At 12:01am, the military’s Don’t Ask Don’t Tell policy was formally repealed. Gays and lesbians can now serve freely in the US Armed Forces. The official notice from the US Army was released last night, in a completely understated document. “The law is repealed,” says the letter from Army Chief of Staff Ray Odierno, Secretary of the Army John McHugh and Sergeant Major of the Army Raymond Chandler. “It is the duty of all personnel to treat each other with dignity and respect, while maintaining good order and discipline throughout our ranks. Doing so, we will help the US Army remain the strength of the Nation.”

The military began accepting applications from gay recruits last night. Defense officials have played down the change, seeing it merely as a new law they plan to follow.

But, other than a few news conferences, no formal military events or instructions are planned. Pentagon officials said Monday that 2.25 million troops have completed training briefings on the rule changes since last spring, and no new sessions or advisories are expected after repeal.

In July, when the Sept. 20 repeal date was announced, Defense Department General Counsel Jeh Johnson said that he expected the changeover to be “as smooth as possible. What we believe we’ve done here is create a sexual-orientation-neutral environment in which all members can operate, do their jobs, serve in their units with dignity, professionalism and respect.”

Last week, AFRICOM Commander Gen. Carter Ham, who co-chaired a military study on implementing a “don’t ask, don’t tell” repeal, said he saw the actual end date of the law as a non-issue. “My hope, my expectation, my belief is that it will be pretty inconsequential.”

As it should be, for the military. But for the LGBT rights community, it marks a significant victory, part of the slow but steady actualization of their rights. Activists worked tirelessly to see this day come, including those groups who, when repeal looked bleak, took over and refused to be silent, forcing the political hand of the Congressional and Presidential leadership. It was an incredible display and a textbook example of how outside activism can bring change. Make no mistake – without the push from groups like GetEQUAL and others, the Department of Defense would have gotten their way, and 2010 would have ended without repeal in place.

At the root, this is a victory for those who serve, who can stop living a lie, afraid to express who they are to their colleagues. But military integration has historically been ahead of the curve, and if gay and lesbian men and women can now serve their country, the arguments for denying them marriage equality or other rights become far more tenuous.

Credit must also be given to the deliberate policy laid out by the President, Joint Chiefs Chairman Mike Mullen and former Defense Secretary Robert Gates, who were able to get the military on board and comfortable, and who kept their promises on the process they set up with repeal. It took a long time, but the end result is very positive.

And there’s a great postscript. Over the weekend, the military determined that a gay former World War II veteran had an honorable discharge, changing his status and making him eligible for long-denied benefits. There are probably 100,000 like him who were dishonorably discharged between World War II and the institution of DADT in 1993, and I hope as many of them as possible come forward and force a reckoning, based on this precedent.

UPDATE: I’ll put the President’s statement on repeal on the flip.

Today, the discriminatory law known as ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’ is finally and formally repealed. 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. As of today, our armed forces will no longer lose the extraordinary skills and combat experience of so many gay and lesbian service members. And today, as Commander in Chief, I want those who were discharged under this law to know that your country deeply values your service.

I was proud to sign the Repeal Act into law last December because I knew that it would enhance our national security, increase our military readiness, and bring us closer to the principles of equality and fairness that define us as Americans. Today’s achievement is a tribute to all the patriots who fought and marched for change; to Members of Congress, from both parties, who voted for repeal; to our civilian and military leaders who ensured a smooth transition; and to the professionalism of our men and women in uniform who showed that they were ready to move forward together, as one team, to meet the missions we ask of them.

For more than two centuries, we have worked to extend America’s promise to all our citizens. Our armed forces have been both a mirror and a catalyst of that progress, and our troops, including gays and lesbians, have given their lives to defend the freedoms and liberties that we cherish as Americans. Today, every American can be proud that we have taken another great step toward keeping our military the finest in the world and toward fulfilling our nation’s founding ideals.