WASHINGTON -- Fulfilling a campaign pledge and striking a blow for what he sees as basic human rights, President Barack Obama is signing a landmark law Wednesday that allows homosexuals to serve openly for the first time in America's armed forces.
So many gay rights and Democratic activists were expected at the signing ceremony that the White House booked a large auditorium at the Interior Department.
"This day has come!" said an elated Mike Almy, an Air Force major discharged four years ago when his sexual orientation became known. "Don't ask, don't tell is over, and you no longer have to sacrifice your integrity."
While the elation is real, Pentagon officials caution it could be premature, since the bill requires service chiefs to complete implementation plans before lifting the old policy known as "don't ask, don't tell" -- and certify to lawmakers that it won't damage combat readiness, as critics charge.
Plus guidelines must be finalized that cover a host of practical questions, from how to educate troops to how sexual orientation should be handled in making barracks assignments.
While officials have avoided timetables, the process will likely take months. Still, for gay and lesbian Americans, Wednesday was a watershed. And for Obama, it was a day to revel in the achievement of a goal he's long championed.
It was also the second of three expected victories in what's turned out to be -- for Obama -- a surprisingly productive closing weeks of the current session of Congress. Weeks after his self-described "shellacking" in the November elections, Obama has won lopsided approval of a tax cut compromise with Senate Republicans, and the Senate is poised to deliver his top foreign policy goal: ratification of a new nuclear arms treaty with Russia.
Many Democratic liberals were furious over the tax package, believing Obama had blithely yielded to Republican demands to retain the same tax cuts for the rich he had loudly denounced on the campaign trail in 2008. That's not the case with the repeal of "don't ask, don't tell." Lifting of the ban on gays serving openly was something Obama not only campaigned on in 2008 but reiterated in this year's State of the Union speech.
"I will work with Congress and our military to finally repeal the law that denies gay Americans the right to serve the country they love because of who they are," he said in January to cheers in the House chamber, adding, "It's the right thing to do."
Born 17 years ago as a compromise between President Bill Clinton and a resistant Pentagon, the "don't ask, don't tell" policy became for gay rights campaigners a notorious roadblock on the way to full acceptance. More than 13,500 service members have been dismissed under the 1993 law that forced gay men and women in the military to hide their sexual identity.
Speaking in June at a Gay Pride Month observance at the White House, Obama likened the fight to end the ban on gays serving openly to the struggle of American blacks for civil rights.
"We have never been closer to ending this discriminatory policy," he declared.
Yet he has also faced rising discontent among homosexual activists who believed he hadn't moved forcefully enough. He's been heckled at campaign appearances over AIDS funding and the failure to end the military service ban.
Obama countered that as commander-in-chief, he has to ensure the ban's end is carefully prepared for. He insisted that the repeal would have more legitimacy if Congress changed the 1993 law rather let the issue be decided in the courts.
The bill from Congress mandates that the armed services ensure the end of the ban proceeds cautiously.
"The implementation and certification process will not happen immediately; it will take time," Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Norton Schwartz warned in an e-mail that went out right after Saturday's Senate vote. "Meanwhile, the current law remains in effect. All Air Force members should conduct themselves accordingly."
Military and administration officials are wrestling with numerous legal questions raised by the ban -- knowing that courts are waiting in the wings. They include what to do about pending expulsion proceedings, and when those ousted under "don't-ask-don't-tell" might apply to rejoin the armed forces.
For Almy, who appeared at a Capitol Hill ceremony Monday, the important thing is that gay and lesbian service members are no longer singled out because of who they love.
"That's all we ever wanted," he told reporters, "not special rights, just the same as our straight counterparts."