WASHINGTON — Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel on Tuesday hosted a Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender Pride Month event in the Pentagon auditorium that highlighted just how much the country and its military have changed over the years.
As a Republican senator from Nebraska in 1999, Hagel expressed opposition to repealing the “don't ask, don't tell” policy that barred gays and lesbians from serving openly in uniform. He told the New York Times then that “the U.S. armed forces aren't some social experiment.”
But as he made clear after being nominated to run the Pentagon, Hagel came to support the principle of open service.
“Our nation has always benefited from the service of gay and lesbian soldiers, sailors, airmen and coast guardsmen and Marines,” Hagel said at Tuesday's event. “Now they can serve openly, with full honor, integrity and respect. This makes our military and our nation stronger, much stronger.”
He introduced Valerie Jarrett, a top Obama adviser, who talked of how things have changed since the 2011 repeal of don't ask, don't tell.
Jarrett spoke of service members — and their partners — who no longer live in fear of the truth slipping out.
“Change is being able to put your family photo on your desk, just like everyone else,” she said. “Change is being able to share with your co-workers about your weekend or your vacation plans, just like everyone else. Change is knowing that you are free to be who you are and love whomever you want without fear of harassment or losing your job, just like everyone else.”
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Hagel's nomination initially ran into resistance from gay rights groups who were upset about his past positions on gay rights and comments he had made 15 years ago about an openly gay ambassadorial nominee.
Hagel specifically apologized for those comments during his confirmation process.
The groups raised concerns about how he would approach contemporary gay rights issues.
For example, the U.S. Supreme Court is poised to decide two high-profile same-sex marriage cases today, and the court's actions could open the door for additional benefits for families of gays and lesbians in the military.
Hagel has said repeatedly that he is committed to providing equal benefits to the military families of gays and lesbians and talked of how the nation has evolved on such issues.
“With their service, we are moving closer to fulfilling the country's founding vision, that all of us are created equal,” Hagel said. “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.”
Jarrett noted that under President Barack Obama's direction, the Pentagon earlier this year identified 20 additional benefits that could be extended to same-sex domestic partners and their children.
Those include ID cards and access to commissary base exchanges, child care and legal assistance.
“And I understand that the Department of Defense, under Secretary Hagel's leadership, has made great progress and will be able to implement those benefits this fall,” she said.