WASHINGTON — Gays and lesbians will be able to serve openly in the U.S. military in 60 days after President Barack Obama formally certified on Friday that the controversial 17-year policy known as "don't ask, don't tell" was ready for repeal.
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," Obama said in a statement.
"As of September 20th, service members will no longer be forced to hide who they are in order to serve our country."
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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. But while gay rights groups that fought for nearly two decades to overturn the policy hailed the Pentagon's certification as a milestone, 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, only recognizes spouses of the opposite sex. Another is the Defense of Marriage Act, which Clinton signed in 1996, which prohibits the federal government from recognizing same-sex marriages.
"On day one of repeal, legally married gay and lesbian service members will not receive the same family support benefits, the same housing benefits, the same medical benefits, as their legally married straight counterparts," Sarvis said.
Sarvis said his organization would renew its appeals to Obama to issue an executive order banning discrimination in the military based on sexual orientation and gender identity. A nondiscrimination policy already applies to the Pentagon's civilian work force, and an order from Obama or a directive from Panetta would be required to apply that policy to uniformed personnel.
"Don't ask, don't tell" was controversial from the moment President Bill 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 Mullen said that repealing the law was the moral thing to do.
Pentagon officials said that they've 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."
Pentagon officials said that they would continue to study benefits policies "to determine legally and fiscally which benefits we can provide to all service members" regardless of sexual orientation, said Virginia Penrod, deputy assistant defense secretary for military personnel policy.
While it might take months or even years to equalize benefits, Sarvis said that military commanders could play a big role.
"Historically, commanders have taken great deal of pride in treating all of the troops the same with respect to basic pay and benefits," he said. "When commanders become aware of this benefits disparity, I think they're going to be uncomfortable with it."
(Youssef reported from Fort Campbell, Ky. Lydia Mulvany of the Washington Bureau contributed.)
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