When Chuck Hagel was nominated by President Obama to be the Secretary of Defense, LGBT groups were not pleased, with good reason. As a Republican Senator from Nebraska, Hagel was actively hostile to LGBT rights. He earned a zero percent rating from the Human Rights Campaign for most of his tenure. He complained about the “openly aggressive gay” James Hormel being nominated for ambassador to Luxembourg. More ominously, he had opposed the repeal of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell, on the grounds that “the U.S. armed forces aren’t some social experiment.” At the time of his nomination, Hagel apologized for being “insensitive” and President Obama backed him, saying that his apology should be taken at face value.
So how does Hagel look a year after this controversy and 10 months as Defense Secretary? A lot better than anyone would have imagined. And perhaps even good enough to have redeemed his homophobic past.
Hagel has made all the right gestures to prove his sincerity. Some of it has been using the appropriate rhetoric. He spoke at the Gay Pride event at the Pentagon in June, saying that allowing openly gay and lesbian military personnel “makes our military and our nation stronger, much stronger.”
But Hagel rose to the occasion on two particular challenges. The first was around marriage equality. Even before the Supreme Court decision, the Pentagon was moving to grant same-sex married couples benefits. the Supreme Court ruling clearing the way for same-sex marriage. After the decision, the Pentagon moved very quickly (particularly for the Pentagon). Within six weeks of the ruling, Hagel issued a memorandum granting full rights to service members, including the ability to take time off to go to a marriage equality state to get hitched. “It is now the Department’s policy to treat all married couples equally,” Hagel wrote.
The second challenge was related to the first: the decision by some Republican governors to block the National Guard in their states from issuing marriage benefits to lesbian and gay personnel. This seemed to enrage Hagel. In a strongly worded speech, Hagel complained the action “created hardship and inequality” and promised to bring the full force of the Pentagon down on the violators. (Several have since backed off.)
Now perhaps on both occasions Hagel was just being a good soldier. (He’s a combat veteran with two Purple Hearts to his name.) In that case, he gets his orders and he carries them out no matter what he thinks about them. If Obama says jump, he will ask how far. If the National Guard violate Pentagon policy, he is angry, no matter what the policy is.
While there’s probably a strong element of that in his actions, Hagel still deserves credit. The military is one of the country’s great social experiments (no matter what he once said), and he is presiding over a major culture shift within it. He has sent a clear signal that the Pentagon respects its lesbian and gay military personnel and that it expects everyone in the ranks to treat married couples the same way. Given that Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell only bit the dust only two years ago, that’s an astonishing change and Hagel is responsible for seeing that it’s carried out.
At this distance, it’s impossible to know Hagel’s motives. But there’s no denying the impact of his actions. The military is at the forefront of treating lesbians and gays with full equality. While there will be lots of bumps along the way, who could have imagined that a few years ago? And who among us could have predicted that Chuck Hagel would be the one presiding over that change?