President Barack Obama certified Friday that the U.S. military was ready to accept openly gay troops after a lengthy battle to lift a ban that had forced them to hide their sexuality.
"Today, we have taken the final major step toward ending the discriminatory 'Don't Ask, Don't Tell' law that undermines our military readiness and violates American principles of fairness and equality," Obama said in a statement.
He was speaking after signing a certification with Defense Secretary Leon Panetta and the top U.S. military officer, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Admiral Mike Mullen, that the U.S. military was ready to accept gay troops.
The repeal of the ban, dubbed "Don't Ask, Don't Tell," will now come into force in 60 days' time, on Sept 20.
The ban was overturned in a law adopted in December that first required the top military officer, the defense secretary and the president to certify that the change would not harm military readiness and that the armed forces were ready to carry it out.
In the interim, the Pentagon has drawn up new manuals and prepared the entire armed forces, some 2.3 million people who serve as both active troops and reservists, for the new policy.
"As of Sept 20, service members will no longer be forced to hide who they are in order to serve our country," Obama said.
"Our military will no longer be deprived of the talents and skills of patriotic Americans just because they happen to be gay or lesbian."
Former soldiers and gay rights groups have fought for years to overturn the ban, introduced in 1993 as a compromise after military chiefs rejected a bid by former president Bill Clinton to open the doors to gay soldiers.
"Don't Ask, Don't Tell" required gay troops to keep quiet about their sexual orientation or face expulsion from the forces, and an estimated 14,000 service members have been kicked out of the military under the rule.
The issue stirred a passionate debate in the United States, with some U.S. lawmakers, mostly Republicans, as well as high-ranking officers such as Marines Corps Commandant General James Amos fearing it would harm efficiency on the battlefield.
House Armed Services Committee Chairman Buck McKeon said that Obama had not taken seriously concerns "that the combat readiness of our force could be placed at risk, particularly those serving on the front lines in Afghanistan and Iraq."
He called for the administration to release the assessments done on the impact of the repeal of the ban."
Most of Washington's NATO allies have already lifted bans on openly gay troops and experienced no serious problems as a result.
A review carried out by the Pentagon showed that 70% of 115,000 soldiers and 44,000 military spouses were in favor of repealing the ban.
But among Marines and certain battle units the figures were reversed with 40 to 60% of those surveyed being against an end to the ban.
Come Sept 20, those people who have been kicked out of the military for being gay can rejoin the ranks if they wish.© 2011 Agence France-Presse