New Air Force Leader Becomes Highest-Ranking Openly-Gay Person in Defense Dept.

Credit: United States Air Force

Undersecretary of the Air Force for just two months, Eric Fanning is now the acting civilian leader of the military branch after the retirement Friday of Air Force Secretary Michael Donley made him the highest-ranking openly-gay person at the Defense Department.

Fanning, having started his career in the Pentagon in the '90s, will fill the role until President Obama nominates an official replacement.

"'Don't Ask, Don't Tell' was implemented when I got [to the Pentagon]," Fanning said in an interview with the Washington Blade. "I didn't know what I was going to do if we didn't get the repeal through because some people couldn't work because they were openly gay or lesbian."

Although never subjected to the "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" policy as a civilian leader, Fanning said the changes that have occurred regarding gays in the military so far have been encouraging, especially since his return to the Pentagon in 2009.

Referring to the 2010 repeal of the law that prohibited gays from serving openly, he said, "It made this last round more rewarding just to see the change in the attitudes in the senior uniform leadership."

The decisions about two cases before the Supreme Court regarding gay rights are expected to be released this week and will have a significant impact on the Defense Department, said Fanning, including the ruling on the Defense of Marriage Act, which currently prohibits same-sex spouses from receiving military benefits.

"In some ways, DOMA, which I think is a terrible law, made the repeal of 'Don't Ask, Don't Tell' easier because it took some of the more emotional issues off the table." Fanning told the Washington Blade. "But in terms of extending benefits, I think everyone who serves in uniform should have full access to legal benefits, and so, DOMA is the main roadblock to that."

As acting secretary, Fanning has vast influence over the Air Force, including organizing, training, equipping and providing for the welfare of 333,000 people on active duty, 178,000 people in the Air National Guard and Air Force Reserve, and 182,000 civilians in the military branch.

He also oversees the Air Force's budget of more the $110 billion annually.

"I think that the military is stronger, institutions are stronger, and society is stronger the more inclusive that we are," Fanning said. "So wherever we can root out discrimination, I think it's a positive thing."