Senate clears gay man to become Secretary of the Army

The U.S. Senate on Tuesday confirmed the nomination of an openly gay man to serve as Secretary of the U.S. Army –the first openly gay person to serve as the head of any military branch.

The confirmation of Eric Fanning, by voice vote, came very quickly Tuesday after U.S. Senator Pat Roberts (R-Kansas) lifted a hold he had put on the nomination. In a statement Tuesday, Roberts said Fanning “has always had my support for this position” but said he had placed a hold on the nomination in an effort to stop the Obama administration from moving Guantanamo Bay prisoners to Fort Leavenworth.

“I believe Eric Fanning will be a tremendous leader for the Army,” said Roberts.

Fanning, 47 and a native of Michigan, will take over the reins from Acting Secretary of the Army Patrick Murphy. Murphy, a veteran of the Iraq War and a former member of the U.S. House, helped lead the push in Congress to repeal “don’t ask, don’t tell” in 2010.

No one questioned Fanning’s qualifications to serve as Secretary. He held a series of leadership positions at the Pentagon since 2009, including positions in the departments of the Air Force, Navy, and Army. Last year, he also served as a special assistant to newly installed Defense Secretary Ashton Carter. He also served on the staff of the House Armed Services Committee and served as deputy director of the Commission on the Prevention of Weapons of Mass Destruction Proliferation and Terrorism. During the Clinton administration, Fanning served as an associate director of political affairs at the White House.

President Obama nominated Fanning to replace retiring Secretary John McHugh last September. Fanning served as Acting Secretary when McHugh left but stepped aside in January while his nomination was pending.

“Eric’s sexual orientation has absolutely no bearing on his ability to do this job; nor was it the reason for his nomination. But this milestone of having an openly gay individual in this high level position within the Department of Defense will help to continue to set a tone of understanding and respect for the LGBT community throughout the armed services,” said Matt Thorn, executive director of the LGBT military support group OutServe-SLDN.

Human Rights Campaign President Chad Griffin also applauded Fanning’s confirmation, saying it was “a demonstration of the continued progress towards fairness and equality in our nation’s armed forces.”

Fanning was a board member of the Gay & Lesbian Victory Fund from 2004 to 2007. The group helps openly LGBT people seek elective office and appointments within the federal government.

As Defense Secretary Ashton Carter’s chief of staff last June, Fanning said he felt like he was the only gay man at the Pentagon when he came out as gay in 1993, the year then President Bill Clinton signed the ban on gays in the military into law.

“It’s gone from tolerance to acceptance to embrace,” said Fanning, according to a Defense Department press release on Fanning’s remarks to a group of employees at the Defense Intelligence Agency’s Pride Month event. “We have this community of support whenever we try to do anything or put ourselves forward.”

While the Secretary position is a civilian one, Fanning’s nomination comes just six years after Congress repealed a long-standing ban on openly gay people serving in the military. It is perhaps ironic, too, that one of Fanning’s biggest advocates in the Senate –Senator John McCain (R-Ariz.)—had steadfastly opposed repeal of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.”

McCain criticized the hold on Fanning last month, saying, “Mr. Fanning is eminently qualified to assume that role of Secretary of the Army.” He urged Roberts to drop his hold on the nomination.

“All I can say,” said McCain, April 28, on the floor of the Senate, “is that the U.S. Army needs this man, Mr. Eric Fanning’s leadership.”

Fanning’s confirmation vote Tuesday was taken by unanimous consent, a procedure that allows expedited approval of a matter without debate.

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