(WB) Retired Gen. Lloyd Austin, the choice of President-elect Joe Biden for defense secretary, spoke Tuesday with the head of the nation’s leading LGBT group in recognition of the 10th anniversary of the repeal of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” the Washington Blade has learned exclusively.
Alphonso David, president of the Human Rights Campaign, confirmed to the Washington Blade in an interview Tuesday the phone call took place that day and said he was left with an “incredibly positive” impression.
David said the secretary-designate recognized the importance of the milestone of repealing “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” which former President Obama signed on Dec. 22, 2010.
“He understood the significance of the repeal and the importance of having inclusive armed forces,” David said. “You know, ‘Don’t Ask Don’t Tell’ is a stain on our history, and he understands the stigma that it’s had on the U.S. military and on our culture.”
The call between Austin and the nation’s leading LGBT group takes place amid concern from progressives over Biden selecting a retired general as the civilian head of the Defense Department. Austin would need a congressional waiver to serve in the military because federal law requires military officers to have been out of the armed forces for seven years before serving as defense secretary.
The Associated Press reported earlier this month Biden faces an uphill battle in getting Austin confirmed in the U.S. Senate, although Black service members and Black civil rights groups have rallied around him. Some Democrats have reportedly expressed uncertainty over Austin, making him the first Biden nominee to encounter resistance from senators of his own party.
But the call between David and Austin sends a clear symbolic message to progressives on recognition of intersectionality among marginalized groups: The first Black person chosen to serve as defense secretary had met with the first Black person to lead the nation’s leading LGBT organization on the anniversary of a milestone for LGBT rights.
David said his general assessment of Austin is the secretary-designate is “incredibly qualified” for the role based on his “years of experience,” but also said Austin carries significant weight as the first Black person nominated to become defense secretary.
“I think it is also important for us to appreciate the barrier that he’s breaking in being the first Black man to potentially serve in that role, which is important,” David said. “Four hundred years later, since slavery, we have not had a Black man serve in that role and that is an important fact that we should all appreciate as we think about defending this country and whether or not the person who is in that role is reflective of the diversity of this country.”
David said Austin reached out to him personally to initiate the call, which David said is a “testament to his personal commitment to support the LGBTQ community, and by extension, President-elect Biden’s understanding that our community is important.”
A key component of the talk, which David said lasted close to 15 minutes, was the transgender military ban, which the Defense Department implemented during the Trump administration after President Trump tweeted in 2017 he’d ban transgender people from the military “in any capacity.”
Although openly gay people are now able to serve in the nation’s military as a result of the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” repeal in 2010, medical restrictions were left in essentially barring transgender people from military service. The Obama administration lifted those regulations in 2016, but a new ban, supported by former Defense Secretary James Mattis, was instituted after Trump’s tweet.
David said Austin “understood and appreciated” many transgender service members are not out publicly and face numerous challenges, such as “harassment, the threat of discharge and the lack of access to mental and physical health care.”
“LGBTQ people are just as qualified as any other community to serve in the military, and his support for LGBTQ people serving in the military is, I think, a necessary sea change that we need,” David said.
David said Austin, in addition to the Human Rights Campaign affirmatively raising the issue, brought up the transgender military ban on his own, which David said demonstrates the secretary-designate “understands the stigma that the ban on having transgender troops serving” is comparative to “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.”
A Human Rights Campaign spokesperson didn’t respond to a follow-up inquiry from the Washington Blade via email on whether Austin said anything about a timeline for ending the transgender military ban. The San Francisco-based Palm Center has issued a memo stating the Defense Department could eliminate the transgender military ban in as few as 30 days after Biden takes office.
A Biden transition spokesperson confirmed the meeting took place, but declined further comment.