The acceptance of gays and lesbians serving openly in the ranks has reached the point where acting Air Force Secretary Eric Fanning, the highest-ranking gay official in the Defense Department, can joke about the concerns of some about what color he'll paint the planes.
"The truth is, of course, I'll focus on my job," said Fanning, who took the post last week with the retirement of Michael Donnelly.
Fanning on Tuesday joined with Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel – who initially opposed the ban on gays serving openly – and White House senior advisor Valerie Jarrett at a Pentagon ceremony marking Gay Pride Month and honoring the military service of gays and lesbians.
Fanning noted that gay pride ceremonies were also being held at Kandahar and Bagram air bases in Afghanistan. "The military is no longer an institution that discriminated against people just like me. We are stronger as an institution," he said.
"It hasn't been easy, it's often been painful," Fanning said, but "today the Secretary of Defense is kicking off our pride celebration." Last June, the Pentagon's acknowledgment of Gay Pride Month was more subdued, with then-Defense Secretary Leon Panetta issuing a statement.
In brief remarks, Hagel said the event marking Lesbian Gay Bisexual Transgender Pride Month was an opportunity for gay servicemembers to "take pride in themselves and their many achievements."
The event was organized by "DoD Pride," representing LGBT servicemembers, civilians, contractors and families in the Defense Department.
Gays serving openly "makes our military and our nation stronger, much stronger," Hagel said. The nation was also made stronger by "our ability to correct our course," Hagel said, apparently alluding to his previous opposition to ending DADT.
During his stormy Senate nomination hearings earlier this year, Hagel was the target of criticism from several gay groups before reversing course and stating that he was now "fully supportive of open service" by gays and "committed to LGBT military families."
In her remarks, Jarrett gave a "special shout out" to Army Brig. Gen. Tammy Smith, now the highest ranking openly-gay officer in the Army military, who was seated in the front row with her wife, Tracey Hepner.
Smith had been the highest-ranking openly gay officer in the military until the promotion this earlier this month to two-star rank of Air Force Maj. Gen. Patricia Rose, who is married to retired Navy Lt. Julie Roth.
Hepner and Smith "can breathe a little easier" since the repeal of DADT, Jarrett said, calling the end of DADT "one of the most significant civil rights achievements of the President's career."
After the ceremony, Smith said that Fanning's quip about painting the planes "totally shows how far we've come" in the long journey to gaining acceptance in the military. Many times in her 27 years of service "I couldn't have fathomed this day coming about" with a Defense Secretary leading a gay pride event, she said.
In a statement hailing the Pentagon's endorsement of Gay Pride Month, Allyson Robinson, an Army veteran and executive director of the OutServe-Servicemembers Legal Defense Network gay rights group, said that "Acknowledging the accomplishments and contributions of lesbian, gay, and bisexual service members sends an important message all the way down the chain of command."
Prior to becoming acting Air Force Secretary, Fanning was the under secretary of the Air Force and previously served as deputy under secretary of the Navy for management.
Fanning, a Dartmouth College graduate, also served from 2008 to 2009 as deputy director of the Commission on the Prevention of Weapons of Mass Destruction Proliferation and Terrorism, and was also formerly a staffer on the House Armed Services Committee.
The 44-year-old Fanning has been picking up support in his home state of Ohio for his appointment as acting Air Force secretary to become permanent.
"His experience on Capitol Hill will help him lead the Air Force through unprecedented budget challenges," Sen. Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio, said of Fanning in a statement.