U.S. President Barack Obama signed the Don't Ask Don't Tell Repeal Act of 2010 on Wednesday, paving the way for gays and lesbians to serve openly in the military.
Obama signed the bill before a cheering crowd that included top military officials and politicians at the Department of the Interior in Washington, D.C.
The new legislation will not go into effect for at least 60 days.
It must first proceed to a "certification phase" to determine exactly how it will be implemented.
Until all implementation issues have been resolved, the current law, known as DADT, remains in effect.
DADT makes it a dischargeable offence for members of the armed forces to:
- State one's homosexuality or bisexuality.
- Engage in homosexual acts.
- Marry or attempt to marry "a person known to be of the same biological sex."
On Wednesday, Obama said the 17-year-old policy violates "the very ideals that our brave men and women in uniform risk their lives to defend."
"No longer will our country be denied the service of thousands … because they happen to be gay," he told the crowd. "No longer will tens of thousands in uniform be asked to tell a lie, or look over their shoulder in order to serve the country they love.
"It is the right thing to do for our military. It is the right thing to do, period."
No 'dragging our feet'
A Pentagon spokesman has said the Defence Department will "move out carefully, deliberately and purposefully" to implement the repeal.
First it hopes to address several issues including reviewing policies and regulations, finalizing communications plans to educate troops about the change and resolving military benefits questions.
When that's done, the defence secretary, chairman of the Joints Chiefs of Staff and Obama will certify that the new policies and rules to implement them are in place. The law will go into effect 60 days later.
"We are not going to be dragging our feet to get this done," Obama promised Wednesday.
An estimated 14,000 service members have been forced out of the military because of DADT.
In his speech, Obama encouraged them to re-enlist when the ban is finally lifted, and spoke pointedly to them and those who continue to serve in the military by hiding their sexuality.
'You will stand for all those who came before. And you will serve as role models to all who come after you.'—U.S. President Barack Obama
"You are not the first to carry this burden," Obama said.
"At every turn, at every crossroads in our past, we know gay Americans fought just as hard, gave just as much, to protect this nation," he said.
"As the first generation to serve openly, you will stand for all those who came before. And you will serve as role models to all who come after you.
"I say to all Americans – gay or straight – who want nothing more than to defend this country in uniform: your country needs you, your country wants you and we will be honoured to welcome you into the ranks of the finest military the world has ever known."
'Yes, we did'
By signing the bill, Obama made good on a long-standing promise — made often in his presidential campaign — to repeal DADT.
As he took to the podium at the Interior Department for his pre-signing speech, Obama was met with chants of "Yes, we can!" — the central refrain of his campaign rallies.
"Yes, we did," Obama said. "I am just overwhelmed. This is a very good day."
The official repeal comes four days after the Senate voted 65-31 to overturn the ban.
Opponents such as Republican Sen. John McCain, who voted against the repeal, have said allowing gays to serve openly will weaken troop morale. Others favoured deferring the repeal, saying changing the law during wartime would be a distraction.