Air Force Leader: It Was Difficult to Work at the Pentagon With ‘Discrimination’ Against Gays

In an interview, Fanning gives the inside perspective on the military’s changed policies.

Under Secretary of the Air Force Eric Fanning answers questions in his office at the Pentagon. 
National Journal
Sara Sorcher
Jan. 24, 2014, 12:15 a.m.

Eric Fan­ning, un­der sec­ret­ary of the Air Force, comes from a mil­it­ary fam­ily. But he knew, even back when he was de­cid­ing his own ca­reer path, that he could not serve in the mil­it­ary if he were to come out as openly gay. Fan­ning’s six-month stint as act­ing Air Force sec­ret­ary that ended in Decem­ber made him the highest rank­ing openly gay of­fi­cial at the De­fense De­part­ment. Now a seni­or lead­er in a very dif­fer­ent Pentagon, Fan­ning provides Na­tion­al Journ­al with an in­side per­spect­ive on its changed policies.  Ed­ited ex­cerpts fol­low.

(This in­ter­view was con­duc­ted for this week’s Gay Wash­ing­ton is­sue in Na­tion­al Journ­al magazine. For com­plete cov­er­age, click here.)

NJ: What was it like to be at the Pentagon when “don’t ask, don’t tell” was re­pealed?

EF: I went to see the pres­id­ent sign the re­peal, came back to the build­ing, and then was out that night cel­eb­rat­ing with friends ““ it was an emo­tion­al night for a lot of people. They’d ask, “What was it like in the build­ing? You went and saw the sign­ing. You went back to the build­ing. What were people talk­ing about?” People were talk­ing about the budget. That’s what people talk about in the build­ing every day.

NJ: Did you no­tice ser­vice mem­bers’ or seni­or lead­ers’ at­ti­tudes change after the full re­peal?

EF: The seni­or uni­formed lead­ers ““ the gen­er­als and the ad­mir­als of the De­part­ment of De­fense ““ care deeply about the people who serve un­der them and serve in their uni­forms. Whatever they thought about the re­peal of DADT, when it was re­pealed, they had openly gays and les­bi­ans now serving the Army, the Navy, Air Force and Mar­ine Corps. And you watched their at­ti­tudes, for those who may have had is­sues with the re­peal, change very quickly— be­cause now all of a sud­den [they real­ized] ‘These are my people, they are serving in my force, and they have vo­lun­teered to go in­to harm’s way, so I’m go­ing to treat them with the re­spect and dig­nity and equal­ity of every­one else who wears the uni­form.’ That’s part of the eth­os of the mil­it­ary and one of the things that made the im­ple­ment­a­tion.

NJ: How did giv­ing equal be­ne­fits fit in­to the re­peal pro­cess?

EF: We moved to ex­tend be­ne­fits as quickly as pos­sible again with­in the laws that ex­is­ted out­side the De­part­ment of De­fense, out­side of our con­trol”¦ I think DOMA was an aw­ful law, but it helped smooth, I think, the re­peal of DADT. Its ex­ist­ence took a num­ber of is­sues off the table that were out­side the scope of our con­trol as the De­part­ment of De­fense— some of the more con­ten­tious is­sues, like spous­al be­ne­fits. So we were able to break [the re­peal pro­cess] in­to two parts.

NJ: Provid­ing equal be­ne­fits, though, was a com­plex pro­cess.

EF: DOMA be­ing struck down opened a whole new set of be­ne­fits that wer­en’t ac­cess­ible be­fore. But you have sys­tem­at­ic, bur­eau­crat­ic pro­cess is­sues in­volved. For ex­ample, you set up IT sys­tems to pre­vent false entries. So if you had someone lis­ted as a male and then you put in a spouse that is a male the sys­tem might, say, kick it out be­cause it was set up to say that wasn’t right, someone has typed in a prob­lem. We had to go back and change a lot of sys­tems, change a lot of pro­cesses, change a lot of in­struc­tions that had all been writ­ten be­fore the im­ple­ment­a­tion.

In­ter­na­tion­ally, you have Status of Forces Agree­ments with coun­tries in which we have forces, in which we have bases, so we had to work with the State De­part­ment to make sure we were up­dat­ing all of those agree­ments and not vi­ol­at­ing any­thing. It just took a lot of time to work through the leg­al­it­ies of it and then ex­tend those be­ne­fits. Sec­ret­ary Hagel was clear that we re­spect all who serve and every­one is en­titled to the same be­ne­fits as every­one else who serves. There was a tre­mend­ous amount of lead­er­ship over­sight and pres­sure to move for­ward on this as quickly as pos­sible.

NJ: What still needs to be im­ple­men­ted?

EF: An or­gan­iz­a­tion that’s this large, that’s glob­al, that’s deal­ing with mul­tiple gov­ern­ments, we’re still find­ing things that we need to stamp out or fix. The thing, from my per­spect­ive watch­ing this, that’s taken the longest are same sex couples, mar­ried couples, that are de­ployed over­seas. That’s just been the most dif­fi­cult be­cause it’s com­plic­ated in terms of the num­ber of be­ne­fits and the steps in­volved here in the De­part­ment of De­fense, but also, as I said earli­er, work­ing with for­eign gov­ern­ments to make sure that our SOFA agree­ments are all up­dated and cur­rent. That’s taken a little bit more time than we real­ized.

NJ: How do you see your role in the gay com­munity?

EF: It’s in­ter­est­ing: Twenty years ago, openly gay people were act­iv­ists. They were work­ing on be­half of the com­munity, with­in the com­munity. Now we’re kind of every­where. I’ve nev­er been se­cret­ive about it, but it wasn’t a big part of who I was— un­til I was nom­in­ated for this job. Cer­tainly when I be­came the act­ing sec­ret­ary, it be­came the first or second sen­tence after the name in the first para­graph of any art­icle. I think a lot of people are proud that someone now can come this far in an in­sti­tu­tion that didn’t seem wel­come to LGBT in­di­vidu­als. And I think a lot of people are proud that you can do what you want to do now— That you can be act­ive and not just have to be polit­ic­ally with­in the com­munity, but wherever it is with­in gov­ern­ment or out­side gov­ern­ment.

NJ: Was it hard to work for DoD un­der DADT?

EF: It was very dif­fi­cult. It nev­er ap­plied to me as a ci­vil­ian. That’s one of the reas­on I nev­er served— be­cause I knew that I couldn’t. When I first came to Wash­ing­ton, I wasn’t out, but knew that I would be and didn’t want to have to deal with that or keep that secret when that point came. It was very dif­fi­cult to work for an or­gan­iz­a­tion for which some people did not have the same op­por­tun­it­ies I had. If you were in the uni­form you couldn’t be openly gay.

I joined this ad­min­is­tra­tion at the start. Pres­id­ent Obama made clear that re­peal­ing DADT was one of his pri­or­it­ies. That’s an ex­cit­ing thing to be a part of. That gives you the hope to keep caring for an in­sti­tu­tion that was dis­crim­in­at­ing. When it was com­ing down to the wire at the end of the first two years and we wer­en’t sure wheth­er we were go­ing to be suc­cess­ful in the re­peal, I did start to ques­tion wheth­er I could con­tin­ue to work here or not ““ work for an or­gan­iz­a­tion where there was dis­crim­in­a­tion for one part of the or­gan­iz­a­tion. Luck­ily didn’t have to face that ques­tion, be­cause we did get that re­peal through. Be­ing here for that, be­ing a part of the in­sti­tu­tion, part of the polit­ic­al lead­er­ship was a tre­mend­ous ex­per­i­ence.

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