The LGBT community’s position on Chuck Hagel as Defense Secretary remains quietly split as Hagel approaches his first key Senate vote, perhaps as early as Thursday, February 6.
No LGBT organization, not even the Human Rights Campaign or OutServe-SLDN, has met with or affirmatively endorsed President Obama’s nominee, and only a few have actively opposed him. OutServe, the national organization representing LGBT servicemembers, said it’s had an “open line of communication with the White House and Hagel’s team throughout the confirmation process,” but has taken no official position on the confirmation other than to say it is “encouraged” by his remarks and “comfortable” with his nomination.
High-profile LGBT political commentators are divided. Rachel Maddow of MSNBC and Richard Socarides of The New Yorker have voiced significant concerns, but many other high-placed openly gay political players have expressed their unqualified support for the man who, as senator from Nebraska, voted against the Employment Non-Discrimination Act, against including sexual orientation in the hate crimes prevention act, for a federal constitutional amendment to ban marriage for same-sex couples, and would not sign a pledge not to discriminate against gays in his own Senate office, according to HRC records.
Socarides, who said in his January 7 New Yorker piece that he hoped Hagel would explain his conversion from gay civil rights opponent to defender during his confirmation hearings, said Tuesday that he still harbors reservations about the nominee.
“For me, always, the most important question has been whether he would issue a non-discrimination directive” to the Department of Defense, said Socarides. “…We got them from all other departments and agencies and [the Office of Personnel Management], and but we need a non-discrimination order that covers the uniformed military and haven’t been able to get it and that seems to be the question to be asked and answered and it was not, in any public forum. I think that, while he may have spoken to some of the other issues hanging over his nomination and may have done some of this on LGBT issues in private [meetings with senators], I still have a lot of unanswered questions.”
Hagel said at his confirmation hearing January 31 that he would protect the right of same-sex couples to use military chapels for their marriage ceremonies but would not require military chaplains perform such ceremonies if they were morally opposed to such marriages.
It was Senator Mark Udall (D-Colo.) who pressed Hagel on whether he would ensure him that a military policy in the 2013 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) –which requires the military to “accommodate” the moral and religious beliefs of all servicemembers– would not be used to discriminate against gay, lesbian, and bisexual service members.
“Absolutely,” said Hagel. “I will faithfully, diligently, enforce our laws. All men and women deserve the same rights. And I can assure you that will be a high priority… to enforce that and ensure that in every way, through the entire line of, chain of command and accountability.”
Senator Roger Wicker (R-Miss.), whose turn to ask questions came right after Udall asked his question, followed up, asking whether Hagel’s response meant a military chaplains would have to perform a marriage ceremony for a same-sex couple.
“Well, I think that Pentagon regulations show that same-sex marriage is legal in nine states,” said Hagel, starting to answer the question.
“No,” interrupted Wicker, rephrasing his question. “Would a chaplain be able to bow out of a procedure like that based on conscience?” asked Wicker.
“Certainly,” said Hagel, “but what we don’t want, though, is –to Senator Udall’s point— is someone to be denied to be married in a chapel or facility.”
Senator Kristen Gillibrand (D-NY) asked a question dealing with a variety of issues, including sexual assaults against women in the military and benefits for gay servicemembers.
“We’ve repealed Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” said Gillibrand, “but it’s difficult for a military spouse to even go to the commissary and be on base and be notified if a spouse is killed in action. I will need a strong commitment from you that you will treat our military families as you would your own [and be] concerned about every man and woman in the military….”
“You have my complete commitment on that,” said Hagel, adding that he had made that commitment to all members of the committee with whom he had met.
In fact, Hagel had already made the commitment to Gillibrand when they met the previous week. Gillibrand issued a statement January 24 saying, “Senator Hagel gave me his clear and direct commitment to advancing issues of equality and fairness in our armed forces – from fully implementing the repeal of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” to providing full benefits to families of LGBT servicemembers, ensuring that women servicemembers have access to the full range of reproductive care, cracking down on sexual abuse in the military, stopping hazing, and implementing the opening of full combat roles to female servicemembers.”
But to the extent members of the Senate Armed Services Committee really grilled Hagel on his positions concerning gays in the military, most of that action took place on paper, prior to the hearing.
In questions posed to Hagel prior to the hearing, Committee members asked Hagel to describe his view of the repeal of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” (DADT). DADT was the law passed by Congress in 1993 (four years before Hagel entered the Senate) and banned gay members of the service from being open about their sexual orientation. Congress, in 2010, voted to repeal that law (after Hagel was no longer in the Senate) and the repeal law took effect in September 2011. Hagel’s view of the repeal sounded very much as he has described it recently in public.
“I fully support the repeal of ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’ and value the service of all those who fight for our country. I fully support gay and lesbian men and women serving openly in the U.S. military and am committed to a full implementation of the repeal of ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,’ responded Hagel.
The Committee members also asked Hagel to give them his “assessment of the implementation” of the repeal of DADT.
“I understand that the senior military leadership have engaged in a year-long monitoring process and found that repeal of ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’ has not had any impacts on readiness, effectiveness, unit cohesion, recruiting, and retention. At the same time,” wrote Hagel, “I realize that there is still some work to be done to achieve the full implementation of repeal, particularly with regard to the benefits available to the families of gay and lesbian service members.”
Even though Hagel is not yet Defense Secretary, the Committee asked him to state the “status of the report of the benefits review group and when it is expected to issue its report.” Hagel said it was his understanding that there is not a “report, per se” but rather that the Defense Department is “assembling detailed information on individual benefits (including whether each such benefit might be made available under current law, and options for how to do so) to support decision making by the senior civilian and military leadership of the Department, and also that those decisions are currently under active consideration.”
“If confirmed,” said Hagel in writing, “I will review the work that has been undertaken during the course of the benefits review and will work closely with the Department of Defense civilian and military leadership to move forward expeditiously on this issue.” And he said he would “work closely with the Department of Defense civilian and military leadership to move forward expeditiously on this issue and will inform the appropriate Congressional committees of decisions as they are made.”
In response to a question about providing benefits to the same-sex partners of military service members, Hagel reiterated an earlier public statement that he “will do everything possible to the extent permissible under current law to provide equal benefits to the families of all our servicemembers.”
OutServe-Servicemembers Legal Defense Network Executive Director Allyson Robinson issued a statement praising Hagel’s response on benefits for gay servicemembers, saying, “it is gratifying to see Senator Hagel show the kind of clear, unambiguous support for our service members and their families we saw today.”
“It is an historic day when issues critical to gay and lesbian service members and their families take center stage in a confirmation hearing for Secretary of Defense,” said Robinson.
OutServe-SLDN and other LGBT groups have criticized the Pentagon for delays in implementing policies and regulations to fully repeal the effects of DADT on gay servicemembers, particularly around extension of benefits to gay servicememembers’ families.
Senator Tammy Baldwin (D-Wisc.), the senate’s newly elected lesbian member, has not yet stated publicly whether she will support Hagel’s confirmation but Senator Carl Levin (D-Mich.), who chairs the Armed Services Committee predicted all 55 of the Senate’s Democratic members would. Levin’s committee is expected to vote as early as February 7 on the confirmation.
In his opening statement to the Senate Armed Services Committee confirmation hearing, Hagel said, “We must always take care of our people. That’s why I will work to ensure that everyone who volunteers to fight for this country has the same rights and opportunities. As I’ve discussed with many of you in our meetings, I am fully committed to implementing the repeal of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell and doing everything possible under current law to provide equal benefits to the families of all our service members.”
Television cameras in the hearing room caught the image of a female protester hoisting a placard saying, “We serve equally, we deserve equality,” an apparent reference to efforts to see that gays in the military receive the same benefits for themselves and their families as straight service members.
Meanwhile, it’s unclear whether Senate minority leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) plans to stage a filibuster against the confirmation vote. A number of key Republicans, including John McCain (R-Ariz.) have indicated they would not support such a move.