Defense secretary nominee Chuck Hagel said that if confirmed to the post, he would "do everything possible to the extent permissible under current law to provide equal benefits to the families of all our service members," even though LGBT service members have lacked many of the benefits that their straight, married counterparts enjoy due to the Defense of Marriage Act.
Hagel was responding to a request from Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., to explain his stances on certain issues, including imposing unilateral sanctions on Iran, sexual assault in the military, and whether Hezbollah should be categorized as a terrorist organization.
Hagel's remarks are continued damage control after the former senator's harsh comments during the 1998 confirmation hearing of openly gay ambassador James Hormel resurfaced. The Nebraska senator told his hometown newspaper that Hormel may be too "aggressively gay" to become an ambassador and has since apologized.
Allyson Robinson, executive director of the OutServe-SLDN, an organization advocating for LGBT service members, said Hagel's message was a "turning point for our gay and lesbian military families." However, Robinson noted that the Pentagon has so far been ineffective in opening up benefits for gay service members and their families, a year and a half after "don't ask, don't tell" was repealed, mainly because the Defense of Marriage Act is still in effect.
"The best way for Senator Hagel to deal with that kind of foot dragging in the Department of Defense is to take another step: the amendment of the military's nondiscrimination and equal opportunity policies to cover our community," she said in a statement Tuesday. "These documents help establish the command climate for the entire force, and for Senator Hagel to expand them in this way would send a very clear message that the days of treating LGBT service members as second class citizens will be coming to an end under his leadership."
According to a 2011 letter from SLDN to the Pentagon, service members with same-sex parters and families still could not receive several benefits, including military identification for spouses and partners, family housing, access to certain facilities, and joint duty assignments for same-sex couples in the military.
Despite his remarks toward Hormel, Hagel did not vote in committee against confirming him. In 2006, the latest Senate vote on the antigay Federal Marriage Amendment, Hagel declined to place a vote on the measure but publicly said marriage equality was a matter best left to the states. Hagel did, however, support the Defense of Marriage Act and a marriage ban in his home state of Nebraska.