Amid uncertainty of whether Trump will undo LGBT progress under the Obama administration, Fanning made the remarks during a session at the 2016 International LGBT Leaders Conference in response to an audience question about his opinion in terms of LGBT issues of the defense leaders Trump has selected.
“I sincerely believe, and based on the questions we’re getting from the transition team that’s coming in, they’re very much focused on the size and shape of the military, the budgetary political issues outside the Pentagon that they have to stabilize in order to give some planning stability for the military, and I think they’re going to dive head-long into those challenges around the world,” Fanning said.
Trump has selected for his national security adviser Gen. Michael Flynn, the former director of the Defense Intelligence Agency who endorsed the president-elect during his campaign. Trump’s choice for defense secretary is Gen. James Mattis, former commander of U.S. Central Command; and for secretary of homeland security is Gen. John Kelly, former commander of U.S. Southern Command.
Fanning, the first openly gay Army secretary, said he wants to be “very careful” about he says about those picks because he doesn’t want them to think they’re sitting across the table from an adversary during the transition period, but acknowledged some contact with them.
Although Fanning said he never met Flynn, the Army secretary said he has not only met Mattis and Kelly, but “worked around” them has “tremendous regard” for both.
“I’ve never had a conversation with any of them about these issues,” Fanning said. “I don’t know what they’re going to do. As I said earlier, I know from what they do that they have an acute understanding of the many challenges around the world and how those challenges are intensifying. And it’s not just the nation-state adversaries or terrorism that we’re dealing with, it’s all the tools they’re using: Cyber, space, you-name-it, information operations.”
Of three defense picks, Flynn has most publicly indicated opposition to LGBT people in the military. During the Republican National Convention, Flynn decried how Obama’s military was concerned with bathrooms — an apparent knock at recently enacted transgender military service — and on Twitter has posted an article from Elaine Donnelly, an anti-LGBT advocate who opposes openly LGBT people in the military and women in combat.
On the other hand, Mattis has made little public comment about LGBT people in the military, although, as reported by the The Advocate, he warned in a 2016 book “Warriors & Citizens: American Views of Our Military” with co-author Kori Schake about a “progressive agenda” that seeks to impose “social change” on the military. The Blade was unable to find any comment from Kelly on LGBT people in the armed forces.
Douglas Wilson, a former Pentagon spokesperson and the first openly gay person confirmed by the Senate for a position at the Defense Department, told the Blade he knows Mattis and believes he would treat LGBT service members fairly.
“Over the course of three different assignments at the Pentagon, I have worked with Jim Mattis in a variety of professional capacities, on issues ranging from Iraq and Afghanistan to the repeal of ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.'” Wilson said. “Gen. Mattis is one of the finest and most decent individuals I’ve known in the military. His leadership success has always been based on mutual respect and support, fairness and inclusion. I have no reason to believe any of that will change if he is nominated and confirmed by the Senate to be the next defense secretary.”
Fanning has already expressed skepticism the Trump administration would undo inclusion of service members — a point he reinforced during his remarks at International LGBT Leaders Conference.
“It’s hard to undo these things,” Fanning said. “Having a conversation about whether someone can come into the military, whether someone really can serve is different than having them in and then saying you guys are out now, take off. I find that senior uniform leadership, when someone’s in a uniform, no matter who it is, they feel a responsibility for that person, and once the policy changes, the thinking about it changes.”
The capacity for openly gay, lesbian and bisexual people to serve openly in the armed forces after “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” repeal is considered more safe in the Trump administration – although it could be reinstated at any time — but transgender service is different because that’s a more recent change.
Fanning cautioned “you can tweak any policy to slow it, to create some friction in it, to make it more difficult, and we have to be vigilant about that,” but said reversal of transgender service would be “very disruptive” now that guidance to commanders is in place.
“The commanders are a big part of why Secretary Carter wanted to look at the transgender issues,” Fanning said. “Commanders needed guidance, they needed help. They were being left to figure this out on their own. Now they have it, they’re implementing it, they’re moving forward. It would be very disruptive to move it back.”
But with major issues at play, Fanning’s major point during his remarks was he doesn’t expect a roll back of LGBT rights will be on the agenda for Trump’s defense team.
“There are a lot of issues to focus on in the Department of Defense in the next administration: The size of it, the resourcing of it, and all the many challenges around the world,” Fanning said. “It’s my expectation and anticipation that the incoming leadership team will want to focus on those more than anything right away.”