Don’t blink or you might miss it. Today is the deadline for the Army to issue guidance for how commanders and soldiers are to respond to a transitioning transgender service member in their unit. And unlike the political brouhaha the very word “transgender” causes among many polarized civilians, the Army appears to be taking the changes in stride.
"Commanders should approach a soldier undergoing gender transition in the same way they would approach a soldier undergoing any medically necessary treatment," says an October 7 directive issued after Defense Secretary Ash Carter lifted the ban on transgender service members last July. "Commanders will continue to minimize effects to the mission and ensure continued unit readiness."
There are an estimated 1,320 to 6,630 trans people actively serving in the military out of approximately 1.3 million troops on active duty, according to research conducted for the Department of Defense by the Rand Corp. While formal policies to plan a transition from diagnosis to changing gender markers in the Defense Enrollment Eligibility Reporting System are being worked out, out gay Army Secretary Eric Fanning tells The Advocate that the Army has already been operating under an interim policy with no observable problems.
“All of the services are pretty much doing the same thing because that’s what the secretary of Defense directed us to do,” says Fanning. “The devil’s in the details, of course.” But, he adds, “the Army has leaned forward in basically presuming exceptions for soldiers who are transitioning or who have transitioned. And we’ve already granted some of those exceptions to change your gender marker in the computer system. So as far as I can tell, it’s moving nice and smoothly.”
Fanning notes that the military has experienced resistance to change before. “Going back to integration in the 1940s, it’s the same argument. And it has been proven wrong each time,” says Fanning. “And my experience with the repeal of 'don’t ask, don’t tell' — and then the way we have opened up service to women — is that it just kind of hits with a dull thud out in the field. I think most people didn’t realize that transgender wasn’t a part of 'don’t ask, don’t tell' when the policy was repealed."
The Army is making religious accommodations, mostly for Sikhs, Fanning says. But “the funny thing to me is, these things have already been happening in the military. We’re just now putting policy to it and essentially catching up.”
Most young soldiers joining the Army are familiar with the fight for equality and LGBT rights, he says. They’re coming from “increasingly diverse communities and they’re used to it. They make it work and in many ways, as we work through some of these things, I always figure the best strategy is for us to just get out of the way because the soldiers in the field figure it out on their own.”
Fanning says much of the resistance to change is generational. He’s surrounded by some senior generals “who get worried about change,” but then he’ll talk to a colonel who says he can work with the situation. “And then I go out into the field and talk to young officers or young soldiers, who kind of look at me like I’m crazy for even asking the question.”
That may be a result in the corresponding change in judging qualifications, as ordered by the Obama administration. Standards are now linked to the job, “not arbitrary standards that you have to jump so high or run so fast or something, but linked to what you actually need to do to do a job. And then everything else goes by the wayside,” says Fanning. “If you can meet these requirements and you want to serve, then you have the opportunity to do so.”
Taking a moment to “brag on the Army,” Fanning notes that this branch of the military has already researched the standard requirements for each job: “You need to lift this much weight this high because that’s actually how much that gun or that round of ammunition weighs and that’s how big the back of the truck is. And then you can just knock everything else out. It doesn’t matter the color of your skin, your gender, who you love — anything like that. A requirement is a requirement is a requirement.”
Training on transitioning transgender service members must be integrated into the existing training rotation by next July, with a complete report for the inspector general on compliance due by October 2018.
Fanning speaks with authority on senior civilian oversight of the military. He has served on the staff of the House Armed Services Committee and as deputy undersecretary of the Navy, deputy director of the Commission on the Prevention of Weapons of Mass Destruction Proliferation and Terrorism, undersecretary and then acting secretary of the Air Force (in 2013), deputy secretary of Defense (chief of staff), acting undersecretary of the Army, and finally, secretary of the Army.
Fanning, 48, is clearly at home with his troops and comfortable in his job. Smart and easygoing, he also seems to enjoy injecting some humor into his leadership style through fun, informative, and cheerleading postings on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram, all under the handle “SecArmy.” For Halloween, for instance, he asked his followers which Snapchat icon he should don for the occasion. The “negative” image signing “love” won.
Fanning has twice been confirmed by the Senate, first as undersecretary of the Air Force and then the “bizarre” confirmation process after President Obama nominated him for Secretary of the Army on November 3, 2015. He first had to endure having a hold put on his nomination by Republican Sen. Pat Roberts. Fanning took Roberts at his word that the hold was not because Fanning was gay but because of another issue. Ironically, it was former "don’t ask, don’t tell"-backer Sen. John McCain who came to Fanning’s defense to get the hold lifted.
“There’s a process you go through to have a hold lifted,” Fanning says. “So John McCain goes to the Senate floor. He was campaigning to get me confirmed. Roberts comes and explains that a deal has been struck and then lifts the hold and then I have the vote and was unanimously confirmed." The vote was May 17. "Two Republicans both extolling my qualifications! It was just a bizarre thing to watch," remembers Fanning. "But that was the silver lining to having that hold — it got attention, members started talking about it, and it was bizarre but it was certainly a nice feeling.”