WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama signed the repeal of the military's ban on gays serving openly in the nation's armed forces on Wednesday, fulfilling a campaign pledge and ushering in an uncertain new era not just for the military but for the hot-button issue of gender and sexual politics.
More than 500 advocates, lawmakers, members of the military and former soldiers who'd been discharged for their sexual orientation crowded into the ceremony, which was held in a Department of Interior auditorium to accommodate the crowd.
The atmosphere was jovial and a little rowdy, with chants of "Yes, we did!" and "U-S-A, U-S-A." Many shouted out, "Enlist us now."
"I am just overwhelmed," Obama said. "This is a very good day."
How soon the repeal will take effect, allowing gays and lesbians to join the military and serve openly for the first time ever, remained uncertain.
The president made clear the repeal won't take effect until he and top defense officials certify the military's readiness, as the law requires, but assured, "We are not going to be dragging our feet to get this done."
In an interview Tuesday that was published on the website of the gay newspaper The Advocate, Obama said he believes implementation will be a matter of months, though some Pentagon officials have suggested it could take as long as a year.
"We will get this done in a timely fashion, and the chiefs are confident that it will get done in a timely fashion," Obama said in the interview, referring to the heads of the four military branches. "They understand this is not something that they're going to be slow-walking."
He said that Adm. Mike Mullen, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, had promised to take with him during his vacation the recommendations on how to lift "don't ask, don't tell" that were part of a eight-month Pentagon study of attitudes toward gays in the military.
Obama also said he'd received assurances from Marine Commandant Gen. James Amos, who was the most vocal of the service heads to oppose ending "don't ask, don't tell," that the Marines would implement the new policy without hesitance. "He's going to make it work," Obama said.
Obama was less certain in the interview on whether the repeal of "don't ask, don't tell" will lead to other changes in the way gays and lesbians are treated, particularly on the issue of marriage.
Obama has said previously that he opposes gay marriage, but in The Advocate interview he said his views on the issue "are evolving." He also said his administration is considering a "range of options" to counter the Defense of Marriage Act, which defines marriage as between a man and a woman and allows states to refuse to recognize same-sex marriages performed in other states.
"I have a whole bunch of really smart lawyers who are looking at a whole range of options. My preference wherever possible is to get things done legislatively," Obama said, according to The Advocate.
Obama made no mention of that issue on Wednesday, however, as he signed the "don't ask, don't tell" repeal legislation into law.
He predicted that people would look back at this "historic milestone" and "wonder why it was ever a source of controversy in the first place."
Obama said the repeal "will strengthen our national security and uphold the ideals that our fighting men and women risk their lives to defend."
"No longer will tens of thousands of Americans in uniform be asked to live a lie, or look over their shoulder, in order to serve the country that they love," he said.
After he signed the law, Obama shook hands with many in the audience.
Walker Burttschell, 28, of Miami, was one of the first to thank Obama personally. "It was so good to shake his hand," he said. Burttschell said he left school right after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks to join the Marines but was outed two years later when someone broke into his email account and discharged.
Burttschell said with the repeal he's considering re-enlisting.
MORE FROM MCCLATCHY
Follow national security developments at McClatchy's Nukes & Spooks