July 14, 2015 at 5:34 pm EDT | by Chris Johnson
Republicans quiet as Pentagon plans to end trans ban
Tim Scott, Jeff Sessions, Jeff Flake, Republican Party, United States Senate, U.S. Congress, gay news, Washington Blade

Sen. Tim Scott (R-S.C.), Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.) and Sen. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.) had little to say on openly transgender service. (Photos public domain)

The response from Republicans on Capitol Hill to the Pentagon’s plan to end its ban on transgender service members is resounding silence.

Amid news of the international agreement with Iran and Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton’s visit to Capitol Hill, nary a peep could be heard from Republican lawmakers one day after Defense Secretary Ashton Carter announced plans for a working group that over a six-month period will develop a plan for lifting the ban on transgender service.

Sen. Tim Scott (R-S.C.) was succinct when asked by the Washington Blade in the halls of the Senate whether he was aware of the news and his thoughts about it. “I read it,” Scott replied.

Asked if he had a reaction to the plan for open transgender service, Scott said, “Not yet.”

In response to another question on where he thinks he’ll end up on the issue, Scott said, “You can give us a call if you like.” His office didn’t respond to the Blade’s follow up for additional information.

Sen. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.), one of 10 Senate Republicans who voted for the Employment Non-Discrimination Act in 2013, said he was unaware of the plan.

“I haven’t seen it,” Flake said. “I’ll look at it.”

Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.), who has a reputation for being an ardent opponent of LGBT rights, also had little to say when asked about the Pentagon’s plan.

“I saw that, but I’m not aware of any of the details,” Sessions said.

Asked whether the change sounded like something he could support, Sessions replied, “Well, I’d like to see what the military says about it. I have not done that.”

None of the offices of the 10 Senate Republicans who voted for ENDA in 2013 immediately responded to the Blade’s request for comment on the change. Among them is Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), who as chair of the Senate Armed Services Committee could order congressional hearings on the issue.

Also not responding to a request for comment was Republican presidential candidate Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), who as chair of the Senate Armed Services personnel subcommittee could also hold hearings.

During a previous appearance on the news channel Fusion, Graham said “my preference is to allow everybody to serve” when asked about transgender service, but added he needed to consult first with military leaders on why the ban was in place.

The offices of House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio), Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) and House Armed Services Committee Chair Mac Thornberry (R-Texas) also didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment on the change.

The silence is consistent with an apparent new trend among Republicans not to talk about LGBT rights (or, more specifically, their opposition to them) amid rising approval for such rights in national polls. According to GOP polling made public by Time magazine earlier this month, 59 percent of Republican voters at the national level agree there should be laws banning discrimination against gay people in employment, housing, credit, education and public accommodations. Among younger Republican voters, 79 percent support such a measure.

The same relative silence was observed from Republicans when President Obama signed an executive order last year barring anti-LGBT employment discrimination among federal contractors. The only objections came from Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah), who unsuccessfully called for a religious exemption in the measure, and Reps. John Kline (R-Minn.) and Tim Walberg (R-Mich.), who asked, also unsuccessfully, for the measure to be recalled because of insufficient time for public input.

Key Democrats, on the other hand, are embracing news the Pentagon is on its way to implementing open transgender service.

Sen. Tammy Baldwin (D-Wis.), the only out lesbian in the U.S. Senate, said in a statement to the Blade she’s pleased with the development and wants to hear voices of transgender service members as part of the process leading to open service.

“I applaud the Pentagon for taking another major step forward towards a fairer and more equal nation, by ensuring that all those who wish to serve their country are able to do so openly and honestly,” Baldwin said. “There are already transgender people serving in our Armed Forces with courage and distinction today, and I urge the Department of Defense to include their voices in the review process.”

Also issuing statements in support of the development were House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and House Democratic Whip Steny Hoyer (D-Md.).

Hoyer compared the lifting of the ban on transgender service to the process that successfully led to the end of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” years ago.

“I was proud to help lead the effort as majority leader in 2010 to repeal the discriminatory ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’ policy that barred gay and lesbian Americans from serving openly in the military,” Hoyer said. “Now it’s time to ensure that no LGBT individual is denied that opportunity. I urge the Pentagon’s new task force to complete its work quickly and end the ban on transgender Americans serving openly once and for all.”

Rep. Jackie Speier (D-Calif.), who previously announced plans to introduce legislation to compel the military to implement open transgender service, welcomed the news. Still, she said her measure remains forthcoming.

“The study group needs to come up with a comprehensive solution, not just lifting the ban but addressing transgender servicemembers’ health care needs and updating appropriate policies on issues such as uniforms and discharge paperwork,” Speier said. “I’ll soon be introducing legislation that will comprehensively address this issue as well as monitor DOD’s progress and provide input.”

The reaction may be in part due to the public outcry and opposition from the business community after Indiana Gov. Mike Pence (R-Ind.) signed into law a religious freedom bill seen to enable to anti-LGBT discrimination. Pence signed a “fix” to the measure into law, but now faces a potential Republican primary challenge over the law. He was forced to hire a public relations firm to rebuild the state’s image afterward.

Although Republicans at the time were relatively silent on the Indiana law, Democrats took the offensive against Republicans by saying the measure they enacted reflects anti-LGBT bias in the GOP.

Ray Buckley, a gay vice chair of the Democratic National Committee and chair of the New Hampshire Democratic Party, said the Indiana law was “outrageous” and lambasted Republicans for signing it into law.

“With the Indiana business community coming out in opposition to it, the majority of Americans who believe that businesses shouldn’t be allowed to refuse services to individuals because they’re gay and lesbian, Gov. Pence and the Republican Party have decided to move forward with this damaging bill,” Buckley said. “It just turns the clock back on the progress that we’ve made for LGBT equality.”

Times have changed. In 2010, when then-Defense Secretary Robert Gates and then-Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Adm. Mike Mullen announced a working group to implement “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” repeal, Republicans were comfortable hammering them in committee hearings.

McCain, who at the time was top Republican on the committee and a strong proponent of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” said he was “deeply disappointed” with Gates and said his initial testimony showed his bias on the issue.

“It would be far more appropriate, I say with great respect, to determine whether repeal of this law is appropriate and what the effects it would have on the readiness and the effectiveness of the military before deciding on whether we should repeal the law or not,” he said.

Gregory Angelo, executive director Log Cabin Republicans, attributed the silence from Republicans on trans service to growing support for LGBT people in the Republican Party.

“I often say what you don’t see in politics is just as important as what you do, and the muted — or more accurately altogether nonexistent — response from the GOP regarding the Pentagon’s potential revision of policy on the transgender issue is a great example,” Angelo said. “If Caitlyn Jenner’s coming out showed us one thing, it’s that there is far more acceptance of transgender individuals in the Republican Party than most folks are likely to assume.”

Chris Johnson is Chief Political & White House Reporter for the Washington Blade. Johnson is a member of the White House Correspondents' Association. Follow Chris

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