President Obama on Wednesday signed the repeal of the military's ban on gays serving openly in the nation's armed forces, fulfilling a campaign pledge and ushering in an uncertain new era not just for the military but for the hot-button issue of gender and sexual politics.
More than 500 advocates, lawmakers, members of the military and former soldiers who had been discharged for homosexuality crowded into the signing ceremony, which was held in a Department of Interior auditorium to accommodate the crowd.
The atmosphere was jovial and a little rowdy, with chants of "Yes, we did!" and "U-S-A, U-S-A!" Many shouted out, "Enlist us now!"
"I am just overwhelmed," Obama said. "This is a very good day."
The new law ends a policy that required gay troops to hide their sexual orientation or face dismissal. More than 13,500 service members have been discharged under the rule since 1993.
How soon the repeal will take effect, allowing gays and lesbians to join the military and serve openly for the first time ever, remains uncertain. The president made clear that the repeal won't take effect until he and top defense officials certify the military's readiness, as the law requires, but assured, "We are not going to be dragging our feet to get this done."
In an interview Tuesday that was published on the website of the gay newspaper the Advocate, Obama said he believes that implementation will be a matter of months, though some Pentagon officials have suggested that it could take as long as a year.
"We will get this done in a timely fashion, and the chiefs are confident that it will get done in a timely fashion," Obama said, referring to the heads of the four military branches.
He said that Adm. Michael G. Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, had promised to take with him during his vacation the recommendations on how to lift "don't ask, don't tell" that were part of a eight-month Pentagon study of attitudes toward gays in the military.
Obama also said he had received assurances from the Marine commandant Gen. James F. Amos, the most vocal of the service chiefs to oppose ending "don't ask, don't tell," that the Marines would implement the new policy without hesitance. "He's going to make it work," Obama said.
The president predicted that people would look back at this "historic milestone" and "wonder why it was ever a source of controversy in the first place."
Obama said the repeal "will strengthen our national security and uphold the ideals that our fighting men and women risk their lives to defend."