Fanning the Fire for LGBT Rights

Regular readers of the US website Army Times will know that it recently included a small article on the nomination by President Obama of Eric Fanning as Secretary for the Army. To those of us not au fait with American military jargon, suffice to say this is one of the highest-ranking positions in Defence in the Pentagon. The first few paragraphs of the article list his impressive résumé: his “many years of experience”[1] in which he acted as adviser to former Defence Secretary Ash Carter; and he has spent some time as undersecretary to both the US Navy and Air Force. Quotes were given from various bigwigs in Washington DC, including Obama himself, that emphasise his accomplishments. It is only after this illustration of merit that the article also notes, as an aside, that he is the first openly gay man to be nominated for the position.

Image Courtesy of Airman 1st Class Jordan Castelan, US Airforce. Public domain, no rights reserved.
Image Courtesy of Airman 1st Class Jordan Castelan, US Airforce. Public domain, no rights reserved.

The removal of the infamous Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell Policy in 2011, in addition to Fanning’s nomination means that this is perhaps an ideal time to look at the historical relationship between gay rights and the US military. However, here there will be no attempt to tackle that thorny issue. Instead I aim to take a broader view. Questions will be posed throughout about why this kind of story is covered in the international media, and whether or not it should.

The American press’s reaction is obviously important. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the casual mention in the Army Times’ piece is atypical. Most US media outlets, of any political leaning, chose to mention Fanning’s sexual preferences before any of his other credentials for the job. Fox News, for example, in one article[2] manages to give a brief history of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell and the current status of women’s right to serve in the military before outlining any of Fanning’s previous experience. The New York Times couldn’t help but mention Fanning’s sexuality in the first line of an article on the topic[3].

All this is to be expected and is not a negative thing. US citizens are interested to know who is in charge of their army, but the fact that the nomination is also an historic one should be noted as well. It becomes interesting when we compare the US’ reaction to the international media’s. Internationally, the focus on his sexuality is even greater than in the USA. Al Jazeera’s headline article took this as an opportunity to discuss the new potential for LGBT servicemen and women[4]. German newspaper Die Welt doesn’t mention any of Fanning’s past experience at all, only the fact that he is “schwul”.[5] Here in the UK The Daily Mail directly links the appointment to Obama’s focus on promoting LGBT rights in the military and mentions Fanning’s previous roles as a separate point.[6]

The reaction of the world is, of course, not entirely – and indeed, rarely – negative. What is noteworthy, however, is that even those media providers who focus on how progressive this is for LGBT rights are still making his sexual orientation the main point of the story. The first question to ask, then, is whether or not there would be a story at all without taking into account Fanning’s sexuality. For the sort of people who read Army Times the nomination of anyone for the role of secretary of the Army is no doubt interesting news, but for the rest of us – particularly from the other side of the Atlantic – it may seem rather a niche issue. A quick internet search in attempt to dig up articles in the world media concerning Obama’s nomination in 2009 of the current secretary to the Army, John McHugh, yielded few results. This is not an exact science, but it may be assumed that the world did not pay so much attention to a heterosexual white man being given a bureaucratic job in the Pentagon. Quite simply, that was not news.

However, the USA is – inescapably – a powerful country with a powerful army. The world should care about who is in charge of this army. So what does it say about the international response that the world media seems only to care about this issue in terms of its historic relevance? Fanning has been diminished to a statistic when he deserves to be recognised for his own credentials. This may not seem like a big issue to us as the recipients of international media because we are so used to it. Think of Obama’s election, or Hillary Clinton coming closer than any woman thus far to the White House in 2008. The story was not that qualified and organised politicians had achieved something. The story was that they were the first of their kind; they were somehow different. They became poster-children for a certain “type” of person, whether they liked this or not.

This may not be a negative thing. The world press, perhaps even more so than the press in the US, want to celebrate the achievement. They take a certain pleasure in reporting the story. However it might not be a step too far to say that they are relishing it for entirely the wrong reasons. My analysis is that those foreign news outlets – as well as countless others – enjoy any story that makes the US squirm. The story that Die Welt, The Daily Mail and even Al Jazeera are really reporting is that the country with that powerful army is not living up to its stereotype: the stereotype that, as the Mail notes, the USA is a country with “barriers to military service based on sexuality or gender”[7]. The most controversial part of the issue is that the USA is, by and large, not finding the issue noteworthy.

In the twenty-first century every step for equality is a step in the right direction. It is, however, becoming an historic inevitability. We ask constantly when it will stop being news that someone is the first of their “kind” to take on a role, but a significant number of people have already stopped asking. Even by positively discriminating, we are clinging onto age-old prejudices that we used to fight. The world looks to the USA to lead the world in holding onto these prejudices, and instead by and large finds the reaction of the Army Times: factual and realistic.

If Congress accepts Fanning’s nomination next month, it will be a monumental moment for LGBT rights in the USA. The question I want to ask, though, is whether the world media would do better to leave the facts of Fanning’s private life aside and, by extension, give the USA more scope to encourage equality. No news, as the old saying goes, is usually good news.

[1] Tan, Michelle. “President nominates first openly gay army secretary.” Army Times. 19th September 2015.

[2] Fox News. “Obama nominates first openly gay military service chief.” Fox News. 18th September 2015.

[3] Cooper, Helene. “Eric Fanning, civilian adviser, named secretary of the army.” The New York Times. 18th September 2015.

[4] Reuters. “Obama nominates openly gay man to lead army.” Al Jazeera. 18th September 2015.

[5] Die Welt. “Schwuler soll Heeresminister werden.“ Die Welt. 20th September 2015.

[6] Associated Press. “Obama to nominate first openly gay service secretary to lead the army.” The Daily Mail. 18th September 2015.


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