James Mattis, a retired Marine Corps general nominated for defense secretary, said at a Senate confirmation hearing Thursday that he has no plans to reverse rules allowing LGBT people to serve openly in the military.
"I have never cared much about two consenting adults and who they go to bed with," he said.
The comments came under questioning from New York Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, who noted that Mattis had raised questions in the past about whether gays serving openly and women taking in combat roles may undermine the potency of US forces.
"My belief is that we have to stay focused on a military that is so lethal that on the battlefield, it will be the enemy's longest day and worst day when they run into that force," he began.
Yet Mattis indicated he was open to changing the rules if his advisers cite evidence of problems. "I believe that right now, the policies that are in effect — unless the service chief brings something to me where there has been a problem that has been proven — then I'm not going in with the idea that I am going to review these and right away, start rolling something back," he said.
Policies in effect currently provide greater access for women and LGBT people to serve than under any previous administration. Last March, Defense Secretary Ash Carter approved rules to allow women in combat roles. Congress repealed a ban on gays, lesbians, and bisexuals serving openly in the military in 2010, and the Pentagon lifted a ban on transgender people serving openly last June.
A future administration, however, could implement new bans.
Asked specifically whether he believed LGBT people serving undermined the lethality of the military, Mattis answered, "Frankly, senator, I have never cared much about two consenting adults and who they go to bed with."
"So it is no?" asked Gillibrand.
"My concern is the readiness of the force to fight and make certain it is the top of the game," he replied. "When we go up against the enemy, the criteria that everything that we do in the military up to that point, when we put the young men and women across the line of departure, is they are at the most lethal stance. That is my obligation as I move into the job, and how I will look at the issue."
Sen. Mazie Hirono also asked if there is something innate in being a woman or LGBT that leads him to believe they could not be part of a lethal force, to which Mattis replied, “No.”
LGBT advocacy groups American Military Partner Association and OutServe applauded the comments, issuing a statement Thursday that said, "Because questions had been raised about his commitment on this front, uncertainty in the future had given our military families great cause for concern. His comments today give us hope for a working relationship between our organizations and the new Defense Department leadership."