Acting U.S. Secretary of the Army Eric Fanning takes his seat as he arrives at his confirmation hearing Jan. 21, 2016 on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC.
Photo by Alex Wong/Getty

New Army Secretary emblematic of Obama-era progress

When President Obama nominated Eric Fanning as the next Secretary of the Army last fall, his qualifications were obvious. The Washington Post noted that Fanning “has been a specialist on national security issues for more than two decades and has played a key role overseeing some of the Pentagon’s biggest shipbuilding and fighter jet programs.”
But in one specific way, this wasn’t just another nominee: Fanning, if confirmed, would be the first openly gay leader of any U.S. military service.
For some, his sexual orientation was an automatic disqualifier. For Sen. Pat Roberts (R-Kan.), the fact that the administration was considering a plan to house dangerous people in a maximum-security prison in Kansas meant Fanning’s nomination had to be put on hold for months. (How the senator’s paranoia related to the Army post was never entirely clear.)
But yesterday, Fanning cleared the hurdles in his way and earned Senate confirmation through a voice vote.
A slate of senators from both parties joined in the praise for Fanning. Sen. Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio, tweeted that Fanning’s selection is “an historic moment for #LGBT servicemembers,” while Sen. Dan Sullivan, R-Alaska, tweeted that he “appreciated (Fanning’s) recognition of Alaska’s strategic importance & need for larger @USArmy.”
Fanning served as the Army secretary’s principal adviser on management and operation of the service. He was undersecretary of the Air Force from April 2013 to February 2015, and for half a year was the acting secretary of the Air Force.
Any time there’s a breakthrough like this, it’s heartening, but it’s worth pausing to appreciate just how extraordinary the progress has been in recent years.
When President Obama took office, gay and lesbian soldiers were prohibited from serving openly, transgender Americans were banned altogether, and women were excluded from combat units. Now, as Obama gets ready to leave office, DADT a thing of the past; there’s no prohibition on transgender Americans serving in uniform; the Pentagon has made women eligible for combat roles; and the Secretary of the Army is an openly gay man.
Fanning was confirmed – without a single vote of opposition – in a Republican-led Senate.
The culture wars may not be over, but the fact that these developments barely raise an eyebrow in 2016 – circumstances that would have been hard to even fathom in the recent past – is emblematic of a cultural and political shift that Americans can be proud of.