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

In a stunning turnaround, the Senate voted 65-31 Saturday to repeal the “don’t ask, don’t tell” law as soon as the White House and the Pentagon certify a plan to minimize any disruption to the armed services that may result from the abolition of the controversial law.

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. Within months, gay troops will be able to enlist and serve in the military without having to lie about their sexual orientation.

In a statement, President Barack Obama praised the vote as a victory for equality and national security.

“By ending ‘don’t ask, don’t tell,’ no longer will our nation be denied the service of thousands of patriotic Americans forced to leave the military, despite years of exemplary performance, because they happen to be gay,” he said. “And no longer will many thousands more be asked to live a lie in order to serve the country they love.”

The unusual weekend vote closed an impassioned, year-long fight over the issue that split the top ranks of the Pentagon as gay rights groups clamored for an end to years of discrimination and conservatives countered that a repeal was a risky social experiment that would endanger the camaraderie and strength of the armed forces.

With public opinion polls showing substantial support for ending the 17-year-old law, the Senate sided with the repeal advocates and handed President Obama a victory on his longstanding pledge to abolish a rule put in place by his Democratic predecessor, President Bill Clinton. The final approval late Saturday sent the bill ending “don’t ask, don’t tell” to the president’s desk in the next few days. By next December, openly gay troops could be serving throughout the military ranks.

Aubrey Sarvis, an Army veteran and executive director for the pro-repeal Servicemembers Legal Defense Network, praised Saturday’s vote but singled out Joint Chiefs Chairman Adm. Mike Mullen for his public support of a repeal.

In February, Mullen testified that the “don’t ask, don’t tell” law forced troops to compromise their integrity and “live a lie” in order to serve their country. Last month, he testified again that it was time to end the law, acknowledging resistance within the ranks but insisting it was the country’s moral obligation.

"This vote represents an historic step forward for this country, and it will very likely be a life-changing moment for gay and lesbian troops," said Alexander Nicholson, executive director of the pro-repeal Servicemembers United and an Army linguist discharged for being gay.

“While we still have a long road ahead … those [gay troops] who defend our freedom while living in fear for their careers will finally breathe a sigh of relief tonight.”

Even after the repeal bill is signed into law by the president, the “don’t ask, don’t tell” strictures will remain in place until the White House and Pentagon certify a plan to minimize disruption on the services.

Defense Secretary Robert Gates has said he would not do that until the service chiefs are confident the moves will not disrupt combat operations, and refused to set any specific timeline on how long that might take. Three of the four service chiefs have strongly resisted repeal of the "don't ask, don't tell" law during wartime, although they have testified that troops would adapt if Congress mandates it.

Still, the dramatic change of heart in the Senate over the last few days stunned both opponents and supporters of the repeal effort. Earlier this year, lawmakers backing repeal had attached the measure to the defense budget bill in an effort to build more support.

In the end, the budget bill failed, but stand-alone legislation allowing openly gay servicemembers drew substantial support in both the House and Senate. Just last week, gay rights advocates had called the stand-alone repeal bill a “legislative Hail Mary pass.” But protesters at a repeal rally last week quipped that “sometimes those passes get caught.”

On Saturday, 63 senators voted to end an opposition filibuster effort led by Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., and move the legislation ahead to a vote later in the day. Sen. Susan Collins of Maine, who co-sponsored the repeal bill, helped convince five fellow Republicans to support ending the filibuster.

Gay rights groups spent the last few days aggressively lobbying potential swing votes on the measure, warning that a failure to pass the repeal now would likely doom their efforts for the next several years. Republicans will take control of the House next month, and their leadership has opposed the repeal.

McCain said repeal will result in “additional sacrifice” and “great cost” for troops in Iraq and Afghanistan.“We are doing great damage,” he said. “We could possibly and probably harm the battle effectiveness that is so vital to the survival of the men and women of our military.”

Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., an Air Force reservist, said the issue “is about effectiveness on the battlefield during a time of war, not about civil rights.”

But Senate Armed Services Committee chairman Carl Levin, D-Mich., noted that despite some combat units’ concerns, a year-long Pentagon study recommended repealing the law, and the authors insisted it would have minimal effect on troops’ morale or mission effectiveness.

“Some have argued that this is social engineering, or this is partisan,” he said. “I’m not here for partisan reasons. I’m here because men and women wearing the uniform of the United States who are gay and lesbian have died for this country, because gay and lesbian men and women wearing the uniform of this country have their lives on the line right now.”

More than 14,000 troops have been dismissed from the military since the “don’t ask, don’t tell” law was enacted in 1993.

Sarvis and other officials at Servicemembers Legal Defense Network warned that despite Satuday’s positive news, actual repeal of the law is still many months away. “Gay, lesbian and bisexual service members posted around the world are standing a little taller today, but they’re still very much at risk because repeal is not final,” he said. “Even with this historic vote, servicemembers must continue to serve in silence until repeal is final.”

Tommy Sears, executive director of the anti-repeal Center for Military Readiness, said he’s hopeful that Gates and other military leaders won’t rush the repeal implementation through, and will reconsider the potential damage it could do to morale.

“It’s something we’ll be watching with a great deal of scrutiny,” he said. “There should be an opportunity to thoroughly examine and study and consider what the actual implementation plan will be going forward. We’ll be very curious to see how they approach that.”

Tony Perkins, president of the anti-repeal Family Research Council, said he also believes the new Republican-led House next year may be able to mitigate some of the negative impact of the repeal, even if a change in the law is inevitable now.

Already twice this year Gates has tightened rules on how troops can be dismissed under the “don’t ask, don’t tell” law, effectively halting many of the pending cases against gay servicemembers.

This story was updated from a previous version.

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