President Barack Obama is ending the "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" policy that bars homosexuals from serving openly in the U.S. armed forces. The president has signed legislation repealing the 17-year-old policy.
The president fulfilled one of his 2008 campaign promises by signing a bill to overturn a policy that requires gay and lesbian service members to keep their sexuality quiet.
"So this morning I am proud to sign a law that will bring an end to 'Don't Ask, Don't Tell,' said Obama. "This law I am about to sign will strengthen our national security, and uphold the ideals that our fighting men and women risk their lives to defend."
The repeal passed the Senate last Saturday, after winning approval in the House of Representatives a few days earlier.
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Public-opinion polls in recent months have shown a growing percentage of Americans support allowing gays and lesbians to serve openly. Several Republicans in Congress crossed party lines to support the repeal, and Defense Secretary Robert Gates and the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Admiral Mike Mullen, recently spoke in favor of overturning the policy.
The Commandant of the Marine Corps, General James Amos, is one of a number of military leaders who have said they favor keeping "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" in place. Amos said allowing gays to serve openly would be a distraction to other troops. Since the repeal passed the Senate, though, the commandant has said he will abide by the change.
The president cautioned service members the repeal does not take effect immediately. Obama said the old policy stands until he, Secretary Gates, and Chairman Mullen certify the military's readiness to implement the repeal.
"But I have spoken to every one of the service chiefs, and they are all committed to implementing this change swiftly and efficiently. We are not going to be dragging our feet to get this done ... "
Shortly after the signing, White House Spokesman Robert Gibbs said certification would take place within months.
Gay rights groups have criticized Obama for not pushing harder for the repeal.
Before signing the bill, the president said the repeal is a tribute to those he called "patriots," who were forced to hang up their uniforms because of the policy.
"For we are not a nation that says, 'Don't ask, don't tell.' We are a nation that says, 'Out of many, we are one.' We are a nation that welcomes the service of every patriot. We are a nation that believes that all men and women are created equal."
President Bill Clinton implemented the "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" policy in 1993, as a compromise intended to stop gay men and lesbians from being expelled from the military for their sexual orientation.