A gay official has been tapped as the new Pentagon chief of staff amid a change in leadership at the Defense Department.
Eric Fanning, former under secretary of the Air Force, became Pentagon chief of staff upon the swearing-in on Tuesday of new Defense Secretary Ashton Carter. Fanning’s appointment to the job, first reported over the weekend by DefenseNews, was confirmed to the Washington Blade on Tuesday by a Pentagon official.
Fanning has served in various capacities working on government affairs both on Capitol Hill and in the executive branch of government — most of the time on defense issues — since the Clinton administration.
Prior to his current role, he served as deputy under secretary of the Navy and as under secretary of the Air Force, jobs in which he led efforts to organize, equip and train the respective services. For a brief period, he also served as acting secretary of the Air Force before the Senate confirmed Deborah Lee James as civilian head of the service.
Denis Dison, interim executive director of the Gay & Lesbian Victory Fund, praised Fanning’s appointment.
“Eric’s long record of service to our country and the military is something he can be proud of,” Dison said. “The fact that he has accomplished all of this as an openly gay man is a point of pride for all LGBT Americans.”
Chad Griffin, president of the Human Rights Campaign, said in a statement Fanning’s appointment breaks another glass ceiling for the LGBT community.
“With Eric Fanning’s significant experience and expertise, there are few as qualified to excel in this significant role within the Department of Defense,” Griffin said. “As an openly gay man, his appointment is not only breaking former barriers for the LGBT community, but it is further evidence of the tremendous progress toward fairness and equality that we continue to make within the Department of Defense.”
Fanning’s appointment as Pentagon chief of staff is significant because of the views he’s staked out on outstanding LGBT issues in the U.S. military in the wake of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” repeal.
In a May 30, 2013 interview with the Washington Blade shortly after his confirmation as under secretary of the Air Force, Fanning said he supports the idea of open transgender service, which is currently barred in the armed forces under medical regulation.
“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.”
Fanning’s views on open transgender service echo those of his former boss at the Air Force. In an interview with USA Today in December, James indicated her support for allowing transgender people to serve openly, saying, “From my point of view, anyone who is capable of accomplishing the job should be able to serve.”
Fanning also told the Washington Blade he backs the idea of adding sexual orientation to the Military Equality Opportunity program, which 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.
“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.”
Efforts to enact open transgender service may advance soon. As reported by USA Today on Monday, a new memo from the Army indicates the service is considering raising the authority to discharge a soldier for being transgender to a senior civilian official. That could be evidence that a Defense Department-wide change is coming.
Allyson Robinson, public policy director for the LGBT military group SPARTA, praised the appointment of Fanning, saying his views on LGBT military issues are the same as her organization’s.
“Eric Fanning is one of the finest leaders I’ve known in my years working with our military … and Secretary Carter couldn’t have picked a better person to manage his team,” Robinson said. “He shares SPARTA’s vision of a U.S. military that leads the nation in LGBT inclusion rather than lagging behind it, and he lives by the same values SPARTA’s members uphold: mission first, people always. His presence on Carter’s team will undoubtedly prove instrumental to winning on both fronts.”