The Defense Department celebrates the extraordinary achievements of its LGBTQ+ service members, civilian employees and their families' sacrifices during Pride Month, Secretary of Defense Lloyd J. Austin III said today at the Pentagon.
Speaking to an audience that included the department's senior-most leadership, the secretary said as DOD reflects on the progress it's made in making sure that everyone who wants to serve and is qualified, can do so with dignity and respect.
"We know we have more work to do, but thanks to your courage, advocacy and dedication, the Department of Defense has been able to do more to secure LGBTQ+ rights than at any other time in history," Austin said.
That includes efforts to ensure all military families and spouses receive the benefits their loved ones have earned, and to which they are entitled; to helping veterans who previously were forced out because of their sexual orientation to apply to correct their records, or — where appropriate — to return to service, he said.
"[It's] often said that progress is a relay race [and] not a single event. That's certainly been true when it comes to the pioneers who fought for this community’s civil rights in the military," the secretary said.
Throughout American history, LGBTQ+ citizens have fought to defend our rights and freedoms — from the founding of our nation to the Civil War, from the trenches of two World Wars to Korea and Vietnam and from Afghanistan to Iraq, the secretary said. "They fought for our country even when our country wouldn't fight for them."
Austin noted how not every advocate of this community's rights has been an LGBTQ+ community member. Former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Navy Adm. Mike Mullen, was one leader who took a courageous stand against the law, "Don't Ask, Don't Tell," which led directly to its repeal 10 years ago.
Today, the department commemorates the repeal of that law and welcomes a new generation of soldiers, sailors, airmen, guardians and Marines, openly and proudly serving their country, Austin said.
"And today, we reaffirm that transgender rights are human rights and that America is safer — it is better — when every qualified citizen can serve with pride and dignity," the secretary said.
He called such efforts real progress and emphasized how the repeal was hard-fought and hard-won.
However, DOD's work isn't done until it tackles the challenge of sexual assault and harassment in the force, he emphasized.
"And we know that service members from this community are at elevated risk of this crime. Our work isn't done until we recognize that the health of the force fully incorporates mental health, including for LGBTQ+ service members," the secretary pointed out.
"That's why we must recommit to treating all wounds, both visible and invisible. And our work still isn’t done until we create a safe and supportive workplace for everyone — one free from discrimination, harassment and fear," Austin said.
"No one should have to hide who they love to serve the country they love," he said. "No service member who is willing to put their life on the line to keep our country safe should feel unsafe because of who they are."
Further, the secretary said, "No citizen who is qualified, willing and able to do the job should be turned away. So yes, we've got more to do. But I'm confident we'll get there because of all of you, and because of the LGBTQ+ service members and civilians around the world who never stop living the values they so bravely defend."
The secretary said he knows this community is especially proud this month and rightfully so. "I'm proud, too," he said, adding, "proud every month and every day to call you my teammates and to serve alongside you — because your lives, careers, service and stories are living proof that we are stronger and more effective together."
Austin thanked the LGBTQ+ community for their service, their skill, and change and progress as they continue to lead. "It matters very much to the defense of this nation," he said.