(619) 505-7777

Remarks by Secretary Hagel at the LGBT Pride Month event in the Pentagon Auditorium

(Editor's note: Presenter is Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel; Senior Adviser to the President and Chair Valerie Jarrett, White House Council On Women And Girls; Acting Secretary Of The Air Force Eric Fanning. The event took place on Tuesday, June 25, 2013 in the Pentagon Auditorium.)

SECRETARY OF DEFENSE CHUCK HAGEL: Thank you. Ladies and gentlemen, leaders of the LGBT community, DoD leaders, distinguished guests, and our special guest today, Valerie Jarrett, welcome and thank you for attending and being part of this celebration.

This month brings the LGBT community together to take pride in themselves and their many achievements. Gay and lesbian service members and LGBT civilians are integral to America's armed forces. Their ranks include senior leaders, like Acting Secretary of the Air Force Eric Fanning, who will be here shortly, also, Brigadier General Tammy Smith, who last year became the first openly gay general officer in the United States military.

Our nation has always benefited from the service of gay and lesbian soldiers, sailors, airmen, and coast guardsmen, and Marines. Now they can serve openly, with full honor, integrity and respect. This makes our military and our nation stronger, much stronger. The Department of Defense is very proud of its contributions to our nation's security. We're very proud of everything the gay and lesbian community have contributed and continue to contribute. With their service, we are moving closer to fulfilling the country's founding vision, that all of us are created equal.

It has never been easy to square the words of our forefathers with the stark realities of history. But what makes America unique, what gives us strength is our ability to correct our course. Over more than two centuries, our democracy has shown that while it is imperfect, it can change, and it can change for the better.

All of us should take pride in the role the U.S. military has played in this endeavor and continues to play. The military continues to fulfill this country's promise. Our commitment to equality requires us to continue building a culture of respect for every member of the military, our society, and for all human beings.

In his second inaugural address, President Obama reminded us that, quote, "While freedom is a gift from God, it must be secured by his people here on Earth." Securing those freedoms has required generations of patriots to fight for their fellow citizens, and it has demanded courageous leaders be willing to stand up for what they believe.

Today, we are joined by one of those leaders. Valerie Jarrett has been a trusted friend and adviser to President Obama for many years and a key adviser on LGBT issues. Valerie has been a strong supporter of our men and women in uniform and their families, and she has a lifelong commitment to social justice and to advancing equality and opportunity for all people.

Ladies and gentlemen, I am very proud to introduce you to our keynote speaker today, Valerie Jarrett. (Applause.)

VALERIE JARRETT: Thank you, thank you, thank you so much. Thank you for that warm welcome. Good morning, everyone. It is an honor for me to be here with you today as we celebrate LGBT Pride Month.

Secretary Hagel, thank you for that kind introduction. You have certainly taken on a daunting new challenge here at this Department of Defense, returning to serve your country once again. And in your first few months on the job, you have already made an incredible difference in the lives of our men and women in uniform. I know that President Obama particularly values your deep and abiding commitment to all of our service members and their families, which he and the first lady have made a top priority.

Let me begin by congratulating the DOD Pride on your leadership and tremendous success in bringing together the LGBT community and allied members of the DOD community from across the entire department. You've come a long way since those morning coffee groups I heard about. (Laughter.)

Didn't think I knew about that. Oh, yeah, see? (Laughter.)

We know everything. I'd like to also acknowledge Army Secretary John McHugh, Deputy Secretary Ash Carter, and the many undersecretaries, assistant secretaries, and senior leaders who are here today. Thank you for your leadership and support for the LGBT community here at the Pentagon. Your presence here means a great deal.

And a special shout-out to our acting secretary of the Air Force, Eric Fanning, who you'll be hearing from shortly, now the highest-ranking openly gay official in the Defense Department. Thank you for your service, too.

To the service members here today and to those who are watching from installations and bases around the world, please know that the president of the United States, President Obama, your commander-in-chief, is so proud of your courage, your dedication, your sacrifice, and your service to our country. Because of you, the United States has the strongest and the best military in the world, don't you think? Absolutely. (Applause.)

Also, to the spouses and partners, thank you for your steadfast support of our servicemen and women. What a joy and honor it is for me to be able to publicly acknowledge you and your great service and sacrifice and to your families. And it's so nice to see a young man here today. To the many civilians here, we are so grateful for all that you do to support the critical mission of the Defense Department.

In late 2010, I hosted a meeting in the White House with a small, small group of active-duty gay and lesbian service members and a couple of gay veterans that had been discharged. As you'll recall, Congress was in the midst of a debate over the repeal of "don't ask/don't tell." And at that point, there was not a clear path to victory. Each person shared their story of what it was like to serve in the military and why trying to hide who they are was so hard.

I'll never forget the young woman who said she and her girlfriend lived in perpetual state of fear of accidentally saying the wrong thing or doing something that might give away their secret. I'll never forget the veteran who said he couldn't even be honest about who he was with his own family, because he didn't want to ask them to lie for him. And I'll never forget how they all expressed their love of country and a deep sense of patriotism that motivated them to serve in our military.

After the meeting, I walked into the Oval Office and I shared their heartbreaking stories with our president. He put his hand on my shoulder and he said that he was determined, no matter what, that we would find a path to the repeal of "don't ask/don't tell" so that the next time these men and women came to the White House, they could do so in uniform, proudly and openly, with their heads held high and their loved ones at their side.

Seeing you all here today, proud and open and honest about who you are and who you love, brings the stories that I heard that day, those painful stories, full circle, because the president kept his promise. And looking around, I know many of you have already been to the White House in uniform.

As you know, change has been the defining theme of the Obama administration. We talk a lot about change. And I'm talking about the kind of change that brings about a real difference in people's day-to-day lives, change that propels us to true equality for all, and closer to what the Constitution describes as a more perfect union.

When I look back over the last four-and-a-half years since President Obama took office, nothing better exemplifies that kind of profound and meaningful and historic change than the repeal of "don't ask/don't tell." It is one of the most significant civil rights accomplishments of the president's career.

Many of you know the story of "don't ask/don't tell" all too well, not because you read about it somewhere or heard it mentioned in a speech, but because you lived it. Whether you endured it yourself while serving in uniform or witnessed its impact on your loved ones or colleagues, you saw firsthand the toll it exacted on countless patriots and their families. And you know that it's a policy that ran completely contrary to the basic values of America.

To quote the president right before he signed the repeal act, one of my favorite days in the White House, he said, "We are not a nation that says don't ask, don't tell. We are a nation that says, out of many, we are one." And we know that because we repealed "don't ask/don't tell," our military -- as Secretary Hagel said -- is stronger and our country is safer, more equal, and more just.

Last September, on the first anniversary of "don't ask/don't tell" repeal, I once again invited a small group of gay and lesbian service members, officers, and enlisted personnel from every service, some of whom brought their partners to the White House, this time to share their stories about how their lives had changed since the repeal. I heard from a Marine Corps captain who signed up after 9/11, knowing that "don't ask/don't tell" was the law, but was willing to do anything in order to serve the country that he loves. He believes that a true leader is honest and open, so his inability to share major parts of his life with his colleagues kept him from being the best leader that he could be.

Since the repeal of "don't ask/don't tell," however, he can serve, in his words, fully, completely and with integrity. And when he deploys in August, he'll be taking his husband with him.

And I heard from a military spouse who had lived in what she called a circle of silence. She was scared to talk with friends and coworkers about her relationship with her wife, even during deployments, out of fear that word would get out and it might endanger her wife's career. I can't even fathom what an immense burden she bore, not to be able to confide in a single soul the entire time her wife was deployed.

But today, Tracey Hepner and General Tammy Smith can breathe a little easier. Tracey, who leads an organization of LGBT military partners and spouses and families, was right at Tammy's side, pinning on her stars when Tammy became the first openly gay general officer last year.

I'm so pleased when I walked in to see that they're both here, so let's give them a round of applause. Stand up. Come on. (Applause.)

Those stories I heard that day show us what change really looks like and why it matters so much. For change is being able to put your family photo on your desk, just like everyone else. Change is being able to share with your coworkers about your weekend or your vacation plans, just like everyone else. Change is knowing that you are free to be who you are and love whomever you want without fear of harassment or losing your job, just like everyone else.

It's being able to openly embrace your partner in front of all the other families when he or she returns from a tour of duty, just like everyone else. And change is knowing that if you make the ultimate sacrifice for our country that you love, someone will be able to notify your loved ones, just like everyone else. That's change.

This kind of change was not easy and it did not happen as fast as we would have all liked it to have happened, but the repeal of "don't ask/don't tell" reminds us that steadfast determination, persistence, and conviction can right a wrong. That's who we are as the secretary said. We can change course.

One of my favorite quotes if from Reverend Martin Luther King Jr., and this summer we will be commemorating this 50th -- the 50th anniversary of his March on Washington. And he said, and I quote, that "the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice." The arc is bending, and not just in Washington, but all around our country.

Just think about the growing number of states that have moved towards marriage equality or who have implemented policies to protect LGBT Americans from discrimination. Just think about the athletes who are coming out and telling stories and are not surprisingly welcomed by their teammates. Just think about the churches and synagogues and PTA and Boy Scout troops that are opening their doors to members of the LGBT community, recognizing that despite our differences, we draw strengths from common purpose and a shared humanity.

Make no mistake, though, we still have a lot of hard work to do. After all, the repeal of "don't ask/don't tell" was the beginning. And it's not the end of the process. We're still working to make sure that we have full equality for every member of our military community. Our work is not going to be done until we've ensured that we support and care for all of our service members and their families. That's why earlier this year, at President Obama's direction, the Department of Defense identified more than 20 additional benefits that could be extended to same-sex domestic partners and their children without any additional change in federal law. Changing federal law is hard. We can do this without that.

Benefits that include ID cards and access to the commissary base exchanges, joint duty assignments, and childcare, and legal assistance, all of which we know means such a great deal to the daily lives of our gay servicemen and women and their families. And I understand that the Department of Defense, under Secretary Hagel's leadership, has made great progress and will be able to implement those benefits this fall.

And our hard work is not done, either, until all women and men feel safe from harassment, assault and violence on our bases. As President Obama said recently, those who commit sexual assault are not only committing a crime, they are threatening the trust and discipline that makes our military so strong. And that's why we're determined to stop these crimes, because they have no place in the greatest military on Earth.

And I know that Secretary Hagel shares President Obama's strong commitment for, how can we be the very best in the world if we're attacking our own? Our strength comes, as you all know, from having each other's back. And you have the power to lead the way, just as our military's done before, driving change not only within our armed forces, but within American society, from achieving landmark racial integration to recognizing that being honest about your sexual orientation should not disqualify you from proudly serving our country.

So we're meeting frequently with the Pentagon's senior civilian and military leaders to generate bold initiatives that will really make a difference in dealing with this major threat to our readiness, as well as our ability to recruit and retain all of the best from our volunteer force.

We've also engaged members of Congress and activists and experts and community leaders and active-duty enlisted service members to hear everybody's views and solicit their good ideas, as we build an aggressive and unified approach to tackling this corrosive problem. And, again, your secretary deserves a lot of credit for making this such a high priority, and we thank you for that.

After our initial phase of work is done on sexual assault prevention, this summer, we expect to broaden our scope and work with the Department of Defense to address the wider set of issues affecting the health of our military. Our work continues to ensure that the U.S. military is a place where all qualified Americans who are willing to work hard and put mission first and stand up and defend our country can serve their nation and rise to the highest potential.

Our military has proven again and again that it is the most professional and capable fighting force the world has ever seen. And that can readily -- and that it can readily adapt to both challenge and change. It's because fighting for your country is fundamentally about honor and patriotism and dedication and service. It's not about stereotypes.

All of you here today are a testament to that truth. Challenges and obstacles do lie ahead, but I know that all of you are accustomed to doing hard things. That's what you do each and every day.

Every single day, you dedicate yourself to protecting our country and its citizens, and we are so grateful, and it is no simple task. You put yourself in harm's way for us, but not just for us as citizens, but for us for our country and what our country stands for. So let's not rest. Instead, let's keep fighting for true equality and justice for all, and please know that the president of the United States is with you every step of the way as we move towards a more perfect union.

Thank you very much. Congratulations. Celebrate. (Applause.)

MODERATOR: Thank you, Ms. Jarrett. Ladies and gentlemen, the Acting Secretary of the Air Force Eric Fanning.

ACTING SECRETARY OF THE AIR FORCE ERIC FANNING: Thank you very much. I'm very honored to be here today and humbled to be following the previous two speakers.

Just two years ago, you couldn't openly serve in the military, and today we have had the secretary of defense kick off our pride celebration. Thank you very much for being here, sir. (Applause.)

I think your -- your presence here today means more than you could possibly understand. Secretary McHugh, thank you very much for being here, as well. And, Valerie Jarrett, thank you for those moving words. You've been with us from the start. We're so happy to have you here with us today, and we appreciate your support over these many years.

A special thank you, too, to the DOD Pride group that put all this together, that pushed to make sure this event took place, and to all the individuals and organizations that helped make them -- make this a reality.

And a shout-out to all the other DOD Pride events. This is not the DOD pride event. They're all over the world, including in Kandahar and Bagram this week in Afghanistan.

I'll keep my remarks brief, which is actually easy to do when you're third. You're mentally striking paragraphs as you're listening to your two -- the two previous speakers talk. It's hard to follow what they have to say, as well, and I'm not sure what I could add, and it's never a good idea to keep your boss sitting in his seat for any longer than necessary. (Laughter.)

I first started working in this building 20 years ago, just as we were implementing "don't ask/don't tell." It was a difficult time, and it was a painful experience for me personally. There were no other open LGBT appointees, and anyone serving openly in uniform was surely in the process of being discharged.

I know there were others in the building at the time who felt like I did, that we were all alone in the Pentagon. We didn't have a group like DOD Pride to pull us all together and give us support. It was a deeply conflicting time for me. I was launching a career with strong support from amazing bosses, who knew about my personal life, Les Aspin, John Deutsch, John White, and Rita Deleon. I was being given opportunities that were being denied to people just like me. I was working for an institution that discriminated people -- against people just like me.

It was hard 20 years ago to hear how people talked about gays and lesbians in such blistering and emotional ways, about individuals who wanted nothing more than the right to serve their country while also being honest about who they were. And it was hard to imagine we'd ever be where we are today, but during these 20 years, the military's gone through the difficult process of opening itself up by providing opportunities to those for whom it was previously denied or constrained, to women, to immigrants looking to prove their loyalty to this country and earn their citizenship, to gays and lesbians.

It hasn't been easy. It's often been painful, many times messy. At times, it seemed agonizingly slow or even that we were losing ground. But never once did we doubt we were on the right path. We faced enormous challenges, even in the easy years, whenever those were, and we are stronger as an institution when we can pull on the diverse talents of a broader pool of people who are willing and able to serve, coming together with different backgrounds, different experiences, different points of view. We are stronger for looking more like the society we are charged with protecting, and we are today, as Valerie said and the secretary said, the finest military the world has ever known.

The tone of the debate two years ago when we repealed "don't ask/don't tell" was remarkably different than 18 years ago when it was implemented. It started, of course, at the top, with the clear support from President Obama, our commander-in-chief. Valerie already said the great words. We are not a country of "don't ask/don't tell." We are the country of out of many, we are one. They bear repeating, I think.

And that testimony -- that moving testimony from Admiral Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs, "I cannot escape being troubled by the fact that we have in place a policy which forces young men and women to lie about who they are in order to defend their fellow citizens. It comes down to integrity, theirs as individuals and ours as an institution."

Almost two decades later -- earlier, sitting in the back of the secretary of defense's conference room, as a junior and very young aide, listening to how those chiefs spoke about gays in the military, I could never imagine having a chairman say things like Admiral Mullen did.

I knew we had come a long way when we certified repeal, when it seemed that most people's reaction in the building was, "Haven't we done this already?" I was fortunate enough, with many of you here today, to be present when the president signed that repeal. That night, there were many celebrations, people from inside the building, part of the Department of Defense, friends of ours from outside, and I kept getting asked, "What was it like when you went back to the building after the repeal was signed? Was that what everyone was talking about? Was there a buzz in the building?"

And I answered honestly, and I think disappointingly, that, no, went back to the building, and in my view, the building had already moved on past the decision and we talked about what we talk about every single day, the budget. (Laughter.)

There is more to do, as Valerie said and the secretary mentioned, including honoring the families of all our service members. And I know we'll get this right, because our leaders tell us we will and because the military places paramount value on the family. We couldn't do what we do without the support of families.

We went through a debate about repealing "don't ask/don't tell," but when the decision was made and gays and lesbians were allowed to serve openly, they became valued members of the team. The chiefs -- and I hear them talk about this all the time -- value all who serve under them, and they value their families. They will find a way to recognize this.

I've received a bit of attention since being nominated for the position of undersecretary of the Air Force, even more in the last few days since becoming active secretary, not all of it welcome, some of it quite negative, though some of it also rather imaginative. Many have speculated as to my agenda, what color I'll paint the planes, what designs I have on the uniforms. (Laughter.) (Applause.)

But the truth, of course, is that I'm focused on doing my job, which means taking care of airmen, finding a way to shift resources from the Army and the Navy to the Air Force... (Laughter.)

One team, one fight. Just kidding. (Laughter.)

And making sure I don't do anything to give the boss reason to doubt his decision to give me this job in the first place. In other words, just like everyone else in this room, I'm focused on doing my job.

But these comments, especially over the last weekend, are dwarfed by the outpouring of support I've received in and out of this building, and it reminds me that, as important as events like this are for our community, they're also important opportunities for our allies to identify themselves and to let us know they're right alongside us. Events like this give voice not just to us, but to those who support us. To all our allies here today, thank you.

We call these pride events as a way of demonstrating that we are proud of the progress we've made as a community, but I know for all of us here in the Pentagon and across the department, there is a different meaning, a larger meaning. We are proud that we are able to serve as part of the military, in or out of uniform, proud that we are able to contribute to this great mission of protecting our nation.

Thank you for inviting me to be a part of this. Thank you for coming today. And I look forward to seeing you next year. (Applause.)