The US Congress has voted to repeal the ban against gays serving openly in the US military and sent the measure to President Barack Obama for his signature.
The Senate voted 65-31 to end 17-year-old ‘don't ask, don't tell’ policy just after breaking through a Republican procedural roadblock, which had held up the White House-backed legislation.
The US House of Representatives passed the bill earlier this week as lawmakers pushed to complete their work before the new Congress is seated in January.
‘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. And no longer will many thousands more be asked to live a lie in order to serve the country they love,’ Mr Obama said in a statement before the final vote.
Mr Obama vowed during his 2008 presidential campaign to end the ban, which he denounced as unfair, unwise and a violation of basic human rights.
He had been criticised by liberal groups who said he had failed to push hard enough to end the policy.
More than 13,000 men and women have been expelled from the US military under ‘don't ask, don't tell,’ which allows gays to serve in the armed forces as long as they keep their sexual orientation secret.
Many of those dismissed have said they hope to return to service.
Former Air Force Major Mike Almy, at a press conference with Senate leaders following the vote, said he was dismissed after another officer read his private e-mails to loved ones back home.
He faced mortar attacks while commanding a unit of 200 in Iraq and was recommended to be promoted to Lieutenant Colonel.
‘There is nothing more that I want than to resume my career as an officer and a leader in the Air Force,’ he said.
Once the bill is signed into law, the Pentagon will have an undetermined amount of time - possibly months - to educate service members and prepare for the policy change before it is ready to 'certify' the repeal.
When the repeal is certified, there will be another 60-day period before the new policy of allowing gays to openly serve takes effect. Until that time ‘don't ask, don't tell’ is still in effect.
Opponents of gays serving openly in the military argue that lifting the ban would undermine order and discipline and harm unit cohesiveness, especially among combat troops.
Republican opposition has been largely led by Obama's 2008 White House challenger, Senator John McCain, a former Navy pilot and prisoner of war in Vietnam.
Senator McCain said it may be too early to end the ban and challenged a recent Pentagon study that forecast little impact if the policy were lifted.
In a Senate speech, he argued against imposing a change while the country is at war.
‘This debate is not about the broader social issues that
are being discussed in our society, but what is in the best interest of our military at a time of war,’ he said.