Senate unanimously confirms two LGBTQ women to top military positions

Gina Ortiz Jones and Shawn Skelly.

In an historic action, the Senate confirmed Gina Ortiz Jones and Shawn Skelly to top military positions with unanimous consent.

Gina Ortiz Jones will serve as Under Secretary of the Air Force, the first out lesbian to serve as under secretary of a military branch. Shawn Skelly will serve as Assistant Secretary of Defense for Readiness and Force Management, becoming the first transgender person to hold the post and the highest-ranking out trans defense official in U.S. history.

Skelly is the second trans person confirmed by the Senate. Dr. Rachel Levine, former Secretary of the Pennsylvania Department of Health, is now the assistant secretary to the Department of Health and Human Services. Skelly is the highest-ranking openly trans official at the Department of Defense.

In 2013, Eric Fanning became the first out LGBTQ person to ever serve as under secretary of a military branch when he was confirmed as Under Secretary of the Air Force. He then made history in 2016 when he was confirmed as Secretary of the Army.

“President Biden nominated two historic #LGBTQ+ nominees for key roles at the Department of Defense,” White House Senior Advisor on LGBTQ+ Engagement Reggie Greer wrote on Twitter.

Both Ortiz Jones and Skelly have stellar military records, and both also served under the punitive “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy.

Ortiz Jones, 40, joined the U. S. Air Force as an intelligence officer and deployed to Iraq during the Bush Administration in 2003 and served until 2006.

She then became an intelligence analyst for U. S. Africa Command in Germany. In 2008, she joined the Defense Intelligence Agency, where she specialized in Latin American issues, and then became a special adviser to the deputy director.

In November 2016, during the Obama administration, Ortiz Jones moved to the Executive Office of the President to serve under the Office of the U. S. Trade Representative. She maintained that position until June 2017.

She quit the Trump administration, telling the media, “The type of people that were brought in to be public servants were interested in neither the public nor the service.”

She added, “That, to me, was a sign that I’m going to have to serve in a different way.”

During her opening statement to the Senate Armed Services Committee in June, Ortiz Jones thanked her partner for her support. She also spoke about the history of discrimination in the military, including her uncle’s limited opportunities as a Filipino who served.

She paralleled her uncle’s military experience to her service under “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” saying: “That experience cemented my resolve to ensure anyone ready and able to serve can do so to their full potential and accordingly our country’s fullest potential.”

In 2018, Ortiz Jones ran for Congress in Texas’s 23rd congressional district, a Republican enclave, against incumbent Will Hurd, losing by a slim margin. She ran again in 2020, losing a second time.

Skelly, 55, is a co-founder of Out in National Security, an advocacy group of national security professionals. She served just over 20 years in the Navy and retired at the rank of Commander in 2008 and was a naval flight officer. In her last assignment before retiring, Skelly directed the department-wide anti-IED program for the Marine Corps.

She also served as Director of the Executive Secretariat at the Department of Transportation, and from 2013 to 2016 as a special assistant to the Undersecretary of Defense for Acquisition, Technology and Logistics.

In 2017, Skelly was appointed by President Obama to the National Commission on Military, National, and Public Service, making her one of the highest-profile, openly transgender presidential appointees in U.S. history. In 2017, Out Magazine named Skelly to its list of 100 most influential LGBT Americans.

Former Houston Mayor Annise Parker, now president and CEO of the LGBTQ Victory Institute, said Jones’s and Skelly’s confirmations are a “powerful moment.”

“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,” she said 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.”

She added, “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.”

Ruben Gonzales, executive director of the LGBTQ Victory Institute, said adding more LGBTQ people to the inner levels of government ultimately impacts policies and legislation for all LGBTQ people.

Gonzales said, “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. 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.”

He added, “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.”

Ortiz Jones and Skelly are two of more than 200 LGBTQ political appointees to the administration of President Joe Biden, including at least a dozen currently serving in the Department of Defense.

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Victoria A. Brownworth is a Pulitzer Prize-nominated award-winning journalist whose work has appeared in The New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, The Philadelphia Inquirer, Baltimore Sun, DAME, The Advocate, Bay Area Reporter and Curve among other publications. She was among the OUT 100 and is the author and editor of more than 20 books, including the Lambda Award-winning Coming Out of Cancer: Writings from the Lesbian Cancer Epidemic and Ordinary Mayhem: A Novel, and the award-winning From Where They Sit: Black Writers Write Black Youth and Too Queer: Essays from a Radical Life.