Senate Confirms Historic LGBTQ+ Nominees to Defense Department

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The U.S. Senate Thursday confirmed two groundbreaking LGBTQ+ appointees to the Department of Defense by unanimous consent.

Gina Ortiz Jones was confirmed as undersecretary of the Air Force, becoming the first out lesbian to be an undersecretary of any branch of the military. Shawn Skelly was confirmed as assistant secretary of defense for readiness, making her the highest-ranking out transgender person in Defense Department history and only the second trans person ever confirmed by the Senate (Dr. Rachel Levine, assistant secretary at the Department of Health and Human Services, was the first).

Jones and Skelly are among more than 200 LGBTQ+ political appointees put forth by President Joe Biden. Both sailed through their confirmation hearings last month without controversy.

Jones was an intelligence officer in the Air Force and was deployed to Iraq during the war there, serving under “don’t ask, don’t tell.” After leaving the Air Force, she worked for the federal government as an adviser on intelligence and trade, with agencies including the Defense Intelligence Agency and Office of the U.S. Trade Representative.

She was the Democratic nominee for the U.S. House of Representatives from Texas’s 23rd Congressional District, which stretches from El Paso to San Antonio, in 2018 and 2020, losing narrowly to incumbent Republican Will Hurd in 2018 and by a somewhat larger margin to Republican newcomer Tony Gonzales in 2020.

A Filipina-American, she is the first woman of color to be an undersecretary of a military branch and the second member of the LGBTQ+ community. Eric Fanning, a gay man, was undersecretary of the Air Force for two years during President Barack Obama’s administration, then became secretary of the Army.

Skelly served 20 years as a naval flight officer, retiring with the rank of commander, and then in 2013 joined the Obama administration as the first trans veteran appointed by a U.S. president. Her positions included special assistant to the undersecretary of defense for acquisition, technology, and logistics at the Department of Defense and ultimately as the director of the Office of the Executive Secretariat at the U.S. Department of Transportation.

She most recently worked for CACI International, a company that provides technology and expertise for national security purposes, and she is cofounder and vice president of Out in National Security, an advocacy group for LGBTQ+ people in the military, defense contracting, and related areas. She was also part of the Biden transition team.

“Gina and Shawn served their country when living openly could result in discharge and a lost career, so their ascension to key leadership positions is a powerful moment for those servicemembers who served or continue to serve in silence,” said Annise Parker, president and CEO of the LGBTQ Victory Institute, in a press release. “Their confirmation will transform perceptions of LGBTQ people within the ranks of the U.S. military, but also among the leaders of militaries we work with around the world. While they were confirmed because of their unquestionable qualifications and experience, they symbolize our continued progress and will further disrupt any lingering notion that LGBTQ people are somehow unfit to serve.”

“The Biden team is building the most LGBTQ-inclusive administration in U.S. history and the impact it will have on policies and legislation is enormous,” added Ruben Gonzales, Victory Institute executive director. “Gina and Shawn will join at least a dozen other out Defense Department appointees who understand the challenges LGBTQ servicemembers face and will make their well-being a priority. Our military, like our government, is strongest when it reflects the diversity of the people it serves and ensures all are treated with dignity and respect. Gina and Shawn are shattering lavender ceilings that will encourage more LGBTQ people to consider public service.”

Another out Defense Department nominee is awaiting a confirmation hearing — lesbian Sue Fulton, a retired U.S. Army captain who is nominated to be assistant secretary of defense for manpower and reserve affairs.

Victory Institute, a sister organization to the LGBTQ Victory Fund, provides training and leadership development to LGBTQ+ people who aspire to elected or appointed political office. Its Presidential Appointments Initiative has recommended and advocated for numerous qualified candidates for positions in the Biden administration, including Jones and Skelly.

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