Hagel's Exit Leaves Unfinished Business For LGBT Military Members, Advocates

Hagel's Exit Leaves Unfinished Business For LGBT Military Members, Advocates

Defense secretary Chuck Hagel announced his resignation Monday, leaving a tumultuous legacy with LGBT activists and some key promises on adjusting policies to make the military more LGBT-inclusive.

According to the Associated Press, Hagel is stepping down after a difficult time settling into the White House's national security team. He is the first senior Obama cabinet member to announce he is stepping down following the November midterm election, which was marked by Republican wins. Eric Holder announced in September that he would leave his position as attorney general.

Hagel, a Vietnam veteran who was wounded in combat, was confirmed in February 2013. He took on the job after Obama appointees Robert Gates and Leon Panetta worked within the department to accommodate the repeal of "don't ask, don't tell," which barred gay, lesbian, and bisexual members from serving openly.

“When I asked Chuck to serve as secretary of Defense, we were entering a significant period of transition,” Obama said when announcing Hagel's resignation. Not only did that period include a budget crisis, a sexual assault scandal, the U.S. military's drawdown from Afghanistan, and rising threats from organizations like ISIS, but also the aftermath of "don't ask, don't tell," which had worried the heads of some LGBT organizations.

As a Republican senator in 1998, Hagel said gay philanthropist James Hormel, nominated by President Clinton for an ambassadorship, might be too “aggressively gay” to be effective in the post. When Hagel emerged as a top contender for Defense secretary in 2012, The Log Cabin Republicans criticized those remarks in a full-page ad that ran in The New York Times.

Log Cabin officials also noted that Hagel supported the Defense of Marriage Act, “don’t ask, don’t tell,” and the ban on same-sex marriage in his home state, Nebraska.

Once Hagel was nominated as Defense secretary, he issued an apology for past statements, and Hormel accepted the apology. President Obama also came to Hagel's defense, saying he had the best interest of all American troops at heart.

"The work of protecting our nation is never done, and we’ve still got much to do," Obama said at the time. "Ending the war in Afghanistan and caring for those who have borne the battle; preparing for the full range of threats, from the unconventional to the conventional, including things like cyber security; and within our military, continuing to ensure that our men and women in uniform can serve the country they love, no matter who they love."

During his Senate confirmation hearings in early 2013, Hagel said he would "move forward expeditiously" to extend partner benefits to gay and lesbian service members.

"I will faithfully, diligently enforce our laws," Hagel said in January 2013. "All men and women deserve the same rights, and I can assure you that that will be a high priority, to enforce that and ensure that in every way, through the entire chain of command and accountability."

Now, however, groups such as SPARTA, an LGBT military organization, still want Hagel to move forward on a pledge he made this year to examine the abilities of transgender military personnel to serve openly. In May, Hagel hinted that the department would soon review the ban on service for openly transgender service members.  

Allyson Robinson, an Army veteran and SPARTA's director of policy, said Hagel should help more people want to serve by initiating the review of the department's policies barring open service for transgender people.

"Mr. Secretary, six months ago you promised 15,000 transgender service members and their families a review would happen," Robinson said. "We expect you to keep your promise to them."

Retired Navy SEAL Kristin Beck, who is transgender, said Hagel has made some attempts to change the policy, but to no avail so far.

"On August 5th of this year a new [Department of Defense] regulation was passed that removed the medical regulation that prohibited transgender service," Beck, of the Military Freedom Coalition, said in a statement Monday. "In the following month I sat down with DOD officials and further reviewed the regulations and procedures to include open transgender service in the U.S. military — the same open and equal service by transgender people seen in eighteen other nations including the U.K., Canada, Australia and Norway."

Ashley Broadway, president of the American Military Partner Association, also said the fight of full equality in the military for LGBT personnel and their families is still far from over. The military still has not instituted a nondiscrimination policy and equal opportunity program that includes protections against discrimination based on sexual orientation, plus it maintains the policy that bars transgender troops from serving. Nonetheless, Broadway praised Hagel's work as Defense secretary.

"From the swift recognition of same-sex military spouses after the fall of DOMA, to helping to put a spotlight on the importance of inclusion by speaking at the Pentagon's LGBT Pride Month Observance, Secretary Hagel has been an important ally and transformational leader on issues of equality with the Department of Defense," she said.

Late in 2013, some states that did not recognize same-sex marriages were denying military identification cards to the same-sex spouses of National Guard members. While most states have adhered to newer federal policy to issue military identification cards to all spouses, a handful of states, which regulate each respective National Guard and host a combined 114 Army and Air National Guard stations, held out. The cards open up benefits to families and couples including health care and housing access.

Hagel condemned those states and said this practice violated their federal obligations and created "hardship and inequality by forcing couples to travel long distances to federal military bases to obtain the ID cards they're entitled to."

Hagel, who said the title of Defense secretary was the “greatest privilege of my life,” said he will remain in the post until a successor is confirmed by the U.S. Senate.

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