US: Acting Air Force Secretary becomes highest ranking openly-gay member of Defense Department

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The new acting Air Force Secretary, Under Secretary Eric Fanning, has become the highest-ranking openly-gay person at the US Defense Department.

Fanning was nominated, and highly recommended by President Obama for the position of Under Secretary back in August, and having filled that position for just two months, he will now act as Air Force Secretary, following the retirement of Michael Donley on Friday.

He will fill the role until President Obama nominates someone permanent.

Speaking to the Washington Blade, Fanning said: “‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’ was implemented when I got [to the Pentagon],… 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.”

As acting Air Force Secretary, as an acting civilian leader, Fanning will be responsible for the organisation, training, equipping and welfare of 333,000 people serving on active duty, as well as 178,000 people in the Air National Guard and Air Force Reserve and 182,000 civillians in the military branch.

As well as being responsible for vast numbers of recruits and staff, Fanning also must oversee the US Air Force’s budget of over $110 billion (£7.1 billion) per year.

Having joined the Pentagon in the 1990s, Fanning was never personally affected by Don’t Ask Don’t Tell, the now repealed ban on openly gay people serving in the US military, but he said changes to the military since its repeal have been encouraging.

He named the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA), a federal block to many benefits for same-sex married couples, and which could be struck down imminently by the US Supreme Court, as a major problem for same-sex couples one or both of whom work in the military.

“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 said to 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.”

The US Supreme Court is expected any day to make a ruling on two cases around equal marriage, including Proposition 8, California’s ban on equal marriage, and the Defense of Marriage Act, which federally blocks thousands of benefits for same-sex married couples.