President Obama signed the repeal of "don't ask, don't tell" into law Wednesday, ending a 17-year ban on openly gay men and women serving in the military.
"No longer will tens of thousands of Americans in uniform be asked to live a lie or look over their shoulder in order to serve the country that they love," Obama said. He quoted Joint Chiefs Chairman Adm. Mike Mullen as saying that while gay men and women sacrifice their lives to defend the country, "none of them should have to sacrifice their integrity as well."
The policy was first put into place by President Clinton in 1993, but Obama pledged to repeal it during the 2008 campaign. For a while, it seemed uncertain the bill would pass when it was packed into a defense authorization bill that was filibustered and killed in the Senate earlier this month. But the House and Senate opted to take up the repeal as a standalone bill, which passed on December 18.
Although the legislation is a historic step, the policy won't end immediately. The ban will not be lifted until Obama, Mullen, and Defense Secretary Robert Gates certify that implementation will not hurt military readiness or effectiveness, unit cohesion, or retention.
The signing took place this morning at the Department of the Interior, as holiday tours at the White House were well under way and prevented full use of the East Room. Obama was joined on stage-amid shouts of "yes we can!" from the audience -- by Mullen, Deputy Secretary of Defense William Lynn, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, D-Md., Sen. Joe Lieberman, D-Conn., and Rep. Patrick Murphy, D-Pa., who received a standing ovation. Murphy was seen as a champion of the gay community, though he lost his seat in the midterm election.
The lone Republican to join the president on stage was Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, who urged the Senate to take up the repeal as a standalone bill rather than attaching it to the defense authorization. Collins was greeted with rousing applause from the roughly 500 activists and supporters in attendance.
Obama was also flanked by Marine Staff Sgt. Eric Alva, the first American wounded in the Iraq war, who then worked with the Human Rights Campaign to speak out against the policy, and Commander Zoe Dunning, who won a two-and-a-half year legal battle to remain in the Navy Reserve after publicly announcing that she was gay in 1993.
The president charged this generation of gay soldiers with honoring their predecessors and setting an example for the future.
"There can be little doubt there were gay soldiers who fought for American independence, who consecrated the ground at Gettysburg, who manned the trenches along the western front, who stormed the beaches of Iwo Jima," Obama said. "Their names are etched into the walls of our memorials. Their headstones dot the grounds at Arlington. As the first generation to serve openly in our armed forces, you will stand for all those who came before you, and you will serve as role models to all who come after. And I know that you will fulfill this responsibility with integrity and honor, just as you have every other mission with which you've been charged."
But he cautioned service members that it is especially important to remember that the policy will not take effect until after he has consulted with Mullen and Gates, whom Obama thanked for their work. He said he had spoken with the service chiefs and they had pledged to implement the change quickly. "We're not going to be dragging our feet to get this done," he said.
He did have a word of reassurance from detractors who have voiced concerns that the policy change will undermine the military.
"As with any change, there's some apprehension," Obama said. "That's natural, but as commander in chief, I am certain that we can affect this transition in a way that only strengthens our military readiness. And people will look back on this moment and wonder, why was it ever a source of controversy in the first place. I have every confidence in the professionalism and patriotism of our service members. Just as they have adapted and grown stronger with each of the other changes, I know they will do so again."
After Obama spoke, Rep. Barney Frank , D-Mass., hailed the signing as an important moment in the country's history. Frank, who has long championed repeal, is gay and said ending the "unjust" policy sends an important message.
"I am a member of Congress -- a big shot," Frank said. "But I used to be 15 and I remember what it was like. There are teenagers all over America and this is going to be an enormous, enormous source of psychological support."
In a sign of the enthusiasm that gripped the room, as Obama turned to put his pen to the bill, a member of the audience yelled, "We're here, Mr. President. Enlist us now!"
Aamer Madhani contributed to this report.