August 31, 2016 at 10:58 am EDT | by Chris Johnson
For Fanning, a front-row seat to a changing military
Eric Fanning, gay news, Washington Blade

Army Secretary Eric Fanning (Washington Blade photo by Michael Key)

Army Secretary Eric Fanning, who has served in civilian leadership at each of the U.S. military’s branches, has seen major strides in advancements for LGBT inclusion in the armed forces.

Fanning, 48, who’s gay, reflected on the major changes — which include “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” repeal, extension of partner benefits to service members with same-sex spouses, non-discrimination provisions for LGBT troops and, most recently, implementation of transgender military service — in an interview with the Washington Blade on Tuesday in his office at the Pentagon.

“It’s been very rewarding for me personally, but far more important, I think, it’s been great for the U.S. military,” Fanning said. “Opening up service to people who haven’t had the opportunities, but meet the requirements, means that we can recruit from a broader pool of talent and get the best our country has to offer.”

The changes took place over the course of eight years of the Obama administration. Although Fanning said President Obama was responsible for moving things forward, especially “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” repeal, the Army secretary cited other factors.

“I think society has evolved and changed as well,” Fanning said. “There’s an increased understanding of these issues outside of the community and an increased awareness that there are and always have been LGBT people in uniform in all the services.”

Fanning embodies those changes in the armed forces because of the nature of his appointment and confirmation as Army secretary: He’s the first openly gay person confirmed by the U.S. Senate to head a military service.

“It clearly is a milestone in many ways and means a lot to a lot of people, and I appreciate that more each time I’m given a new job because there’s more visibility, and then more people reaching out to me,” Fanning said.

Fanning said part of him “just wants to reflect on the qualifications and what I do in the job, and do I do a good job,” but he acknowledged the distinction has value.

“I increasingly reflect on my own experience when I was younger and working in the Department of Defense and didn’t really see a way forward for me because I didn’t see people like me in positions of leadership,” Fanning said. “So, I think in some ways, it’s an important milestone for a lot of people particularly in the military, even civilians who work around the military.”

Prior to his confirmation as Army secretary in May, Fanning held high-level civilian positions at the Pentagon and national defense related organizations throughout the Obama administration, including the posts of Air Force under secretary and deputy under secretary at the Navy. Fanning was chief of staff to Defense Secretary Ashton Carter and served as acting Army secretary, but had to relinquish the job briefly to win confirmation.

Popular in the LGBT community — including among many who have photos with the Army secretary posted to their social media accounts — Fanning said he’s aware of his fan base, which he said seems to have grown with each step of his career as he moved from job to job.

“I always think I’m prepared and then the wave comes when you’re nominated, when you’re confirmed. when you’re sworn in,” Fanning said. “There’s always something that’s a hook that gets a little bit of attention.”

Keeping him grounded, Fanning said, is his personal life. Having lived in the same house throughout the Obama administration, Fanning said he still has to “walk the dog and get my dry cleaning and just live in the neighborhood like I did before all this happened.”

Blake Dremann, the new president of the LGBT military group SPARTA, said Fanning’s tenure in the Obama administration has helped break down barriers at a time of greater LGBT inclusion in the armed forces.

“Secretary Fanning has been an invaluable example of how the ability to do the job overcomes any preconceived notions anyone has regarding a person’s sexual orientation or gender identity,” Dremann said. “His leadership and visibility has had a positive impact on both the soldiers in the field and within the LGBT community.”

Just weeks after his confirmation as Army secretary, Carter announced the latest achievement for LGBT inclusion in the armed forces: the long-sought end of medical regulations barring transgender service in the U.S. armed forces “effective immediately.”

Fanning, who in a 2013 interview with the Washington Blade became the first senior defense official to endorse openly transgender service, said he’s “very involved” in implementing the change, but noted the impetus for lifting the ban came without his help.

“The spark occurred before I could raise it with the secretary,” Fanning said. “It was our literally fourth or fifth day of his tenure, we’re in Afghanistan and sort of all-call with troops in Afghanistan. He gets the question on transgender service in an austere environment and we hadn’t discussed it, he hadn’t been prepped like we prep for most questions. He answered it in his own words, and that got the ball rolling.”

On the day the end to the transgender ban was announced, the Associated Press reported senior military leadership — including Army Chief of Staff Gen. Mark Milley — expressed concern and wanted more time to implement the change. Carter made the announcement alone in the Pentagon briefing room without Chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Joseph Dunford by his side.

Fanning said he wouldn’t characterize uniformed leaders as being opposed to transgender military service, but instead as thinking “we need a little bit more time to work through this.”

“There are medical issues,” Fanning said. “We need to make sure we’re ready for those. And we have training in place, but the secretary was pretty clear about wanting to get this done and what his timeline was. And it’s been my experience that everyone is working through this in a very professional, thoughtful way.”

Despite the desire for more time, Fanning said military leadership is satisfied with the situation and he sees no reason the implementation of transgender service would be delayed.

Upon announcing the end to the ban, Carter said the next goal is Oct. 1 when transition-related care would be covered in the military health system and a training handbook to military commanders would be distributed. Beginning July 1, openly transgender people are able to accede into the armed forces.

As for U.S. soldiers on the ground, Fanning said he’s seen no issue with advancements of LGBT inclusion, which he attributed to the “incredibly professional” force.

“These issues are never raised,” Fanning said. “I spend as much time with soldiers as I can, as far into the field as I can get. And I can’t think of one time any of these issues has been raised or asked. It’s just simply not a priority, which to me is an indication of how far we’ve come, how well implementation is taking place.”

Fanning talks Olympics, Orlando shooting

Eric Fanning (Washington Blade photo by Michael Key)

Army Secretary Eric Fanning (Washington Blade photo by Michael Key)

Fanning spoke to the Blade on the heels of taking part in the U.S. delegation for the closing ceremony of the 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro along with Jason Collins, the first openly gay person to play for a National Basketball Association team.

Pointing out 12 members of Team USA were U.S. soldiers — and two of them medaled — Fanning said the message he took with him as part of the delegation was “the incredible strength, diversity and range of capabilities that you can find in the United States Army.”

“Second Lt. [Sam] Kendricks, he wins a bronze medal in pole-vaulting, races off to Europe for a couple more competitions and next month has to report for more basic training,” Fanning said. “So we try to accommodate them to compete at this world-class level, but they have to be soldiers and meet those requirements first, and they are just 12 examples of the one million people in uniform and different amazing backgrounds, skills and capabilities that they bring to this institution.”

In response to the Orlando shooting in June at a gay nightclub that left 49 people dead and 53 wounded, Fanning said he reacted with “profound shock and sadness,” recalling that among the victims were two soldiers: A reservist and a guardsman from Puerto Rico.

“I think it was maybe particularly in Washington and other communities because we were celebrating our Pride that same weekend, and so to have to come out of such a joyous Saturday here in D.C. and to wake up to that news, it was shocking for everyone,” Fanning said.

The tragedy, Fanning said, was a reason why he chose to accept an invitation to serve as grand marshal in the San Diego Pride parade alongside his boyfriend, Ben.

“It’s the first Pride parade where troops were allowed to wear their uniforms, so there’s great history there with military and the LGBT movement,” Fanning said. “And I was just thinking I want to do something else in response to Orlando and so we accepted that invitation. It had just been sitting on the desk a while.”

The shooter, Omar Mateen, perpetuated the act after pledging allegiance to the Islamic State of Iraq & Syria, which is known for conducting barbaric acts against LGBT people. Just last week, ISIS militants reportedly threw four men perceived as gay off of a building in Mosul, Iraq, after accusing them of “homosexuality and sodomy.”

“ISIL provides countless reasons why we should defeat them, which we will,” Fanning said. “And yes, their barbaric acts against the LGBT community — and countless other targets — are certainly among them.”

Asked about the presidential election, Fanning said he wouldn’t comment on remarks or positions of the candidates running for the White House.

“We have a long, proud tradition in this department of not getting involved in political issues, and so I’m really not going to comment on the race other than to say I’ll be happy when it’s over,” Fanning said.

However, in response to a question about whether military leaders would carry out a directive from a President Donald Trump to engage in waterboarding or other methods of torture in contravention of the Geneva Conventions, Fanning said he’s confident service members would follow the U.S. Constitution.

“They take their oath to the Constitution incredibly seriously,” Fanning said. “Everybody when they’re brought into the service, civilian or uniform, when they’re promoted, we take an oath at each of those steps, and it’s an oath to the Constitution. And so, I have no problem imagining senior leadership maintaining that oath to the Constitution.”

On whether Hillary Clinton’s use of a personal email server threatened national security, Fanning said he had no comment, but added, “I would say I prefer to use the phone.”

Matt Thorn, executive director of the LGBT military group OutServe-SLDN, said Fanning’s tenure as Army secretary is significant not just because he’s the first openly gay Army secretary, but also because he’s the best person for the job.

“After his confirmation he immediately began jetting around the world to visit with, talk with and hear from our soldiers so that he can meet their needs, be their advocate and make sure that our Army is operating at its fullest potential,” Thorn said. “He is and will be remembered as a great Secretary of the Army because of the unique set of values and knowledge that he brings to the job and, yes, he will be remembered as our first gay service secretary as well.”

What’s next for the armed forces in the aftermath of strides for LGBT inclusion? Fanning said he’s unsure, but the U.S. military will continue to seek to welcome all who are willing and able to serve.

“This is a path that we’ve been on for many years to continually open service: To people who meet the requirements and just want to be a part of this very important mission in protecting their country,” Fanning said. “And the military does this in many cases very well integrating after World War II, we pay women the same amount we pay men today, you can’t find that elsewhere. And so, you keep opening it up to people who want to serve who can meet the requirements we set out.”

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

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