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A Brand New Day
There were two big surprises when U.S. Department of Defense general counsel Jeh Johnson delivered a keynote address in June. The first was the occasion. It was the Pentagon's Lesbian, Gay, Bi-Sexual, and Transgender Pride Month headlinerthe first time in American military history that a gay pride event was held there.
The second surprise was the message. Speaking in an auditorium with a standing-room-only crowd, Johnson said that the U.S. military's acceptance of openly gay members has been surprisingly smooth.
Along with Army General Carter Ham, Johnson cochaired the Pentagon working group in 2010 that drafted the critical report leading to repeal of the don't ask, don't tell policy that had been in place since President Bill Clinton's administration. Their work included extensive polling and face-to-face interviews with thousands of soldiers, and their report concluded that the risk that repeal of the policy posed to overall military effectiveness was low.
Johnson told his audience in June that the actual impact since the repeal last September has been even less disruptive than they'd anticipated. (One participant on a panel called it more of a "speed bump" than an impact.)
"Three years ago," Johnson told the assembled crowd, "it would have been hard for any of us to believe that in 2012, a gay man or woman in the armed forces could be honest about their sexual orientation, that the don't ask, don't tell law would be gone, and that the process of repeal would go even more smoothly than we predicted it would in our report."
Johnson credited the ease of the change both to a higher level of acceptance among the military's rank and file than expected, and to strong leadership from the generals and admirals. His job now is to implement the legal framework for openly gay service in the military. He has already issued guidance allowing chaplains to conduct same-sex weddings on military bases. The next step, he said, is working on health care and other benefits for families of gay service members. The military is constrained, he added, because it still has to conform to federal laws until they are changed.
Before Johnson's speech, taped statements from President Barack Obama and Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta praised the department's diversity efforts. Afterward, a three-person panel told stories of being gay in the military.
One panelist was Gordon Tanner, a retired judge advocate general in the U.S. Air Force and now the civilian principal deputy general counsel of the USAF. Tanner recalled his fear of being outed while he was a JAG officer. It could have cost him his career, he said.
After introducing his husband to the crowd, Tanner stressed the importance of getting benefits for family members included in the military's legal framework. And he urged every gay military member to be as open as they are comfortable being.
"Why?" he asked. "Because we have straight allies, colleagues, and friends who support us either because it's the right thing to do, or because they have family members, friends, or loved ones who are gay.
"Let us be a bridge," Tanner said.