As speculation builds that Donald Trump will seek to reverse LGBT rights advances seen under President Obama, Army Secretary Eric Fanning said he’s skeptical the next administration will undo LGBT inclusion in the U.S. armed forces.
Fanning, the first openly gay Army secretary, said, “it is very hard to roll back these things” during a forum Wednesday at the Atlantic’s “Unfinished Business” summit at D.C.’s Studio Theatre.
Asked by moderator Steve Clemons if the Obama administration will be considered the “high point” of inclusion in the armed forces for LGBT people before the Trump administration reverses it, Fanning rejected that prediction.
Fanning first of all denied the military was at a high point of inclusion, saying he thinks “we have more to do, so this is definitely not the high point. The expansion of LGBT inclusion in the armed forces “has never been a purely linear path,” he added.
When Fanning said “it is very hard to roll back these things,” Clemons joked he can imagine Vice President-elect Mike Pence listening in on the forum and taking that as a challenge. (Fanning responded by saying he can’t imagine Pence listening in on an LGBT forum.)
But Fanning also identified three reasons why he doesn’t think decisions to allow openly LGBT people in the armed forces will be rescinded, putting at the top of his list the observation “society is changing so quickly.”
“It really is,” Fanning said. “And we’re accessing young soldiers who just come from a different world, and they really don’t understand why we’re discussing some of these or how we’re discussing some of these things.”
For his second reason, Fanning pointed out “it is easier, as difficult as it can be, to implement regs than to roll them back often times.”
Finally, Fanning drew a distinction between allowing a certain group of people to serve openly in the military for the first time compared to telling that same group of people they’re no longer welcome.
“It is one thing to have a debate about whether somebody should be able to put on a uniform,” Fanning said. “It’s an entirely different thing to say to someone who has a uniform on, you got to take it off. And that is a very different conversation for senior uniformed leadership.”
When Congress repealed “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” in 2010, it left nothing in the law’s place instructing the armed forces on the way to handle enlistment of openly lesbian, gay and bisexual people in the armed forces. Conceivably, Trump’s military leaders could decide to reinstate a form of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” administratively, or Congress could restore the law, but that’s difficult to imagine given military leaders have accepted the change and trained the services accordingly.
Just this year, the Pentagon decided to lift its ban on transgender people in the armed forces. The decision was internal as a result of a decision from Defense Secretary Ashton Carter and the next administration could undo it.
Also potentially on the chopping block is the Pentagon’s decision to add LGBT people to the Military Equal Opportunity policy, the non-discrimination rule that provides restitution for service members who think they’re facing discrimination.
The Defense Department also during the Obama administration extended spousal benefits to troops in same-sex marriages, such as access to TRICARE. However, it’s hard to see how that could be undone in the aftermath of the Supreme Court’s 2013 ruling against the Defense of Marriage Act, which requires the federal government to treat same-sex marriages as equal to opposite sex marriages.
In his remarks, Fanning didn’t draw a distinction between decisions allowing openly lesbian, gay and bisexual people to serve in the armed forces and allowing transgender people to serve, although the latter is generally seen as more vulnerable because it’s a more recent decision and one that senior uniformed leadership wasn’t visibly supporting.
Matthew Thorn, president of the LGBT military group OutServe-SLDN said he agrees changes in the military are the result of “societal advances,” but added caution should be exercised because of “mixed signals” the president-elect sent over his campaign.
“Despite the ease or difficulty in rolling back or implementing regulations the fact remains we have an incoming administration that has individuals involved whom are highly hostile to the LGBT community,” Thorn said. “And because of the unpredictability of the current state of affairs OutServe-SLDN is dutifully monitoring the actions and potential nominations from the president-elect’s transition and we will be vehemently opposed to anyone who indicates that they will roll back any and all of our advancements within DoD or the VA.”