After years of bitter debate and generations of military tradition, repeal of the 18-year-old "don't ask, don't tell" law went into effect Tuesday at 12:01 a.m. For the first time, soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines were free to declare their sexual orientation without risking being discharged.
And many rushed to do so.
The result, for supporters, was an outpouring of euphoria and relief that some compared to the end of racial segregation in the military in the 1950s, or the admittance of women to the service academies in the 1970s. Supporters planned celebrations in all 50 states.
"It's a huge burden lifted off from my shoulders and the 65,000 other gay and lesbian bisexual troops out there serving in the military right now," Air Force Lt. Josh Seefried told a news conference at the U.S. Capitol with senators who sponsored repeal of the law.
It was the first time that Seefried, who has used the pseudonym J.D. Smith to secretly run a support group for gays in the military, had identified himself as gay in public. He was joined by a Marine captain and an Air Force staff sergeant who also came out.
President Obama pushed the repeal through Congress in December, but the end of the ban was delayed so the Pentagon could train more than 2 million service members in standards of conduct. The delay also allowed the Pentagon to certify that the new policy would not harm military readiness, unit cohesion or recruiting and retention.
"As of today, patriotic Americans in uniform will no longer have to lie about who they are in order to serve the country they love," Obama said.
Legal and cultural challenges are likely to continue since federal laws bar the Pentagon from offering same-sex couples the same health, housing and education benefits as heterosexual couples. The Defense of Marriage Act prohibits giving federal benefits to same-sex couples, and a separate federal statute for the armed forces defines a spouse as a "husband" or a "wife."
Also, unlike women and minorities, gays and lesbians are not recognized under law as a "protected class," which would enable them to file formal complaints of employment discrimination. Pentagon officials have said discrimination complaints based on sexual orientation can be raised up the chain of command or with the inspector general.
But other changes clearly are coming.
Same-sex couples will be able to appear together at official functions and live together openly, though not in military housing.
Recruiters can sign up gay recruits, and many of the more than 14,000 gay service members who were forced out in recent years can try to re-enlist, but they will receive preferential treatment.
With the lifting of the ban, the Defense Department published revised regulations to reflect the new law allowing gays to serve openly. The revisions, such as eliminating references to banned homosexual service, are in line with policy guidance that was issued by top Pentagon officials in January, after Obama signed the repeal legislation.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.