WASHINGTON—The Senate on Saturday voted to strike down the Pentagon ban on gay men and lesbians serving openly in the military, bringing to a close a 17-year struggle over a policy that forced thousands of Americans from the military and caused others to keep secret their sexual orientation.
By a vote of 65-31, with eight Republicans joining Democrats, the Senate approved and sent to President Barack Obama a repeal of the Clinton-era law known as “don’t ask, don’t tell,” a policy critics said amounted to government-sanctioned discrimination that treated gay and lesbian troops as second-class citizens.
Obama hailed the action, which fulfills his pledge to reverse the ban, and said it was “time to close this chapter in our history.”
“As commander-in-chief, I am also absolutely convinced that making this change will only underscore the professionalism of our troops as the best-led and best-trained fighting force the world has ever known,” Obama said in a statement after the Senate beat back Republican efforts to block final action on the repeal bill.
The vote marked a historic moment that some equated with the end of racial segregation in the military. It followed an exhaustive Pentagon review that determined the policy could be changed with only isolated disruptions to unit cohesion and retention, though members of combat units and the Marine Corps expressed greater reservations about the shift. Congressional action was backed by Pentagon officials as a better alternative to a court-ordered end.
Supporters of the repeal said it was long past time to end what they saw as an ill-advised practice that cost valuable personnel and forced troops to lie to serve their country.
“We righted a wrong,” said Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman, an Independent from Connecticut, who led the effort to end the prohibition on gays in the military. “Today we’ve done justice.”
Before advancing the repeal legislation, the Senate engaged in an emotional back and forth over the merits of the measure as repeal advocates watched from crowded galleries.
“I don’t care who you love,” Democratic Sen. Ron Wyden, of Oregon, said as the debate opened. “If you love this country enough to risk your life for it, you shouldn’t have to hide who you are.”
Wyden showed up for the Senate vote despite saying Friday that he would be unable to do so because he would be undergoing final tests before his scheduled surgery for prostate cancer Monday.
The vote came in the final days of the 111th Congress as Democrats sought to force through a final few priorities before they turn over control of the House to the Republicans in January and see their clout in the Senate diminished.
It represented a significant victory for the White House, congressional advocates of lifting the ban and activists who have pushed for years to end the Pentagon policy created in 1993 under the Clinton administration as a compromise effort to end the practice of banning gay men and lesbians entirely from military service.
Activists said it represented an emotional moment for members of the gay community nationwide. Activists exchanged hugs outside the Senate chambers following the vote.
“Today’s vote means gay and lesbian service members posted all around the world can stand taller knowing that ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’ will soon by coming to an end,” said Aubrey Sarvis, an Army veteran and executive director for Servicemembers Legal Defense Network.
Sen. John McCain, the Arizona Republican and the party’s presidential candidate in 2008, led the opposition to removing the repeal and said the vote marked a sad day in history.
“I hope that when we pass this legislation that we will understand that we are doing great damage,” he said. “And we could possibly and probably, as the commandant of the Marine Corps said, and as I have been told by literally thousands of members of the military, harm the battle effectiveness vital to the survival of our young men and women in the military.”
The repeal would not take effect for at least 60 days and probably longer while some other procedural steps are taken. In addition, the bill requires the defence secretary to determine that policies are in place to carry out the repeal “consistent with military standards for readiness, effectiveness, unit cohesion, and recruiting and retention.”
In a statement Gates said that once the measure was signed into law, he would “immediately proceed with the planning necessary to carry out this change carefully and methodically, but purposefully.” In the meantime, he said, “the current law and policy will remain in effect.”
Because of the delay in formally overturning the policy, Sarvis appealed to Gates to halt any investigations into military personnel or discharge proceedings now under way.
Legal challenges to the existing ban are also expected to continue until the repeal is fully implemented.