGBT issue at that time was partner benefits for gay, lesbian and bisexual service members. During his confirmation process, Hagel pledged to move “expeditiously” on the benefits issue, and following the U.S. Supreme Court decision against DOMA worked to extend spousal benefits to gay troops to the furthest extent possible under the law.
One senator who sought to speak with Hagel during his confirmation process about the post-“Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” military before indicating she would support him was Sen. Tammy Baldwin (D-Wis.). Her office didn’t respond to the Blade’s request for comment on whether she’d raise similar questions with Carter this time around as a condition for voting for his nomination as defense secretary.
Aaron Belkin, director of the Palm Center and proponent of open transgender service, said the place to look isn’t the Senate during the confirmation process, but leadership from President Obama and the White House on changing Pentagon policy.
“It’s important that Ash Carter understands he’s in charge of a discriminatory policy, but the issue is the White House and whether the White House will send a clear signal,” Belkin said.
The White House has said an “ongoing review” is taking place at the Pentagon and has redirected reporters who asked about the issue to the Defense Department, which insists no review is taking place — a situation that Belkin called “very curious.”
That continued on the day Obama nominated Carter as defense secretary. In response to a question from the Blade Friday over whether the change in leadership at the Pentagon will affect the “ongoing review” on transgender service, White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest deferred to the Defense Department for updates, but said he doesn’t expect any changes.
“I wouldn’t anticipate that any ongoing reviews would face a dramatic change as a result of the new leadership in that building, but for an update on that process, I’d refer you to the Pentagon,” Earnest said.
When the Blade pointed out that the Pentagon insists no review is underway as Earnest keeps referencing an “ongoing review,” Earnest acknowledged his understanding of the process may be faulty.
“I would refer you to them,” Earnest said. “We can try to get you some more details, if you’d like. I’ll be honest with you. I don’t know a whole lot about this review, but if there’s more information that you’d like we can look into for you.”
Earnest once again referred to a review when asked if Obama believes openly transgender service is a policy the Pentagon can implement regardless of whomever is charge at the Defense Department.
“Again, it’s my understanding, and maybe I’ll be corrected on this, but I understand that there’s a review ongoing at the Pentagon on this question, but we can look into this a little bit for you,” Earnest said.
Although the Pentagon has previously insisted that no review on transgender service is underway and transgender people are still barred from the armed forces, the Defense Department didn’t respond to a request for comment Friday on this “review” mentioned by Earnest or why the Pentagon and the White House are saying different things on the issue. UPDATE: Lt. Cmdr. Nathan Christensen, a Pentagon spokesperson, confirmed late Friday after the initial publication of this article “no review of the department’s policy has been ordered to date.”
Implementing openly transgender service, the Palm Center’s Belkin said, will take not only an announcement from Obama that he supports the change, but a commitment from Obama to see the change through — much like he did for “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” repeal — because “it always takes a nudge from civilian leaders” to accomplish policy change at the Pentagon.
“Ashton Carter is the implementer-in-chief, but President Obama is the commander-in-chief, and he’s the one who sets the policy,” Belkin said.