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Gays celebrate repeal of 'don't ask, don't tell'

Associated Press | 12/21/2010, 6:48 p.m.

NEW YORK - Word that the world’s largest military power will allow gays and lesbians to serve openly in the military brought strong and swift reaction Saturday, with supporters declaring a civil rights milestone and detractors insisting it would weaken and divide the armed forces.

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?”

President Barack Obama had made repealing “don’t ask, don’t tell” a campaign promise in 2008, and rounding up a filibuster-proof majority in the Senate was a historic victory for him. By the time President Bill Clinton proposed allowing gays to serve in the military in 1993, they had been explicitly barred from military service since World War I.

Foes of lifting the ban 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 to fight -- the same arguments used against women and blacks.

In the end, Congress agreed to let gays serve only if their sexual orientation remained secret.

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.

The change wouldn’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.

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 said Republican senators who voted for the measure broke a promise they had made not to vote on the repeal until the federal budget was resolved.

“In doing so, they not only have put special interests above fiscal interests but also have put our troops at risk during wartime,” said Kris Mineau, the group’s president.

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 back home to North Plainfield, N.J., the 51-year-old Fortune 500 executive told The Associated Press that she thinks the repeal will have an effect on the civil rights of gays in America.