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In his file photo, Sen. Chuck Hagel (R-NE) speaks at the DC Vietnam Veterans Memorial in March 2007
For those of us still idealistic enough to take joy in the patriotic pageantry of inaugurals, last week’s ceremony provided plenty to get us through the next four years. As West Point graduates and veterans, my wife and I definitely fall into that category, but there was one moment during the inauguration that took our breath away.
When President Obama placed the lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) Americans who fought back against police raids at Stonewall in 1969 alongside those who marched for their rights at Selma and organized for equality at Seneca Falls, my wife Danyelle, our four children, and I stood a little straighter, clenched hands with one another, and were soon blinking back tears.
The president’s clear and passionate declaration of the fundamental rights of LGBT Americans made history, just as he did when announced support for marriage equality, and just as he did when he led the repeal of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.” Inauguration Day was a day to honor those historic steps. Now, as the second term gets underway, it’s time to get back to work on the very real inequities that exist for families like ours – LGBT service members, veterans, and their families, who despite the repeal of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” are still routinely treated like second-class citizens by the country they serve.
President Obama’s nominee to lead the Department of Defense, former Nebraska Senator Chuck Hagel (R), is making history himself. Never before has a nominee for defense secretary come under such scrutiny for his position on gay rights, and never has one made such an unequivocal commitment to support LGBT service members and their families. Senator Hagel has promised to extend recognition, support and benefits to gay and lesbian military families to the fullest extent the law allows while the so-called Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) is still on the books. He can and should do so immediately upon his confirmation.
This action would immediately make gay and lesbian military families eligible for military ID cards, a critical tool in accessing family services and support, and allow them to take advantage of critical initiatives designed to help cope with deployments, homecomings, and other challenges unique to military life. It would pave the way for equal housing and other improvements. But this is only the first step to ensuring these troops and their families are treated with the impartiality that sound leadership demands.
Today, though gay and lesbian service members can no longer lose their jobs for coming out, they lack any formal protection from harassment and discrimination – leaving them with no recourse outside their chain of command if they are discriminated against on the job. Protections such as these have become the norm across American employers, where they are recognized as crucial to attracting and keeping the best and brightest. According to a UCLA study, 88 percent of the Fortune 500 now protect employees on the basis of sexual orientation. America’s largest employer, the one Senator Hagel is hoping to lead, should as well.
This critical gap may be exacerbated by so-called “conscience protections” for service members that became law with last year’s National Defense Authorization Act. Their authors in Congress (among them former Missouri Congressman Todd Akin) claimed they were necessary to protect the freedom of religious expression of chaplains and others who may hold anti-gay views. This ignores that religion is already a protected category in military nondiscrimination policy – and that sexual orientation is not. Service members are entitled to hold any views they choose, but must face disciplinary action if they act upon their views in ways that disrupt good order and discipline. Senator Hagel should act swiftly here by adding LGBT service members to those protected under the military’s equal opportunity and nondiscrimination policies, and by ensuring that the so-called “conscience protections” are implemented in ways that discourage anti-gay discrimination.
In his inaugural address, President Obama set a high moral bar for himself and his administration when he said, “Our journey is not complete until our gay brothers and sisters are treated like anyone else under the law. For if we are truly created equal, then surely the love we commit to one another must be equal, as well.” To Senator Hagel, I add: If we are truly created equal, then surely the service and sacrifice made by our LGBT men and women in uniform, and by their families, must be equal as well.
The president laid out the vision. Senator Hagel must do his part to make it a reality.
Allyson D. Robinson is a former Baptist minister, Army veteran and current serves as OutServe-SLDN’s executive director.