San Francisco-based Greg, an army recruit just out of basic training, was unable to call his boyfriend on weekends like his fellow trainees. He told Crikey he’ll now take that chance as he travels to advanced training next month.

“I don’t have to say I’m gay, but I won’t hide from the people I love anymore,” he said. Whether he’s ready to bring his partner to the annual army ball is, he says, another matter.

President Barack Obama sighed as he put a stroke through one of America’s most talked-about civil rights debates of the past decade: “We are done.” Gay and lesbian service members will be allowed to serve in the US military openly, and without fear a marriage certificate, joint credit card statement or well-wishing Christmas card could lead to a dishonourable discharge.

The White House had invited so many former service members kicked out due to Don’t Ask Don’t Tell that it had to move the signing ceremony from the traditional East Room to the nearby auditorium of the Department of the Interior. They greeted the president’s arrival with chants of “yes we did” and “you rock, President Obama”.

In thanking those men and women for their service, Obama acknowledged it will be the first time gay and lesbian soldiers, sailors and airmen will be officially acknowledged since the birth of the US military in the battle of independence.

“There will never be a full accounting of the heroism demonstrated by gay Americans in service to this country; their service has been obscured in history,” Obama said. “It’s been lost to prejudices that have waned in our own lifetimes.  But at every turn, every crossroads in our past, we know gay Americans fought just as hard, gave just as much to protect this nation and the ideals for which it stands.”

He said there was little doubt gay soldiers fought for American independence and in every war since: “Their names are etched into the walls of our memorials. Their headstones dot the grounds at Arlington.”

Obama assured members of the veterans and gay advocacy groups who had championed the repeal that although he was fulfilling his campaign promise with the passage of the legislation, he would not let the military drag its heals on implementation. Afterwards, White House spokesman Robert Gibbs gave the first indication of a timetable: “A matter of months.”

No Don’t Ask Don’t Tell discharges have been authorised in months since responsibility was pushed up the chain to the desks of the service chiefs. But those currently serving have been told to keep their heads down until open service has been certificated by the chairman of the Joint Chiefs, Secretary of Defence and the President, and a 60-day additional wait period has expired.

Passage of the repeal also paves the way for ROTC reservist corps to return to Ivy League campuses for the first time since the Vietnam War. Military recruiters and ROTC clubs have been banned from many universities due to Don’t Ask Don’t Tell’s incompatibility with campus anti-discrimination policies.

Fulfilling this campaign pledge had been one of the messiest of Obama’s first two years in office. At least twice Democrat leaders had effectively given up on passage in the current Congress, only to be pulled back to the negotiation table by the veterans and gay advocacy groups.

The US military’s highest ranked officer, Admiral Mike Mullen, and Secretary of Defence Robert Gates were persuaded to join the cause a year ago in exchange for allowing the military to conduct it’s own extensive survey of troops attitudes. The strategy was successful in dismantling many of the arguments opponents had used against repeal, but never won over Senator John McCain, who leads the Republicans in the Senate Armed Services Committee.

McCain and other Republican opponents threw up a last ditch attempt to stop repeal by threatening that unless the push was dropped, they would amend the New Start nuclear treaty with Russia, a move that would send the treaty negotiations back to the starting block. But three core moderate Republicans finally allowed the repeal legislation to come to a vote in the Senate, fearing it must be done now as it could never pass once their own party was in power. When it finally did come to a vote, they were joined by five more Republican senators.

This lame duck session of Congress has been called the most productive in 15 years. Passage of the continuing tax cuts, the repeal of Don’t Ask Don’t Tell and the ratification of the New Start treaty just hours ago is arguably as big an achievement as the health care reform and stimulus package that took nearly all of Obama’s first two years in office.

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey