In a letter to Defense Secretary Ashton Carter dated May 21, the 23 senators seek an update to the equal opportunity policy at the Defense Department to prohibit discrimination, harassment or intimidation of service members based on their sexual orientation. News of the letter was first reported by Buzzfeed.
“The repeal of DADT represented great progress toward eradicating a significant barrier to formal equality, but the military is not yet an equitable environment for gay, lesbian, and bisexual service members,” the letter says. “The absence of formal equal opportunity protections not only undermines foundational American principles of fairness and equality, it also presents an unneeded risk to national security by negatively impacting the morale and readiness of our all-volunteer force.”
The letter has bipartisan support. Among the signers is Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine), a Republican who’s credited with being a leader on “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” repeal and has been an original co-sponsor of the Employment Non-Discrimination Act.
Also signing the letter is Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), who touted in a recent interview with the Washington Blade his record on LGBT rights over the course of his more than three decades in public service.
LGBT advocates have called for the implementation of non-discrimination protections for LGB service members for some time. Currently, service members have no recourse for anti-gay discrimination outside of their chain of command. In response 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.
Ashley Broadway-Mack, president of the American Military Partner Association, said the letter from nearly two dozens senators should be a catalyst for the Pentagon to take action.
“All service members, regardless of their sexual orientation, deserve to be able to serve our nation in an environment free from discrimination and harassment,” Broadway-Mack said. “For the sake of fairness, equality, and ensuring our troops are able to focus on the mission first, we again urge Secretary Carter to take action in updating the military’s non-discrimination protections and equal opportunity program for our service members. Extending these vitally important non-discrimination protections to gay and lesbian troops will take us one step closer to the goal of full LGBT military equality.”
Lt. Cmdr. Nathan Christensen, a Pentagon spokesperson, said the letter was in receipt, but had little else to say.
“The department is aware of the letter from the senators, and we will respond promptly and directly to them,” Christensen said. “We appreciate their concerns regarding this issue.”
In a 2013 interview with the Washington Blade, Pentagon chief of staff Eric Fanning in his capacity as under secretary of the Air Force endorsed the idea of an internal change at the Pentagon that would explicitly state non-discrimination protections based on sexual orientation.
“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.”
Another ongoing LGBT military issue is the continued ban on openly transgender service in the U.S. military. The letter calls for explicit policy based on sexual orientation, but says nothing about gender identity.
Chris Harris, a Murphy spokesperson, said the letter is intended to finish the job on repealing “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” repeal, which affected only gay, lesbian and bisexual service members.
“This letter is meant to close the book on the repeal of ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’ by urging the Pentagon to finally update its equal opportunity policies and ban discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation,” Harris said. “Expanding rights and opportunities for transgender Americans seeking to serve their country is hugely important, but is a separate issue from fully implementing the repeal of DADT as passed into law in 2010.”