WASHINGTON — Gays and lesbians will be able to serve openly in the U.S. military in 60 days after President Obama formally certified Friday that the controversial 17-year policy known as “don’t ask, don’t tell” was ready for repeal.
Mr. Obama, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, and Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, signed a certification to Congress that lifting the ban won’t jeopardize the military’s combat readiness and that after months of training, the armed forces are ready to accept the change.
“As commander in chief, I have always been confident that our dedicated men and women in uniform would transition to a new policy in an orderly manner that preserves unit cohesion, recruitment, retention, and military effectiveness,” Mr. Obama said.
“As of Sept. 20, service members will no longer be forced to hide who they are in order to serve our country.”
The repeal — which was expected after Congress passed a law in December — fulfills an Obama campaign pledge and also ends a policy that opponents have long described as discriminatory.
Gay rights groups that fought for nearly two decades to overturn the policy hailed the Pentagon’s certification as a milestone, but they cautioned that there are still barriers to gays and lesbians in the military.
“No one should underestimate the historic significance of repealing ‘don’t ask, don’t tell,’” said Aubrey Sarvis, an Army veteran and the executive director of the Servicemembers Legal Defense Network, which had advocated for the repeal.
“No longer will a service member be fired because of her or his sexual orientation; neither should they live in fear of such an action.”
The change will allow service members to be open about their sexual orientation and let the more than 14,000 service members who were discharged solely because of “don’t ask, don’t tell” to apply to re-enlist.
But same-sex couples — even those who may be legally married in the states that allow it — still won’t qualify for housing allowances, health care for spouses and children, or support for their families during overseas deployments.
One reason is that Title 10 of the Uniform Code of Military Justice, written 30 years ago, recognizes only spouses of the opposite sex.
Another is the Defense of Marriage Act, signed by President Bill Clinton in 1996, which prohibits the federal government from recognizing same-sex marriages.
“Don’t ask, don’t tell” was controversial from the moment Mr. Clinton signed it in 1993.
Opponents of the repeal said that allowing gays and lesbians to serve openly would undermine military cohesion, but earlier this year Admiral Mullen said that repealing the law was the moral thing to do.
Pentagon officials said they have trained nearly 2 million service members since March in the new policy, which covers everything from administrative changes to ensuring that troops don’t lash out at those who come out of the closet.
“We believe that we’ve done this in an orderly manner and that we can transition to a new environment where all service members, regardless of sexual orientation, can serve,” said Jeh Johnson, the Pentagon’s general counsel.
“And it’s our hope there won’t be continued claims, lawsuits and so forth.”