NEW YORK – Allowing gays and lesbians to serve openly in the U.S. military is a step toward equality, advocates say, but a fight for other social changes such as gay marriage still lies ahead.
The Senate voted Saturday to end the 17-year ban on openly gay troops, overturning the Clinton-era policy known as "don't ask, don't tell."
"It's one step in a very long process of becoming an equal rights citizen," said Warren Arbury of Savannah, Ga., who served in the Army for seven years, including three combat tours, before being kicked out two years ago under the policy. He said he planned to re-enlist once the policy is abolished.
"Even though this is really huge, I look at it as a chink in a very, very long chain," he added.
The ruling drew quick rebuke from foes of lifting the ban who argued that the military shouldn't be used to expand the rights of gays and that allowing them to serve openly would hurt troop morale and a unit's ability fight.
Supporters declared the vote a civil rights milestone.
Aaron Belkin, director of the California-based Palm Center — a think tank on the issue — said the vote "ushers in a new era in which the largest employer in the United States treats gays and lesbians like human beings."
For thousands of years, he said, one of the key markers for first-class citizenship in any nation is the right to serve in the military, and Saturday's vote "is a historic step toward that."
Repeal means that for the first time in U.S. history, gays will be openly accepted by the military and can acknowledge their sexual orientation without fear of being discharged. More than 13,500 service members have been dismissed under the 1993 law. Before that, they had been explicitly barred from military service since World War I.
The change won't take immediate effect, however. The legislation says the president and his top military advisers must certify that lifting the ban won't hurt troops' fighting ability. After that, there's a 60-day waiting period for the military.
Some supporters of the repeal traveled to Washington to witness the vote, including Sue Fulton, a former Army captain and company commander who is spokeswoman for Knights Out, a group of 92 gay and lesbian West Point graduates who are out and no longer serving.
Driving home to North Plainfield, N.J., the 51-year-old Fortune 500 executive said she thinks the repeal will have an effect on the civil rights of gays in America.
"As more people realize that gay and lesbian citizens are risking their lives to defend this country, perhaps they'll be more willing to acknowledge gays and lesbians as full citizens in other ways," she said.
Conservative organizations said the vote didn't reflect the sentiments of rank-and-file military members and should not have taken place so close to the end of the current session of Congress.
"The issue that really disturbs me more than anything else is that legislation that's controversial tends to be done in lame-duck sessions when a number of the elected representatives are no longer accountable to the people," said Len Deo, president of the New Jersey Family Policy Council.
The Massachusetts Family Institute blasted Senate Republicans, including Sen. Scott Brown, who broke rank with their party on the vote.
"(They) made a vow not to vote on 'don't ask, don't tell' until the budget was resolved and they broke trust with the people," said the group's president, Kris Mineau. "In doing so, they not only have put special interests above fiscal interests but also have put our troops at risk during wartime."
In New York, home to one of the nation's largest gay communities and a gay pride parade whose grand marshal this year was an openly gay, discharged serviceman, 28-year-old Cassandra Melnikow glanced at a news ticker in Times Square announcing the repeal and said: "Excellent! It's about time."
"I don't see what difference (sexual orientation) makes in the fighting military," said Melnikow, a public health researcher. "What's the big deal?"
Associated Press writers Russ Bynum in Savannah, Ga., Jay Lindsay in Boston, Geoff Mulvihill in Trenton, N.J., Sudhin Thanawala in San Francisco and Stan Lehman in Sao Paulo contributed to this report.