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Eric Fanning as Secretary of Army: Will his sexual orientation be a factor?

If confirmed as Secretary of the Army, Eric Fanning stands as a symbol, but is also a highly experienced military manager. 

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Acting Secretary of the Air Force Eric Fanning speaks to 300 members of the 106th Rescue Wing, New York Air National Guard during a visit to Francis S. Gabreski Air National Guard Base in Westhampton Beach, New York on July 25, 2013. U.S. President Barack Obama nominated Eric Fanning to become the next secretary of the Army, the White House said on September 18, 2015, paving the way for the first openly gay leader of a military service branch in U.S. History. Picture taken on July 25, 2013.

REUTERS/Chris Muncy/U.S. Air National Guard/Handout

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President Obama this week tapped Eric Fanning, an openly gay man, to serve as the Secretary of the Army.

Mr. Fanning is the first openly gay person to be nominated to be the top civilian heading one of the military services – and advocacy groups hailed the decision. 

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“History continues to be written and equality marches forward with the nomination of an openly gay man to serve in this significantly important role,” said Ashley Broadway-Mac, president of the American Military Partner Association (AMPA).

If he's confirmed by Congress, how much impact could Fanning actually have on this branch of the military?

It is clear that the Army is set to take on a number of big policy changes in the two years that Mr. Obama has remaining in office. 

There is the matter of the integration of women into combat jobs for the first time, which is slated to happen by January. 

What’s more, Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter announced in July that the Department of Defense would be reevaluating its ban on transgender service members, a process that he estimated will take six months as the services assess the impact of the change and work out the details.

There are an estimated 12,500 transgender services members currently serving quietly in the ranks of the forces, according to the AMPA, including at least two Navy SEALs.

But the vast majority of Fanning’s job, of course, will involve the day-to-day running of the military, with matters large and small that are largely removed from his personal biography, analysts note.

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“The Army wants a good service secretary that will lead it through a period of uncertainty with respect to its purpose and size,” says Phillip Carter, a former Army officer who served in Iraq before serving as a political appointee responsible for the Obama administration’s detainee policy issues. He now directs the Military, Veterans, and Society Program at the Center for a New American Security. 

“Fanning’s biography is a part of him, but it is largely irrelevant to how well he will do as Secretary of the Army,” Mr. Carter adds.

And that, he says, is in keeping with current Army attitudes toward gay service members. 

“I think it mirrors the general sentiment toward sexual orientation in the force – soldiers care about what you can do, not who you are.” 

Fanning is well familiar with the demands of the job, defense officials say, having managed Secretary Carter’s transition into the Department of Defense. He also served as undersecretary of the Air Force from 2014 and as acting secretary of the Air Force for six months prior to that. In 2009, he was appointed deputy undersecretary and deputy chief management officer for the Department of the Navy. He also served as the deputy director of the Commission on the Prevention of Weapons of Mass Destruction Proliferation and Terrorism.

“Eric served as my first chief of staff at the Pentagon, and it has been a privilege over the course of my career to work alongside him and watch him develop into one of our country’s most knowledgeable, dedicated, and experienced public servants,” Secretary Carter said in a statement Friday. “I know he will strengthen our Army.” 

The current Secretary of the Army, John McHugh, seconded this view. “Since my earliest days in the Pentagon, I have consistently witnessed Eric demonstrate sound judgment and insight,” he said in a statement. “Our soldiers, civilians, and their families will benefit greatly from his leadership.”