WASHINGTON â€” When Air Force Staff Sgt. Jonathan Mills woke up Tuesday, he posted a pointed message on his Facebook page about the secret he has kept since he joined the military seven years ago.
â€œI. Am. Gay. That is all … as you were,â€ he wrote.
Thus did Mills, 27, mark an historic milestone: the day Americaâ€™s ban on gays and lesbians serving openly in the U.S. military ended.
â€œWhen I woke up this morning, I felt extremely relieved and very free,â€ said Mills, who is stationed at Bolling Air Force Base in Washington, D.C. â€œFree to be able to live openly without worrying what I say or do will affect my career.â€
After years of bitter debate, and generations of military tradition, repeal of the 18-year-old â€œdonâ€™t ask, donâ€™t tellâ€ law went into effect at 12:01 a.m. For the first time, soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines were free to declare their sexual orientation without risking being thrown out of the military. And many rushed to do so.
The result, for supporters at least, was an outpouring of euphoria and relief that some compared to the end of racial segregation in the military in the 1950s, or the admittance of women to the service academies in the 1970s. Supporters planned celebrations in all 50 states.
â€œItâ€™s a huge burden lifted off from my shoulders and the 65,000 other gay, lesbian and bisexual troops out there serving in the military right now,â€ Air Force Lt. Josh Seefried told a news conference at the U.S. Capitol with senators who sponsored repeal of the law. â€œToday and every day I can go back into work … and not have to worry anymore.â€
It was the first time that Seefried, who has used the pseudonymn J.D. Smith to secretly run a support group for gays in the military, had identified himself as gay in public. He was joined by a Marine captain and an Air Force staff sergeant who also came out for the first time.
President Barack Obama pushed the repeal through Congress last December, but the end of the ban was delayed so the Pentagon could train more than 2 million service members in standards of conduct. The delay also allowed the Pentagon to certify that the new policy would not harm military readiness, unit cohesion or recruiting and retention of service members.
â€œAs of today, patriotic Americans in uniform will no longer have to lie about who they are in order to serve the country they love,â€ Obama said in a statement released by the White House.
Legal and cultural challenges are likely to continue since U.S. law bars the Pentagon from offering same-sex couples the same health, housing and education benefits as heterosexual couples.
In particular, the Defense of Marriage Act prohibits giving federal benefits to same-sex couples, and a separate federal statute for the armed forces defines a spouse as a â€œhusbandâ€ or a â€œwife.â€
Moreover, unlike women and minorities, gays and lesbians are not recognized under law as a â€œprotected class,â€ which would enable them to file formal complaints of employment discrimination.
Pentagon officials have said that discrimination complaints related to sexual orientation can be raised up the chain of command or with the inspector general.
But other changes clearly are coming.
Same-sex couples will be able to appear together at official functions and live together openly, though not in military housing.
Recruiters can sign up gay recruits, and many of the more than 14,000 gay service members who were forced out in recent years can try to re-enlist, although the Pentagon says they will receive no preferential treatment.
In California, former Marine Capt. Kristen Kavanaugh, 31, hopes to join the Navy four years after she left the Marines. She had served in Iraq, but could no longer stand the pressure of hiding her sexuality.
â€œThe turning point was Iraq,â€ said Kavanaugh, now a graduate student at the University of Southern California. â€œEveryone else could call their loved one and talk openly. I had to guard my words and only talk in general terms. It was awful, having to live like that.â€
Former Navy Chief Petty Officer Jeremy Johnson told his commander about his sexual orientation four years ago and was quickly discharged. Now a student outside Baltimore, he plans to re-enlist in the reserves next weekend, and the officer who kicked him out will administer the oath.
â€œI never wanted to get out in the first place, and this is a way for us to put this behind us,â€ Johnson said, explaining why he asked his former commander to preside at the swearing in ceremony
Former Air Force Sgt. David Hall also has an appointment with a recruiter on Thursday. Hall, who had spent five years on active duty loading bombs and missiles on fighter planes, was kicked out of the Air Force for â€œhomosexual conductâ€ in 2002.