When it comes to gay issues, the world has changed since Chuck Hagel served in the Senate. And among all those gay issues that have shifted over time, change has been perhaps most dramatic in the Pentagon, which executed a 180-degree turn with respect to its culture and policies concerning gay troops. As a result, all future Defense Secretaries will need to address gay issues with the same respect that they bring to all other decisions concerning diversity and military personnel policy.
This is particularly true for Chuck Hagel, who has a disturbing, career-long record of staking out anti-gay positions despite his recent support for openly gay service. The standard that he must meet is simple: he must demonstrate the leadership of a 21st-century Defense Secretary by putting his money where his mouth is when it comes to policies concerning gay troops. On gay issues, Chuck Hagel needs to become the most supportive Republican Defense Secretary in American history, a tough standard given the outstanding and inclusive track record of former Secretary Robert Gates.
Here are five concrete steps that Hagel should take as Secretary of Defense to prove that his about-face on gay issues is not just talk.
(1) He should repudiate the conscience clause of the recently-passed defense budget bill. That clause created special rights for service members who oppose serving with gays and lesbians on the basis of their religious or moral beliefs, and it could cause enormous problems under a future Republican administration. Hagel should reiterate President Obama's pledge that the clause will have no implications whatsoever for the full repeal of DADT and open service among gay and lesbian troops.
(2) He should support gay and lesbian military families to the fullest extent allowed by law. While the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) prevents the military from providing some benefits to gay and lesbian families, the Pentagon could do more to standardize the way it treats all troops. And, Hagel should start preparing the Pentagon for DOMA's eventual repeal.
(3) He should express his willingness to sign an official Pentagon directive, or to call for a White House executive order, with an affirmative non-discrimination mandate for the military's treatment of gay and lesbian troops. Because the statute repealing DADT did not include such a mandate, future administrations could, in theory, reinstate discrimination. Hagel should do what he can to make sure that never happens.
(4) He should begin the process of addressing transgender troops who are already serving with distinction and honor, but whose readiness and morale are compromised by a host of discriminatory Pentagon policies.
(5) He should take concrete steps to prevent anti-gay harassment by insisting that commanders hold perpetrators accountable and then holding those who fail to do so accountable.
It is too late for Hagel to undo the damage he caused to gay and lesbian people during his Senate career. But he now has an opportunity to make sure that the Pentagon keeps making progress on the route to full inclusion.