The official U.S. policy banning gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgendered people from serving openly in the military has been officially repealed and its demise is being hailed as a milestone for civil rights by advocacy groups and government officials alike.
U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said the change moved America closer to "equality, equal opportunity, and dignity for all Americans."
"These are men and women who put their lives on the line in the defense of this country and that's what should matter the most.," he said.
U.S. Senator Joseph Lieberman (Independent, Connecticut), who had campaigned for the repeal of the policy known as "Don't Ask, Don't Tell," said the milestone represented "the front line of the civil rights movement."
"To me this is not just a victory for the gay and lesbian community of American, or more narrowly, for gay and lesbian Americans who want to serve in the U.S. military. It's a victory for our country," he said.
Lieberman made the comments at a press conference in Washington with gay and lesbian service members who are now able, for the first time in history, to reveal their sexual preference without fear of losing their military post.
The law known as "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" was passed by Congress and signed by by former President Bill Clinton in 1993. It was seen as a compromise at the time. The policy prohibited military personnel from discriminating against or harassing gay and lesbian service members but it also barred openly gay or lesbian soldiers from serving. And the policy led to the dismissal of more than 13,000 members of the military who either revealed their homosexuality or were "outed" by others.
Debate over the fairness and prudence of the policy has increased in recent years, with opponents arguing that itwas both discriminatory and damaging to national interests, because it often excluded well-qualified individuals from service.
A Huge Burden, Lifted
First Lieutenant Joshua Seefriend is a 25-year-old officer in the U.S. Air Force who last year used a pseudonym to found an underground group of some 4,000 gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender service members.
Now he has dropped his guise.
"No words can describe how it feels to stand up here and be able to say for the first time [that] my name is First Lieutenant Josh Seefriend and I am a gay first lieutenant in the United States Air Force," he said at the Capitol Hill press conference. "It's a huge burden lifted off of my shoulder and the 65,000 other gay and lesbian and bisexual troops out there serving in the military right now."
"I'm 31 years old, I'm a woman, I'm a United States Marine, and I'm a lesbian," said another member of the military, who choked back tears as she spoke.
More than 100 GLBT soldiers have also revealed their identities in the first publicly distributed issue of a new magazine distributed by the military named, "OutServe."
Ready For A Change
U.S. President Barack Obama, who first pledged to end "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" when he was campaigning for the White House, won the support of senior U.S. defense officials and enough members of Congress to end the policy last year.
He signed the repeal legislation in December, which mandated a waiting period to allow the military time to prepare for the change.
The Pentagon said last week that 97 percent of the military's 2.3 million active and reserve service members have undergone training in the new law. Defense officials have also concluded that ending "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" will not harm military readiness, unit cohesion, or recruiting and retention of service members -- arguments that some have used to argue in favor of retaining the policy.
In a statement issued by the White House, Obama said, "As of today, patriotic Americans in uniform will no longer have to lie about who they are in order to serve the country they love. As of today, our armed forces will no longer lose the extraordinary skills and combat experience of so many gay and lesbian service members."
He also said that ending "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" would bring the country "closer to the principles of equality and fairness that define us as Americans."
Senator Carl Levin (Democrat-Michigan), chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, said the policy's repeal strengthens the military because all willing Americans will be able to fight for their country.
"Their service will be judged based on their duty performance, not on their sexual orientation. Our military will be stronger because service members with skills and experience that our military needs will not face discharge because of who they are," said Levin.
The end of the policy means that service members who were discharged under "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" will be allowed to re-enlist. All pending military investigations, discharges, and other administrative proceedings have also been dropped.
The United States now joins the majority of European countries, Australia, Israel, and many others, in allowing open military service for homosexuals.
Dozens of nations, including Belarus, Iran, and Pakistan, still do not.