SAN FRANCISCO (KCBS) – After years of debate over the ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’ policy preventing gays from serving openly in the military, the Bay Area activists who led the campaign to repeal it are finally able to celebrate.

That includes former U.S. Navy commander Zoe Dunning of San Francisco, one of the few openly gay service members who successfully fought her discharge.

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Dunning said she can hardly believe she’s finally won her 18-year fight to abolish Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.   Dunning publicly came out in January 1993 and successfully fought her discharge under the then-newly enacted ban. She served until her retirement four years ago.

“I feel so satisfied to finally get to this finish line that we’ve been working so hard to achieve,” said Dunning.

So does San Francisco State professor Aaron Belkin, whose book “How We Won” comes out on Tuesday. He’s in Washington to celebrate.

“It’s been a long march towards equality,” he said. “The first soldier drummed out of the continental army for being gay was back in 1778 so I feel like this is a big victory not just for gay and lesbian troops, but for anyone who cares about equality and fairness.”

KCBS’ Doug Sovern Reports:

The military is opening its ranks to openly gay and lesbian troops, but Dunning, who was the only person to serve openly under the old rules, said the legal spouses of gay and lesbian service members are still not equal with those of straight soldiers.

“That’s the next big battle. We won the fact that you can still stay in the military, but we still have two classes of people in the military,” she said. “Heterosexuals, whose families are recognized and receive benefits and gay, lesbian and bisexual service members, whose families are still in the dark.”

The 18-year ban on openly gay troops was officially repealed at midnight Eastern time, 9:00 p.m. Pacific time. The change was set in motion in December, when President Obama signed the Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell Repeal Act, which he said would enhance the quality of the military.

“As of today, patriotic Americans in uniform will no longer have to lie about who they are in order to serve the country they love,” Obama said in a statement Tuesday morning.

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Tuesday afternoon in San Francisco, gay and lesbian military veterans will gather to celebrate the repeal along with Mayor Ed Lee and other current and former elected officials—including state Sen. Mark Leno and Assemblyman Tom Ammiano, who are both openly gay.

The celebration and news conference were scheduled for 12:30 p.m. at the San Francisco War Memorial Building on Van Ness Avenue.

A party was scheduled from 5:30 p.m. to 9:30 p.m. at the LGBT Community Center at 1800 Market St. in San Francisco.

Separately, another group will gather in San Francisco’s Castro District Tuesday night to call for full equality for LGBT service members.

The demonstration, which begins at Harvey Milk Plaza at 6:30 p.m., aims to highlight what organizers say is a need for a non-discrimination policy and transgender protections for service members.

“History has taught us that separate is not equal,” GetEQUAL organizer Dennis Veite said in a statement. “While DADT is gone, we will fight on.”

Kate Kendell, executive director of the National Center for Lesbian Rights, said that although there is more work to be done to ensure full equality, the end of the ban should be hailed.

“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,” Kendell said in a statement.

Before the repeal could go into effect, President Obama, the Secretary of Defense and the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff had to certify that ending the policy would not hinder the troops.

U.S. Sen. Barbara Boxer released a statement Tuesday morning hailing the repeal.

“A barrier has been lifted, and our military and our nation will be stronger because of it,” Boxer said.

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