ARLINGTON, Va. – The military's first openly gay service secretary said that he continually faces harassment, but thanked the Department of Defense Tuesday for shifting a policy that forced him to hide his sexuality for most of his career.
Eric Fanning, the acting secretary of the Air Force and now one of the highest ranking openly gay government officials, spoke at an event held at the Pentagon Tuesday commemorating Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Pride Month. Fanning is expected to permanently take over following the retirement of Mike Donley, who served in the same position since 2008.
Fanning says he continues to receive negative comments about his sexuality, including comments about what color he will paint Air Force planes and new designs for a uniform.
"These comments, especially over the last weekend, are dwarfed by the outpouring of support I have received in and out of this building," he said in his first public remarks since assuming his new position.
"It hasn't been easy, it's often been painful, many times messy, at times it was agonizingly slow," Fanning added before an audience that included openly gay service members in uniform, as well as LGBT activists. "But never once did we doubt we were on the right path."
Speaking to Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, who was in the audience, he said, "Your presence here today means more than you can possibly understand."
Fanning joined the department in the mid-1990s when the Don't Ask, Don't Tell policy that prevented gays and lesbians from openly serving in the military was enacted.
"I was working for an institution that discriminated against people just like me," he said. "It was a deeply conflicting time for me."
Hagel and senior White House adviser Valerie Jarrett also spoke at the event. Hagel expressed his pride in the department's decision to repeal the policy toward gay service members. He only referenced transgender people in his remarks about civilian members of the department, highlighting the military's ongoing discrimination against that group serving openly in uniform.
Jarrett discussed the ongoing violence and sexual assault that has plagued all corners of the military, brought forward by a series of high profile accusations in recent months.
The White House plans to organize frequent meetings between military personnel, members of Congress and other experts to develop an "aggressive and unified approach to tackling this problem," she said. Following an initial phase, the group will start to work with the Defense Department this summer to address "wider issues that affect the health of our military."