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WASHINGTON — Acting Air Force Secretary Eric Fanning on Tuesday told an audience at the Defense Department’s official gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender Pride Month event of sitting in the back of the room as a young Pentagon staffer, listening to the Pentagon brass talk with undisguised hostility about gay troops.

“It was hard 20 years ago to hear how people talked about gays and lesbians in such blistering and emotional ways — about individuals who wanted nothing more than the right to serve their country while also being honest about who they were,” he said. “It was hard to imagine we’d ever be where we are today.”

Approaching the two-year anniversary of the end of the Don’t Ask Don’t Tell policy, which required gay and lesbian troops to remain in the closet, Fanning said one of the most surprising things has been the lack of upheaval. The department has moved on, he said.

And now, Fanning joked to the audience, his sexual orientation doesn’t hinder him from carrying out the same duties as any other top Air Force officials — “finding ways to shift resources from the Army and Navy to the Air Force.”

Speaking to an audience of several hundred people in the Pentagon auditorium, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel singled out Fanning and Army Brig. Gen. Tammy Smith, the first openly gay general in the U.S. military, and said troops’ ability to serve without hiding key parts of their identities makes the military better and more honest.

“Now they can serve openly, with full honor, integrity and respect,” he said. “This makes our military and our nation stronger, much stronger.”

Conservative groups, however, have disputed Hagel’s contention, and say that openness to gays and lesbians is coalescing into intolerance of religious and cultural beliefs that consider homosexuality wrong.

With Don’t Ask Don’t Tell history, many gays and lesbians in DOD have turned their attention to the question of military benefits for legally-married same-sex couples. The Supreme Court is expected to deliver a ruling this week that could overturn a federal law prohibiting recognition of same-sex marriages. If that happens, defense officials have said, gay DOD personnel will get the same health, housing and other benefits as their married counterparts. Twitter: @ChrisCarroll_


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