“Don’t ask, don’t tell” was remembered as a “painful” era, in the words of White House senior adviser Valerie Jarrett, at the Pentagon’s Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender Pride Month event today.
But Jarrett, keynote speaker for the event in the Pentagon auditorium, told the gathered service members and civilian employees that the congressional repeal of the Clinton-era policy “is one of the most significant civil-rights accomplishments of the president’s career.”
Similar gay-pride events were being held at other U.S. installations across the world this week, including at Kandahar and Bagram air bases in ultraconservative Islamist Afghanistan. It’s the second year the Defense Department has designated an LGBT Pride Month.
The Pentagon event opened with an invocation, where the prayer lauded “love refused to be constrained by culture, creed or fear.”
“Holy God, by the power of your love remind us that all people are created in thy image,” the chaplain leading the prayer said, adding that American armed forces help promote the “amazing ideal” that people “no matter who they love are created equal.”
Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, who received a long ovation from the audience, said the open service of gays and lesbians “makes our military and our nation stronger, much stronger.”
“We’re very proud of everything the gay and lesbian community have contributed and continue to contribute. With their service, we are moving closer to fulfilling the country’s founding vision, that all of us are created equal,” Hagel continued. “It has never been easy to square the words of our forefathers with the stark realities of history. But what makes America unique, what gives us strength is our ability to correct our course.”
“Over more than two centuries, our democracy has shown that while it is imperfect, it can change, and it can change for the better,” he added.
Jarrett, wearing a pink suit, lauded Hagel as making “an incredible difference in the lives of our men and women in uniform” in his first few months on the job. She praised the DOD Pride group for coming “a long way” since quietly meeting for morning coffee during “Don’t ask, don’t tell.”
“Because of you, the United States has the strongest and the best military in the world, dontcha think?” she said.
“In late 2010, I hosted a meeting in the White House with a small, small group of active-duty gay and lesbian service members and a couple of gay veterans that had been discharged. As you’ll recall, Congress was in the midst of a debate over the repeal of ‘don’t ask, don’t tell.’ And at that point, there was not a clear path to victory. Each person shared their story of what it was like to serve in the military and why trying to hide who they are was so hard,” Jarrett said. “…Seeing you all here today, proud and open and honest about who you are and who you love, brings the stories that I heard that day, those painful stories, full circle, because the president kept his promise.”
“As you know, change has been the defining theme of the Obama administration,” Obama’s close confidante added. “…Change that propels us to true equality for all, and closer to what the Constitution describes as a more perfect union.”
Jarrett added that she met with a gay Marine Corps captain who joined during “Don’t ask, don’t tell” but “believes that a true leader is honest and open, so his inability to share major parts of his life with his colleagues kept him from being the best leader that he could be.”
“Since the repeal of ‘don’t ask, don’t tell,’ however, he can serve, in his words, fully, completely and with integrity. And when he deploys in August, he’ll be taking his husband with him,” she said.
“Change is being able to put your family photo on your desk, just like everyone else,” Jarrett continued in the campaign-style address. “…It’s being able to openly embrace your partner in front of all the other families when he or she returns from a tour of duty, just like everyone else.”
“Just think about the athletes who are coming out and telling stories and are not surprisingly welcomed by their teammates. Just think about the churches and synagogues and PTA and Boy Scout troops that are opening their doors to members of the LGBT community, recognizing that despite our differences, we draw strengths from common purpose and a shared humanity.”
Jarrett noted that “at President Obama’s direction” the Defense Department has identified more than 20 additional benefits that can be extended to same-sex partners “without any additional change in federal law” because “changing federal law is hard.”
Those will include ID cards and access to the commissary base exchanges, joint duty assignments, and childcare, and should be rolled out by Hagel in the fall.
“And our hard work is not done, either, until all women and men feel safe from harassment, assault and violence on our bases,” Jarrett continued. “As President Obama said recently, those who commit sexual assault are not only committing a crime, they are threatening the trust and discipline that makes our military so strong. And that’s why we’re determined to stop these crimes, because they have no place in the greatest military on Earth.”
The Senate Armed Services Committee in March heard Defense Department estimates that 19,300 sexual assaults occurred in 2010: 8,600 victims were female while 10,700 were male.
The event was rounded out by Acting Secretary of the Air Force Eric Fanning, who was confirmed as undersecretary in April and is the highest-ranking openly gay person in the Defense Department. He began serving as acting secretary four days ago after the retirement of Air Force Secretary Michael Donley.
“The military’s gone through the difficult process of opening itself up by providing opportunities to those for whom it was previously denied or constrained, to women, to immigrants looking to prove their loyalty to this country and earn their citizenship, to gays and lesbians,” said Fanning. “…We are stronger for looking more like the society we are charged with protecting.”
Fanning’s civilian appointment by Obama is his first Air Force job. He was previously deputy undersecretary and deputy chief management officer for the Navy for three years. Fanning also served on the board of the Gay & Lesbian Victory Fund from 2004 to 2007.
“I’ve received a bit of attention since being nominated for the position of undersecretary of the Air Force, even more in the last few days since becoming active secretary, not all of it welcome, some of it quite negative, though some of it also rather imaginative. Many have speculated as to my agenda, what color I’ll paint the planes, what designs I have on the uniforms,” Fanning quipped. “But the truth, of course, is that I’m focused on doing my job, which means taking care of airmen, finding a way to shift resources from the Army and the Navy to the Air Force.” The audience laughed.
“But these comments, especially over the last weekend, are dwarfed by the outpouring of support I’ve received in and out of this building, and it reminds me that, as important as events like this are for our community, they’re also important opportunities for our allies to identify themselves and to let us know they’re right alongside us,” he continued. “Events like this give voice not just to us, but to those who support us.”