For the first time in the history of the U.S. military, gay troops soon will be able to serve openly, no longer compelled to hide their sexual orientation for fear of being driven out of the armed services.

After a year of debate and controversy, Congress approved a repeal of the controversial 17-year-old “don’t ask, don’t tell” law late in its lame-duck session. Eight Republicans and 57 members of the Senate Democratic caucus ended up backing the repeal, calling their votes a victory for fairness and national security.

The move sets up a full repeal of the law sometime in coming months, although Defense Secretary Robert Gates has not yet outlined exactly when and how that will take place. Until then, troops who announce their homosexuality could face dismissal from the service, although in recent months the Pentagon has curtailed those discharges in anticipation of a repeal.

Despite those ongoing issues, gay rights groups hailed the vote as a defining moment, akin to the end of segregation in the ranks more than half a century ago.

Opponents have warned the repeal will have long-term negative effects on recruiting, retention and morale.

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