President Obama on Wednesday signed a bill doing away with the ban on gays serving openly in the military, a milestone he said redeemed the sacrifice of gay men and women who fought in every war beginning with the 18th century battle for independence.
Using 15 ceremonial pens, Obama repealed the “don’t ask, don’t tell” law, beginning the transition to an armed forces in which gay troops no longer need to conceal their sexual orientation in order to serve.
Obama cast the issue as part of a string of civil rights struggles that beat back discrimination in favor of a more tolerant, unified nation.
Speaking to a crowd of about 500 military leaders, members of Congress, gay rights advocates and service men and women, Obama said, “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 all men and women are created equal.”
It was an emotional scene in the Interior Department, where the bill-signing took place to accommodate an unusually large crowd. As Obama appeared on stage, the crowd chanted, “Yes we can!” a slogan from Obama’s 2008 campaign.
A smiling president said, “Thank you. Yes, we did!”
Obama recounted the story of Lloyd Corwin, an Army private during World War II who tumbled into a 40-foot ravine during the Battle of the Bulge and was “as good as dead.” But a friend and fellow soldier, Andy Lee, turned back and rescued Corwin.
Four decades later, when the two friends reunited, Lee told Corwin that he was gay. Corwin “had no idea. And he didn’t much care,” Obama said. “Lloyd knew what mattered. He knew what had kept him alive.”
Miles Corwin, Lloyd’s son, attended the bill-signing ceremony. Corwin, an Altadena author and former Los Angeles Times reporter, wrote a first-person story about his late father’s friendship with Lee in 1993, the year “don’t ask, don’t tell” was implemented.
Obama also said that during a recent visit to Afghanistan, he shook hands with a female soldier who pulled him close and whispered to him that he needed to repeal “don’t ask, don’t tell.”
“And I said to her, ‘I promise you I will,’ ” the president recalled.
For Obama, repeal is the fulfillment of a major campaign promise and a message to his liberal base that he will fight to uphold core principles. Over the last two years, some of Obama’s liberal supporters were angered by compromises he made in passing a healthcare overhaul and a tax package that extended George W. Bush-era tax cuts for the wealthiest Americans.
Yet Obama is now building a record that, in some respects, surpasses that of the last Democratic president, Bill Clinton. Clinton tried and failed to overhaul the healthcare system. And he was unable to push through a policy allowing gays to serve openly. Thousands of people were forced out of the armed forces under the “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy passed during Clinton’s first term.
Repeal became a focal point of the lame-duck congressional session, but the outcome wasn’t clear until the Senate voted 65 to 31 on Saturday to lift the ban.
Though the repeal was an important achievement for Obama, White House aides think his political viability still hinges on the economy. Obama presides over an economy in which nearly 1 in 10 Americans is unemployed. If conditions don’t improve, he remains vulnerable to a Republican challenge in the 2012 presidential election.
Implementing the new policy is an effort that involves multiple government agencies. Military officials have said they will need to educate troops about the new law and come up with policies dealing with benefits for gay troops and their families. The current law remains in place until 60 days after Obama, Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates and Adm. Michael G. Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, certify that the military is ready to comply with the new directive.
A jubilant crowd watched the historic bill-signing ceremony.
When Obama was introduced, someone in the audience shouted, “Enlist us now!” But the transition is likely to take months.
Speaking directly to gay troops, Obama told them they would be “role models” and asked that they serve with integrity.
“And so as the first generation to serve openly in our armed forces, you will stand for all those who came before you and you will serve as role models to all who come after,” Obama said.