WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama signed the repeal of the military's ban on gays serving openly in the nation's armed forces on Wednesday, fulfilling a campaign pledge and ushering in an uncertain new era not just for the military but for the hot-button issue of gender and sexual politics.
More than 500 advocates, lawmakers, members of the military and former soldiers who had been discharged for homosexuality crowded into the ceremony, which was held in a Department of Interior auditorium to accommodate the crowd.
The atmosphere was jovial, with chants of "Yes, we did!" and "U-S-A, U-S-A!" Many shouted out, "Enlist us now!"
"I am just overwhelmed," Obama said. "This is a very good day."
The celebratory mood was quite a change from about six weeks ago when the lame duck session of Congress started. Then, the president looked defeated and deflated, publicly acknowledging the "shellacking" his party had taken in the November midterm elections.
Signing the repeal of "don't ask, don't tell" was one of several accomplishments Wednesday. It was followed by the Senate's ratification of a nuclear arms treaty with Russia and final congressional approval of $4.2 billion to pay for health care for first responders who contracted ailments after the Sept. 11, 2001, attack on New York's World Trade Center.
In a year-end news conference before heading to Hawaii for a vacation, Obama hailed the lame duck session of the 111th Congress, which officially adjourned Wednesday night, as the "most productive post-election period in decades."
Obama didn't engage in the chest-thumping victory lap that many congressional Republican critics predicted he would. He struck a bipartisan pose.
"I think what's happened over the last several weeks is it's not a victory for me, it's a victory for the American people," Obama said. "And I hope the lesson that . . . everybody takes from this is that it's possible for Democrats and Republicans to have principled disagreements, to have some lengthy arguments, but to ultimately find common ground to move the country forward."
Obama expressed pride in ending the 17-year-old Bill Clinton-era "don't ask, don't tell" law that kept gays and lesbians from serving openly in the military.
How soon the repeal will take effect remains uncertain. At the signing, the president made clear the repeal won't take effect until he and top defense officials certify the military's readiness, as the law requires, but assured, "We are not going to be dragging our feet to get this done."
In an interview Tuesday that was published on the website of the gay newspaper The Advocate, Obama said he believes implementation will be a matter of months, though some Pentagon officials have suggested it could take as long as a year.
Staff Sgt. Scott Lambert, an Army reservist from Tampa who served in Afghanistan in 2005 and 2006, recalled criticizing "don't ask, don't tell" at a leadership training event. He said his male colleagues gave him "the cold shoulder" after he expressed his views.
"In the military, if you even say anything pro-gay on any level, people automatically assume you must be gay," he said. "It can get pretty sensitive pretty quickly."
He said he expects a period of awkwardness once the repeal takes effect, not dissimilar from when the military integrated.
"There's definitely going to be those hard-core guys who don't buy into it," he said. "We have racists in the military still, but they know they just can't act on it. This will be similar. We just have to bump up the training."
Times staff writer Ben Montgomery contributed to this report, which includes information from McClatchy Newspapers, the Associated Press and the Washington Post.