WASHINGTON, June 1, 2015 —
President Barack Obama declared June as Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Pride Month, and the Defense Department is highlighting the importance of leadership as it celebrates the achievements and sacrifices of LGB service members and LGBT civilians.
During an interview with DoD News, Air Force General Counsel Gordon O. Tanner discussed DoD’s LGBT Pride Month, the importance of recognizing diversity within the department and encouraging LGB service members and LGBT civilians to visibly serve.
“LGBT Pride Month is an opportunity to celebrate the achievements of LGBT members of the defense family,” said Tanner, who served on active duty in the Air Force Reserve, as a member of the civil service, and now as a Senate-confirmed political appointee.
“I’ve had the chance to see LGBT members, both civilian and military members, serve when there was a ban on openly gay service, then during the period of ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,’ and [now] openly,” he said.
“For me,” Tanner said, “it’s a time to remember the accomplishments, and the sacrifices and importance of the work that these members have provided to all of us and to the nation.”
Be Open and Honest
As he has done since the repeal of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell”, Tanner encouraged military leaders who are LGB to be “open and honest.”
While he noted that he completely respects the right of an individual to be “where they are in their own personal lives and their own visibility,” he added, “for me, however, I believe whether leaders like it or not, that [they] are role models or mentors, and they are the visible embodiment of the core values of the organization that they represent.”
Tanner noted the Air Force’s core values are “Integrity First, Service Before Self, and Excellence in all We Do.”
“So what does integrity first mean?” he asked. “Well, to me it means that we listen to our moral compass, that we live with courage, honesty, a sense of openness, justice and accountability.”
In other words, Tanner said, integrity means do the right thing.
“And it’s hard, I think, to be a person of integrity if you’re not living ... openly and living [as] who you are,” he said.
Challenges for the LGBT Community
“I believe we still have challenges in visibility,” Tanner said. “Many of our members, civilian and military -- whether because of habit or because of family situations -- are reluctant to be more visible. I think that visibility will be a challenge for us for some time.
“I also think that one of our challenges is outreach to local installations and communities,” he continued. “While it may be easier if you live in a metropolitan area to be more open and visible, it’s tough elsewhere.”
Tanner, who is from a small southern city, said he has personally experienced some of the challenges with being open and more visible in smaller communities across the nation.
“I think that will remain a challenge,” he said, “and for those of us who are leaders, it’s important to ensure that we have created more accepting and welcoming climates at the local level, to the extent we can.”
It’s also important, he said, that organizations share with each other their lessons learned as they have navigated the process of building supportive, welcoming communities and networks.
“The military has done a really wonderful job in the transition,” Tanner said, “and in the change management that has occurred during the repeal of ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.’”
Experience in LGBT Community
Tanner said that being part of the LGBT community has taught him, “First, that to make change you have to build a consensus. “You must ensure that everyone is on the same page and has a common level of understanding.”
He added, “It’s taught me the importance of teamwork. We often have to reach out to our straight allies who are not [part] of the LGBT community to elicit their support. There’s a real commonality of interest in the overall civil rights movement in this country and the LGBT movement.”
Tanner said he’s also learned the importance of communication, and ensuring everyone is on the same page to formulate and accomplish goals.
“Finally, I learned that you just don’t give up,” he said. “The tenacity that’s required when you encounter challenges and obstacles along the way is critical. Never give up.”
Diversity and Inclusion
The Air Force has never had a “stronger advocate” for diversity and inclusion than Air Force Secretary Deborah Lee James, Tanner said.
“She lives and breathes diversity,” he said, “She is particularly interested in diversity of thought, and that comes to the workplace when there are people of different backgrounds, experiences and cultures working together.
Tanner said James believes that diversity will make the Air Force a “richer and stronger” military more capable of achieving the nation’s objectives and ensuring its defense.
Attributes of Success
“I think the most important [attribute] is to listen,” Tanner said. “Here in the Department of Defense, we’re surrounded by incredibly smart people - well-read, well-educated, well-traveled. It always seems to me that if I can wait and listen to the smart people around me before I stake out a position, I’m generally better served.
“Now that may mean asking them questions too so I really understand what they’re saying,” he continued. “But I think if we all listened to each other, particularly those with whom we may disagree -- we would become better leaders and more clearly articulate the way ahead for the Department of Defense, particularly with the limited resources we have now.”
Fully Integrating Reserve and National Guard
Tanner also expressed concerns that LGB reserve and National Guard members may face challenges in their civilian workplaces. Even though Guard members and reservists may be “open” in their military workplaces, most continue to hide who they are in their civilian workplace,” he said.
“In fact, I’ve recently read that 38 percent feel compelled to lie about their personal lives,” he said. There is no bright line between their civilian jobs and their military duties.
“As a result,” Tanner added, “I can tell you that if you are working to conceal something about your personal life ... while you’re performing Guard or Reserve duty, your mind is not on your mission.”
He added, “There need to be legal employment protections in the civilian workplace that allows Guard and Reserve members to be more open so that they can focus on their missions.”
Celebrating LGBT Pride Month
Tanner said he plans to do two things in celebrating LGBT Pride Month -- set new mentoring goals to mentor more rising young LGB leaders, and visit the gravesite of former Air Force Tech Sgt. Leonard Matlovich in the Congressional Cemetery on Capitol Hill.
“Sergeant Matlovich was the first to fight the ban on gays serving in the military,” Tanner explained. “His picture was on the cover of Time Magazine in 1975; NBC made a movie about his life.”
Though Matlovich was discharged in 1975 because he was gay and received a general discharge, he continued to fight for equality in the services until he died in 1988, Tanner said.
“It’s a reminder to me of those people who have gone before us, and on whose shoulders we stand,” he said.
Everyone Has a Role
Tanner said he believes everyone has a role to play in furthering LGBT rights and equality.
“The battle is still not won; it’s ongoing,” he said. “As the band Journey sang, ‘Don’t Stop Believin.’ We’ve got a corps of very strong LGB members in the military and [LGBT] civilian employees ... who are supported well in our services by constructive environments here, and will continue to do extraordinary things for our nation.”
Tanner added, “I believe it’s amazing to think about what that group can do as we lead into this new century.”
(Follow Sgt. 1st Class Tyrone Marshall on Twitter: @MarshallDoDNews)