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Senate confirms Shawn Skelly and Gina Ortiz Jones in historic LGBTQ firsts

The Senate confirmed both Jones and Skelly to top military positions with unanimous consent.
Gina Ortiz Jones (right), candidate for U.S. House (TX-23), speaks on a panel at an EMILY's List luncheon at the Fairmont Hotel on Friday, Aug. 17, 2018 in San Francisco, Calif.
Gina Ortiz Jones speaks on Aug. 17, 2018, in San Francisco.Liz Hafalia / San Francisco Chronicle via Getty Images file

The Senate confirmed two LGBTQ women to top military positions on Thursday in historic firsts.

Gina Ortiz Jones will serve as undersecretary of the Air Force — the first out lesbian to serve as undersecretary of a military branch. Shawn Skelly will serve as assistant secretary of defense for readiness, becoming the first transgender person to hold the post and the highest-ranking out trans defense official in U.S. history.

Skelly is also the second trans person confirmed by the Senate, behind Rachel Levine, the assistant secretary to the Department of Health and Human Services.

The Senate confirmed both Jones and Skelly with unanimous consent.

Jones has 15 years of experience in intelligence and national security, NBC News previously reported. She served three years in the Air Force under the now-defunct "don't ask, don't tell" policy and during that time deployed to Iraq. She was also an intelligence analyst for U.S. Africa Command, which is responsible for managing military operations in 53 African countries, and a senior strategic planner and then special adviser to the deputy director for the Defense Intelligence Agency, according to the LGBTQ Victory Institute, which helps queer candidates win elected office.

Jones has run for office twice, seeking to represent Texas' 23rd District in Congress: first in 2018, when she narrowly lost to incumbent Republican Will Hurd, and then again in 2020, when she lost to Republican Tony Gonzales.

Skelly is a 20-year Navy veteran and a co-founder of Out in National Security, a group that advocates for LGBTQ national security professionals.

Shawn Skelly attends Out magazine's #OUT100 on Nov. 9, 2017, in New York.Bryan Bedder / Getty Images file

She was appointed by President Barack Obama in 2013 as the special assistant to the undersecretary of defense for acquisition, technology and logistics in the Department of Defense, becoming the first transgender veteran to be appointed by a U.S. president, according to Out in National Security. She also served in the Obama administration in the Department of Transportation and the National Commission on Military, National and Public Service.

Former Houston Mayor Annise Parker, now president and CEO of the LGBTQ Victory Institute, said Jones' 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."

"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," she added.

While gays and lesbians have been able to serve openly in the U.S. military since 2011, transgender Americans have only been able to do so since 2016, though former President Donald Trump reversed that policy in 2017. The Biden administration changed course again in 2020, with new policies allowing trans people to enlist and serve openly taking effect in April.

In recognition of her confirmation, Skelly shared a GIF on Twitter of a character from the TV show “Ted Lasso” asking “Me?”

Jones hasn’t released a public statement about her confirmation, but she received congratulations from Julián Castro, former mayor of San Antonio, where Jones lives. Castro helped phone-bank for Jones during her most recent run for Congress.

Advocates consider the Biden administration to be the most pro-LGBTQ in history. In his presidential proclamation recognizing Pride Month in June, President Joe Biden wrote that almost 14 percent of his 1,500 agency appointees identify as LGBTQ.

His administration has celebrated a number of firsts in addition to Levine, Skelly and Jones. Secretary of Transportation Pete Buttigieg is the first openly LGBTQ person to serve in a presidential Cabinet, and White House principal deputy press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre became the first openly gay spokeswoman — and the second Black woman — to lead a formal briefing in June.

The LGBTQ Victory Institute’s Presidential Appointments Initiative has recommended and advocated for some of Biden's appointments, including Jones and Skelly.

Ruben Gonzales, executive director of the LGBTQ Victory Institute, said lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer inclusion is about more than representation — it will impact policies and legislation.

"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," Gonzales said. "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."

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