WASHINGTON (RNN) - While the repeal of "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" Tuesday paves the way for thousands of gay and lesbian individuals to serve openly in the U.S. military, advocates are quick to point out that the war is far from over.
"We'll celebrate for about ten minutes and get back to work," said Heather Cronk, managing director of GetEqual, an advocacy group that demands full legal and social equality for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender individuals (LGBT).
Under the "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" policy, which was signed into law by former President Bill Clinton in 1993, more than 14,500 troops have been discharged from the armed services because their sexual orientation was revealed, whether voluntary or otherwise.
George Little, Pentagon press secretary, told the Associated Press Monday that the Department of Defense was prepared for repeal and that Defense Secretary Leon Panetta would address the issue Tuesday at a Pentagon news conference.
Upon repeal, servicemembers and applicants will no longer be barred from military service or admission to service academies, ROTC or any other accession program, according to Eileen Lainez, a Pentagon spokeswoman. Members of the armed services discharged under the act will also be eligible to re-enlist.
"Openly gay or lesbian applicants will be evaluated according to the same criteria and requirements applicable to all others seeking entry into the military," Lainez said in an email.
Although a repeal of "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" was passed by the Senate Dec. 18, it could not become law until 60 days after the president, secretary of defense and chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff each certified that policy changes were consistent with the military's standards of readiness, effectiveness, unit cohesion, recruiting and retention.
Monday, on the eve of repeal, advocates across the country began to gather for 24 hours of commemorative events. Servicemembers United, America's gay military organization, kicked things off with a "New Year's Eve-style celebration" of repeal to ring in the historical moment.
"Clearly repeal is here, and it's huge because it brings us closer to equality," Cronk said. "But we're not there yet."
Cronk said GetEqual will continue to advocate for LGBT troops until the military is fully integrated. Although servicemembers will no longer face the threat of discharge because of their sexual orientation, their day-to-day lives will still face many disruptions because of issues, including spousal benefits and relationship recognition, according to Cronk.
"You also still have issues around open service for transgender folks," she said.
Lainez said that servicemembers will continue to have benefits for which they may designate beneficiaries regardless of their sexual orientation, including death gratuity, servicemembers' group life insurance and the thrift savings plan.
But other benefits, including health care and housing and transportation allowances, are restricted because of the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) or other applicable statues, which legally define the terms "spouse" and "dependent."
"In connection with DADT repeal, the department is exploring the possibility of extending other benefits - legally permitted - to same-sex partners," Lainez said.
The Human Rights Campaign, the nation's largest LGBT advocacy group, pushed lawmakers Monday to repeal DOMA in order to provide lesbian and gay military families with equal access to benefits.
"The so-called Defense of Marriage Act will prohibit gay and lesbian service members and their spouses from receiving many of the benefits their straight counterparts receive," said Joe Solmense, the organization's president, in a news release. "Limiting regulations also impact areas like military family housing, access to legal services, and spousal relocation support."
But as the fight waged on, other groups planned to pause Tuesday to reflect on the first moment in nearly 18 years that gay troops could publicly admit to their sexual orientation.
Servicemembers Legal Defense Network (SLDN), a legal advocacy group for troops, will sponsor flagship events in Washington, New York, Philadelphia, Chicago, West Hollywood, and Charleston, SC. An additional 100 events were created by allies around the country.
"Tuesday is a monumental day for our service members and our nation," said Aubrey Sarvis, army veteran and SLDN executive director. "Through these events taking place in every state across the country, we will pay tribute to their service and sacrifice as we look forward to this new era of military service - an era that honors the contributions of all qualified Americans who have served and wish to serve."
Cronk's organization will also celebrate the occasion by sponsoring numerous rallies, protests and community meetings in places as diverse as Norfolk, VA, and Moscow, ID.
"The folks that are celebrating are excited, but know we've still got a long road ahead of us," she said.
Cronk noted the historical significance, however, of military integrations, which she said has been a huge milestone in other equality movements, such as the women's rights movement.
Copyright 2011 Raycom News Network. All rights reserved.
Saturday, November 10 2012 1:48 PM EST2012-11-10 18:48:37 GMT
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