WASHINGTON — The military’s longstanding ban on service by gays and lesbians came to a historic and symbolic end on Wednesday, as President Obama signed legislation repealing “don’t ask, don’t tell,” the contentious 17-year old Clinton-era law that sought to allow gays to serve under the terms of an uneasy compromise that required them to keep their sexuality a secret.
“No longer will tens of thousands of Americans in uniform be asked to live a lie or look over their shoulder,” Mr. Obama said during a signing ceremony in a packed auditorium at the Interior Department here. Quoting the chairman of his joint chiefs of staff, Admiral Mike Mullen, Mr. Obama went on, “Our people sacrifice a lot for their country, including their lives. None of them should have to sacrifice their integrity as well.”
The repeal does not immediately put a stop to “don’t ask, don’t tell;” Mr. Obama must still certify that repeal will not harm military readiness, as must Defense Secretary Robert Gates and Admiral Mullen, before the military can implement the new law. But the secretary and the admiral have backed Mr. Obama, who said ending “don’t ask, don’t tell” was a topic of his first meeting with the men. He praised Mr. Gates for his courage; Admiral Mullen, who was on stage with the president during the signing ceremony here, received a standing ovation.
While there is still significant resistance within the military to the change in policy, especially within the Marines, at least one proponent, Representative Barney Frank, the openly gay Democrat from Massachusetts, insisted on Wednesday that this latest attempt to integrate the armed services will go more smoothly than efforts at racial or gender integration.
“Reality will very soon make it clear that there is nothing to worry about,” Mr. Frank said. He called the signing the biggest civil rights moment in the nation since the signing of voting rights legislation in the 1960s. “If you can fight for your country, you can do anything,” he said.