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Army secretary speaks at gay pride rally

By JEANETTE STEELE | The San Diego Union-Tribune (Tribune News Service) | Published: July 16, 2016

When Eric Fanning started working at the Pentagon as an aide, the “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy had just begun. The 24-year-old didn’t have gay role models in the building.

A lot has changed in the United States military since then.

In May, 24 years later, Fanning was appointed secretary of the Army — becoming the first openly gay person to lead any branch of the U.S. armed forces.

He’s in town this weekend to participate in San Diego Pride events, including serving as a grand marshal of Saturday’s Pride parade in Hillcrest and Balboa Park.

It’s perhaps a bit of a victory lap, and a thank you.

San Diego’s Pride parade is noteworthy as the nation’s first gay-centered parade where active-duty service members marched together with shirts identifying their status as a sailor, soldier, airman or Marine.

It was July 2011, and the ban on openly gay military service — “don’t ask, don’t tell” — was in its final months. Feeling the momentum, a contingent of troops based in San Diego County made national headlines by stepping forward in that highly public way. The following year, gay service members marched in uniform at Pride parades here and elsewhere.

“For many in our military, Pride in San Diego has special meaning,” Fanning told an audience during a rally Friday evening at Balboa Park.

“With their actions, they sent a clear message to our country: That it’s possible to take deep pride in being part of two great families, the U.S. military and the LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender) community.”

America’s military has undergone a whirlwind of social policy change in the past five years under the Obama administration — moves that some conservatives have decried as social engineering.

“Don’t ask, don’t tell” ended in September 2011, after turbulent debate in Congress. In 2013, the Pentagon began the process of opening all combat jobs to women — something that culminated last year with the first women to earn Army Ranger status.

And last month, Defense Secretary Ash Carter declared an immediate end to rules that bar openly transgender troops.

On Friday evening, Fanning addressed the accusations of social engineering.

“Today, when our critics say that the military is not a place for social experimentation, they may be right. But equality and inclusivity are not experiments. They are American values,” he said during the Spirit of Stonewall rally, which honored gay New Yorkers who fought police harassment in 1969.

As a symbol, having an openly gay military leader means something, said George Hotaling, 29, a gay former Army officer who volunteered at the rally.

“It’s absolutely huge. To have someone who is that high-ranking, it normalizes it,” said Hotaling, who is married to an active-duty Navy officer.

Fanning never served in uniform. He has said that despite having two uncles who went to the West Point Army academy, he didn’t see a path for himself there as an openly gay man.

Instead, he graduated from Dartmouth College in 1990 with a degree in history. Quickly, he embarked on a civilian career in government, with entry- and mid-level jobs on the House Armed Services Committee staff, the White House and that first Pentagon position.

After a detour into TV news and public relations, Fanning went back to government work.

One of the footnotes to his career is that he has served in top civilian positions for three military branches — Navy, Air Force and now Army. He also was chief of staff to Defense Secretary Ash Carter, leading Carter’s transition team. Some observers have said that’s how he got his current job.

As Army secretary, Fanning oversees policy for 500,000 active-duty soldiers and 550,000 Army reservists and National Guard troops, plus civilian workers. It all adds up to 1.4 million employees.

People who know Fanning said he has reluctantly accepted the mantle of gay symbol, despite wanting to be judged on his resume.

In an interview Friday, the Army secretary said he recognizes the impact he can have.

“I thought about my own experience when I first went to the Pentagon. I didn’t see anyone else like me in that large building,” Fanning said. “Each time I advance in (my) career, I get more attention and more people write to me, and I realize how many other people now see something they didn’t see before.”

A military secretary can take activist positions that make him or her controversial.

Fanning’s counterpart in the Navy, Secretary Ray Mabus, has stirred debate by advocating for use of biofuels in his ships and aircraft. He also bucked Marine Corps leadership last year by supporting the opening of infantry jobs to women, despite controversial Marine research that showed mixed-gender infantry units were less successful than all-male ones.

The Army secretary said for him, the push will be ensuring that recent changes in social policy go off well.

“It’s making sure we do it in a respectful, thoughtful, deliberate way, so it’s as smooth as the repeal of ‘don’t ask, don’t tell,’” Fanning said.

In closing out his speech at the rally, Fanning made a special point of mentioning the June 12 shooting massacre at the Orlando nightclub Pulse, a popular site for the LGBT community. The attack killed 49 people and injured 53 others. The shooter was allegedly showing allegiance to the jihadist group Islamic State.

“We should come together, even as we grieve and mourn,” Fanning told the crowd, adding that the San Diego festival felt “bittersweet” because of the Orlando deaths and Thursday’s attack in Nice, France.

“Because we must respond to acts of cowardice with acts of confidence, with acts of pride in who we are and what we believe.”

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©2016 The San Diego Union-Tribune
Visit The San Diego Union-Tribune at www.sandiegouniontribune.com
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Eric Fanning attends a Senate Committee on Armed Services hearing Thursday, Jan. 21, 2016, on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C.
CARLOS BONGIOANNI/STARS AND STRIPES

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