After years of debate and months of final preparations, the U.S. military passed a historic milestone today with the repeal of a ban on gays serving openly in uniform.
Repeal of the 18-year-old legal ban took effect at 12:01 a.m. EDT, ending a prohibition that President Barack Obama said had forced gay and lesbian service members to “lie about who they are.”
Some in Congress still oppose the change, but top Pentagon leaders have certified that it will not undermine the military’s ability to recruit or to fight wars.
Obama issued a statement saying he is confident that lifting the ban will enhance U.S. national security.
“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,” he said. “As of today, our armed forces will no longer lose the extraordinary skills and combat experience of so many gay and lesbian service members.”
The Army was distributing a business-as-usual statement today saying simply, “The law is repealed,” and reminding soldiers to treat each other fairly.
“From this day forward, gay and lesbian soldiers may serve in our Army with the dignity and respect they deserve,” said the Army statement, signed by Army Secretary John M. McHugh, Army chief of staff Gen. Raymond Odierno, and the Army’s top enlisted soldier, Sgt. Maj. of the Army Raymond F. Chandler III.
The commander of Air Mobility Command, Gen. Raymond Johns, told reporters that repeal is being taken in stride in the Air Force.
“It really hasn’t come up in any significant conversation” he has had recently, Johns said. “It’s not a big deal.”
Defense Secretary Leon Panetta pledged not to allow other issues of equal opportunity, such as allowing women to serve in combat roles, to be ignored or set aside.
“I am committed to removing all of the barriers that would prevent Americans from serving their country and from rising to the highest level of responsibility that their talents and capabilities warrant,” Panetta told a Pentagon news conference. “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.”
Appearing with Panetta for what was probably his final news Pentagon conference as chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, retiring Navy Adm. Mike Mullen said that with the new law allowing gays to serve openly, the military is a stronger, more tolerant force with greater character and honor.
“I still believe that it was first and foremost a matter of integrity, that it was fundamentally against everything we stand for as an institution to force people to lie about who they are just to wear a uniform,” Mullen said. “We are better than that.”
Gay advocacy groups began a series of celebrations across the country.
At a San Diego bar, current and former troops danced and counted down to midnight. “You are all heroes,” Sean Sala, a former Navy operations specialist, said. “The days of your faces being blacked out on the news — no more.”
This morning, a handful of protesters — calling for an expansion of benefits for gay and lesbian military members — set up near Norfolk Naval Station during rush hour, generating scores of honks, fist pumps and waves from supporters in civilian and military uniforms.
Get Equal‘s “Day of Discontent” was to continue with rallies and community gatherings in about a dozen cities across the country
Get Equal Managing Director Heather Cronk said in a telephone interview from Washington that even with the policy’s repeal, gay and transgender people are still discriminated against. She noted gay people can’t get married on military bases.
OutServe, an association of gay and lesbian military personnel on active duty, surveyed more than 500 members last week and found that most are already “out” to some people in their units. Gay sailors were more optimistic than members of the other services about how they would be treated now that the ban is over, with 17 percent saying they expect colleagues to treat them with respect and without discrimination. An additional 55 percent said they expect no discrimination, with some minor exceptions.
The great majority of service members said they didn’t plan to come out to everyone they work with, and most indicated that at least a few co-workers already know the truth.
Demographers will be interested to see how many military members identify themselves as gay. A 2010 estimate compiled by the Williams Institute at UCLA, based on the prevalence of homosexuality across the general U.S. population and on U.S. census data, theorized there are 13,000 gay and lesbian service members on active duty, with another 36,000 in National Guard and reserve units.
A lingering question is whether disciplinary procedures are adequate to deal with any future instances of harassment of gays in the ranks. Michael Corgan, a professor of international relations at Boston University and a U.S. Naval Academy graduate, said it’s mainly a matter of leadership.
“Discipline problems that might arise from gays serving with an overwhelmingly straight population in the military should be able to be handled the way any other disciplinary problems are, if commanders are up to their jobs,” Corgan said.
The head of Pentagon personnel put out a memo to the work force at 12:01 a.m. EDT. “All service members are to treat one another with dignity and respect regardless of sexual orientation,” the memo from Clifford Stanley said.
“The Department of Defense is committed to promoting an environment free from personal, social or institutional barriers that prevent service members from rising to the highest level of responsibility possible regardless of sexual orientation.”
In Iraq, a spokesman for U.S forces put out a statement this morning noting that all troops there had been trained for the change.
Pentagon press secretary George Little said Monday that the military is adequately prepared for the end of the current policy, commonly known as “don’t ask, don’t tell,” under which gays can serve as long as they don’t openly acknowledge their sexual orientation and commanders are not allowed to ask.
“No one should be left with the impression that we are unprepared. We are prepared for repeal,” Little said.
Last week, the Pentagon said 97 percent of the military has undergone training in the new law.
For weeks the military services have accepted applications from openly gay recruits, while waiting for repeal to take effect before processing the applications.
With the lifting of the ban, the Defense Department will publish revised regulations to reflect the new law allowing gays to serve openly. The revisions, such as eliminating references to banned homosexual service, are in line with policy guidance that was issued by top Pentagon officials in January, after Obama signed the legislation that did away with the “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy.
The lifting of the 18-year-old ban also brings a halt to all pending investigations, discharges and other administrative proceedings that were begun under the Clinton-era law.
Existing standards of personal conduct, such as those pertaining to public displays of affection, will continue regardless of sexual orientation.
There also will be no immediate changes to eligibility standards for military benefits. All service members already are entitled to certain benefits and entitlements, such as designating a partner as one’s life insurance beneficiary or as designated caregiver in the Wounded Warrior program.
Gay marriage is one of the thornier issues. An initial move by the Navy earlier this year to train chaplains about same-sex civil unions in states where they are legal was halted after more than five dozen lawmakers objected. The Pentagon is reviewing the issue. And certain limitations will continue, especially for same-sex partners of military members. They will not have access to military bases, health insurance or shopping privileges at commissaries.
Service members who were discharged under the “don’t ask, don’t tell” law will be allowed to re-enlist, but their applications will not be given priority over those of any others with prior military experience who are seeking to re-enlist.
Some in Congress remain opposed to repeal, arguing that it may undermine order and discipline.
A leading advocate, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, said Monday the repeal is overdue.
“Our nation will finally close the door on a fundamental unfairness for gays and lesbians, and indeed affirm equality for all Americans,” the California Democrat said.