SAN DIEGO – As the clock struck midnight on Tuesday, Sept. 20, 2011, tens of thousands of gay and lesbian troops around the nation and the world celebrated the official repeal of the U.S. military’s discriminatory “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy and the dawn of open service.

For almost 18 years, DADT loomed large over gay and lesbian troops, often used as a witchhunt to discharge servicemembers because of their sexual orientation. More than 14,300 troops were discharged under the policy during its existence, and countless gay Americans were dismissed from military service prior to the implementation of DADT.

But with open service, gay and lesbian troops, for the first time in American history, can now serve their country without fear of reprisal for being themselves. It marks a momentous change in military policy that blots out one of its most shameful acts of discrimination, and it gives root to the movement to treat gay Americans as equal under the eyes of the law.

"Today is not just the end of ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,’ it is the beginning of a new era in which government policies that discriminate based on sexual orientation and gender identity are rightly seen as shameful and outmoded,” said Kate Kendell, executive director of the National Center for Lesbian Rights.

“We salute President Obama for his leadership in bringing this inexcusable discrimination to an end. We also honor the thousands of men and women who were harmed by this policy, including many who made great personal sacrifices in order to speak out against it. While more work lies ahead in the movement for full equality, today we should celebrate how far we’ve come.”

The historical moment was personal for Alexander Nicholson, founder and executive director of Servicemembers United who was dismissed from the Army due to DADT.

"On March 15, 1778 the first American servicemember was drummed out of the military for being gay. Since then, tens of thousands more have had their careers ruined and their lives turned upside down by a succession of anti-gay policies and regulations, culminating in the codification of an anti-gay statute in 1993 with the passage of the ‘Don't Ask, Don't Tell law.’ In all, 14,346 men and women were discharged pursuant ‘Don't Ask Don't Tell,’” Nicholson said.

“But thanks to the persistent hard work of unwavering advocates, especially those who have been directly impacted by this issue, and some courageous politicians over the past six years, ‘Don't Ask, Don't Tell’ is now history. As a result, those who continue to serve can sleep easier tonight knowing that they can no longer be arbitrarily fired because of their sexual orientation. Justice has prevailed and ‘Don't Ask, Don't Tell’ is dead. God bless America," he said.

Two out of three Americans support open service, countless polls have shown. President Obama signed the repeal into law in December after Congress voted to end the Clinton-era policy. Since then, the Pentagon has seen that more than 2 million troops have been trained for the policy change.

"Patriotic Americans in uniform will no longer have to lie about who they are in order to serve the country they love," Obama said.

The impact of open service became immediately obvious. Some troops came out to their comrades in arms or their family. One young soldier based in Germany posted a video on YouTube, which has been picked up by the media, in which he tells his dad in Alabama that he is gay. Other troops came out in the media.

J.D. Smith, founder of OutServe, came out … and said his real name was Josh Seefried and he was a first lieutenant in the Air Force.

Lt. Gary Ross and his partner Dan Swezy of Arizona flew to Vermont to get married at 12:01 am today.

"It's an undescribable feeling when you think finally we can be just like everybody else," Swezy told WCAX.

"We didn't come here at the stroke of midnight to be the first or to make news," Ross said. "We came here because we've wanted to get married for years and we didn't want to wait a moment longer than we had to."

For many gay and lesbian troops hiding in the closet, the DADT repeal means that they won’t have to live a double life, but some will choose to remain closeted.

The repeal of DADT is also expected to benefit the military in that a number of troops who were discharged under the policy or who left because of it will now attempt to return to service.

DADT celebrations nationwide

Servicemembers Legal Defense Network (SLDN) and “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” (DADT) repeal supporters have scheduled 100 Repeal Day celebrations throughout the nation today.

To find a celebration near you, click HERE.

VIDEO:  Soldier comes out to his Dad in Alabama

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