Five years ago, Eric Fanning would have been thrown out of the U.S. Army. Now he is poised to lead it.
That’s a stunning reversal. What’s equally stunning, and heartening, is that it’s no big deal.
When President Obama nominated him to be secretary of the Army last week, Fanning became the first openly gay person in line to lead one of America’s military services. While that is a milestone for equality, it appears likely that his Senate confirmation will focus more on his credentials than his sexual orientation.
If it does, Fanning should win quick approval. He has served as undersecretary of the Army and chief of staff to Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter. Before that he was acting secretary and undersecretary of the Air Force, as well as deputy undersecretary of the Navy.
Military experts call Fanning highly qualified. The man he would replace, John McHugh (a longtime Republican congressman), praised Fanning’s “sound judgment and insight” and added “Our soldiers, civilians and their families will benefit greatly from his leadership.” Defense Secretary Carter called Fanning “an excellent choice” and “one of our country’s most knowledgeable, dedicated and experienced public servants. I know he will strengthen our Army.” (Spokesmen for Sens. Richard Burr and Thom Tillis both said they hadn’t decided how they would vote and looked forward to getting to know Fanning better.)
Perhaps what’s most notable about Fanning’s sexual orientation is how little it has stirred up the typical swirl. The Republican presidential contenders mostly have been quiet. House and Senate members have not made it an issue. The Army Times didn’t even mention Fanning’s sexual orientation until the eighth paragraph of its story about his nomination.
Sure, some conservative commentators have suggested President Obama is playing politics by naming a gay Army chief. Mike Huckabee said Obama cares more about appeasing gay-rights groups than maintaining a strong military.
“Homosexuality is not a job qualification,” Huckabee said. “The U.S. military is designed to keep Americans safe and complete combat missions, not conduct social experiments.”
Overall, though, the response has been notably muted to a move that would have been unthinkable until so recently. Gays were drummed out of the military for all of American history until 2011. In 1993, the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” law made it harder for the military brass to target gay service members. Still, it referred to homosexuality as “an unacceptable risk to the high standards of morale, good order and discipline, and unit cohesion that are the essence of military capability.” Thousands of armed services members were discharged under that law.
That ended in 2011, after a judge and Congress undid Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell. Now, just four years later, sexual orientation is far less relevant than Fanning’s record and vision for a military in flux.
We have a ways to go. Some folks think they can ignore Supreme Court rulings on gay equality. But the silence around Eric Fanning’s nomination comes through loud and clear.