The Senate vote to allow openly gay people to serve in the US military is a landmark decision in more than the obvious way. Of course, it ends the hypocrisy of the "Don't ask, don't tell" policy, enacted by President Clinton in 1993, and this is cause for rejoicing alone. In the 17 years since, more than 13,000 members of the US armed services have been dismissed for breaching that provision. Now there will be no need for dissembling or silence. Ethically and in practice, this is – as Admiral Michael Mullen said on behalf of the US Department of Defence – "the right thing to do". "No longer," he went on "will men and women who want to serve... their country, have to sacrifice their integrity to do so".
But there are other reasons for hailing this vote. The first is that it constitutes a signal victory for Barack Obama at a time – after heavy defeats for the Democrats in the mid-term elections – when the effectiveness of his whole presidency seemed to have been called into question. Mr Obama had staked a great deal on this policy and stood by it, despite continuing opposition from sections of the military establishment. As the old Congress prepares to bow out, and the new, more Republican, one prepares to come in, the passage of this legislation places a more positive gloss on Mr Obama's first two years at the White House.
The second reason for satisfaction is the size of the majority and the fact that the vote took place at all. The bill to which the measure was attached had fallen, but its supporters picked up the crucial clause and presented it separately. It was passed by 65 votes to 31, with several Republicans joining the Democratic majority. In securing its passage, Mr Obama achieved something Mr Clinton had made an election promise, but failed to do. The uneasy compromise, "Don't ask, don't tell", was as liberal as the US Congress could get in 1993.
Its repeal is proof that – for all the fearsome homophobic talk that can be heard from US right-wing "shock-jocks" – American opinion on social issues has been changing. It has taken the best part of a generation, but tolerance and honesty have prevailed.