Lieutenant Dan Choi is a U.S. Army officer, West Point graduate and Arabic linguist. He has fought in combat in Iraq, and he continues to serve as a National Guardsman with the 1st Battalion, 69th Infantry, based in New York. After almost a decade of military service, Choi publically revealed that he is gay. Shortly thereafter, the military issued him a discharge letter for violating the "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" ( DADT ) policy. Since then, Choi has been a prominent figure in the effort to repeal the law. While much attention has been given to repealing DADT as of late, Choi says it's not enough. Last Friday, he spoke with Windy City Times about DADT and his experience as an openly gay soldier.
Windy City Times: "Don't Ask, Don't Tell"… The president said he wants the law repealed, and he's directed Secretary of Defense Robert Gates to come up with a plan to do so. You're not satisfied. Why?
Dan Choi: It's a major disappointment to see the commander-in-chief not take stronger action on this. When you consider what's going on within our movement, we as gay people are settling for eloquent speeches. It's an important lesson, not just in the struggle to repeal "Don't Ask, Don't Tell," it's a values lesson that digs at the sole of the gay community. With this lawit being the only law that stipulates that you must be in the closet or be fired [ from the military ] we cannot tolerate this sort of discrimination. We cannot tolerate waiting one year to study the effects of repealing it, which, essentially, is a delay tactic.
WCT: Why is waiting a year to implement a plan of action to repeal DADT a delay tactic?
DC: When you think about the 2010 elections and this false sense of fearthat putting people to a vote during midterm elections will hurt their legislative agendaswhat is most disappointing about that is it puts political expediency as a priority over the rights of the most discriminated people in America. All of us, not just gay people, but all of us who love this country have an obligation to push back against hesitation to repealing "Don't Ask, Don't Tell." Waiting longer to repeal it reeks of compromise. We [ those in favor of repealing DADT ] are on the right side of history. This is the right thing to do right now. It will make our country stronger.
WCT: On the issue of waiting a year to study the effects of repealing DADT, U.S. Sen. Roland Burris said, "That time period of waiting is to let them [ opponents of the repeal ] get something back in the compromise process so that we can get the law changed." He went on to say that proponents of the repeal should be more patient. Do you think compromise is necessary, in the long run, to see DADT repealed?
DC: There is no "compromise process" that exists in a moral struggle. If this is a struggle to correct America's course, and I believe it is, then there is no room for compromise. The only thing being compromised here are the values of this country. Equality cannot be compromised. To hear people say that this is the correct thing to do, only to retreat by using language that allows for the other side to be accommodated betrays not only the history of our course towards equality in this country, it betrays the very words those people are saying. It's contradictory. The question back to the Sen. Burrisand anybody who says that this [ DADT ] digs at the sole of America's characteris, 'Would you tolerate waiting any longer if it were any other minority?'
WCT: Right now, there is discussion of a moratorium on firing gay and lesbian soldiers. You say that isn't enough. Why?
DC: What's on the table right now is a moratorium on the firings of those soldiers who have been outed by jilted lovers. That doesn't do anything for troops who must remain in the closet. Think about the underlying premise there; what that says about gay people who are in relationships. That assumes that all gay relationships go sour. We're all focused so much, even in this one-year study, on what kind of impact repealing "Don't Ask" will have. To assume that there will be some sort of "impact" is an implied negative.
WCT: Your opponents argue that failing to consider the possible impacts of repealing DADT, for better or worse, would be irresponsible.
DC: What I'm saying is that we need to focus on the positive impacts that repealing the law will have. Gay and lesbian soldiers who are recognized and supported within their units, just like every other soldier, are without a doubt, better soldiers. By creating an atmosphere of equality, unit cohesion in improved. Think about it. As it stands, if a gay or lesbian soldier dies on the battlefield, or is severely injured, notification cannot go to his or her partner back home. If a gay or lesbian soldier comes back in a flag-draped coffin, that flag cannot be presented by a general, on bended knee, to the partner who has loved that soldier the most, and told, "On behalf of a grateful nation, we thank you for the service of your partner." I think when we deny that, we deny a bit of America's sole. We do not support any of our troops when we deny any number of our troops.
WCT: Since you came out, have you experienced any discrimination from fellow soldiers?
DC: No. In fact, I've thanked a lot of my fellow soldiers who wrote letters of support on my behalf. If anything, I feel closer to them now. Some of them now feel comfortable telling me that they have a gay brother. My personal experience with thisof being in a relationship with another man and being able to return to my unithas only been positive. As a gay man in a relationship, I learned about commitment and responsibility. I learned how to be in love. And, that has made me understand my fellow, hetero soldiers that much better. I identify more with them as a result of that. It has made me a better officer and a better soldier to know that there is mutual support amongst my fellow soldiers.
WCT: You are fortunate to have had a positive experience with your fellow soldiers. Other members of the military have not been so fortunate. If DADT is repealed, do you think there will be increases in hate crimes against gay and lesbian soldiers?
DC: No, absolutely not. With all the issues that wartime soldiers must deal withpost-traumatic stress, survivor guilt, depressionthose soldiers who commit suicide later on… Do you think that number isn't comprised of soldiers who cannot reveal their true feelings, who cannot confide, in their most desperate hour, who they really are? A soldier struggling with those sorts of issues, on top of all the other stressors of war, cannot confide in a chaplain, or a mental health professional because of the fear of getting kicked out of the military. You talk about hate crimes… The suffering that those soldiers must endure, in addition to everything else, that is a hate crime. "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" is a hate crime.
WCT: You are an activist. Don't your actions, as an activist, defy military protocol?
DC: I believe that my actionsthat speaking out against this discriminatory laware my duty as a soldier and activist. I believe that what is at a deficit in the movement towards equality, are leaders who base their contributions on actions, rather than words.
WCT: As a soldier, you knew that revealing yourself to be gay would, more than likely, have repercussions. Did you intend to become an activist by outing yourself? Did you intend to become the poster child for repealing DADT?
DC: I didn't intend for this eruption of media attention just by saying "I am gay." I knew that saying it was a violation of the "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" policy. I did not fully anticipate this outcome, but I am convinced that it is a worthy outcome. My role now is a necessary one. I hope my actions help other people to be true to their identity. That's the ultimate goal in all of this now. If that requires being in the media to do that, then it's OK. You can talk about the 1.3 billion tax dollars that have been spent to kick people out and all the personal stories of gay soldiers, but unless those statistics are used to underscore the immorality of this law, then what's the point?
WCT: You've said that repealing DADT should be included in the 2010 Defense Authorization Act. Please explain.
DC: The president has a unique opportunity when he sends his request to Congress for the defense authorization budget. If he includes the repeal of "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" in the defense budget, that is the only tangible hope that we have to seeing a repeal happen this year. Including the repeal in the defense authorization, which is seen as a "must pass" bill, is a clear message that we're not going to spend any more money on enforcing "Don't Ask, Don't Tell." Without that force of presidential initiativewithout that clear messagethe Congress will languish on, and the Senate and House Armed Services Committees will continue to debate this. I think that it is essential that the president send a clear message, beyond just saying he's in favor of repealing the law. If we don't see him include the repeal in the Defense Authorization Act, then we will know that his words and his intent are not sincere enough to follow-up with real action.
WCT: Speaking of executive orders, couldn't the president use his "stop-loss" authority to temporarily halt the enforcement of DADT for all soldiers, while the issue is studied?
DC: I don't speak for the president, but I do think he should use that authority. For the president to talk about sending 30,000 more troops to Afghanistan without considering that there have been almost half that amount kicked out under this [ DADT ] policy, which is so easily halted by executive action, I think is a betrayal to the responsibilities to our troops. It's not only imperative for our national security; it just makes sense to do it.
WCT: Another argument to not repealing DADT in a more timely fashion is that it is politically risky for the presidentthat it forces him to weigh a great deal of political capital. In your opinion, what is President Obama risking, politically speaking, by not taking swifter action to repeal DADT?
DC: You gain political capital by doing something like this. It will make our country stronger. His ability to show concrete leadership on this issue will buttress and add to his authority as Commander n' Chief, not only during this time of war, but also throughout history. It would also show that he can and will put his money where his mouth is. It's hard for me to grasp, on this issue, the theoretical realm of political capital because, in my opinion, showing leadership on this it the right thing to do. Within the gay community, the president's political capital is dwindling because, not only are we seeing no action, but we're seeing more and more empty promises being made.
WCT: Sum it up for us: What is the single, most corrosive element of "Don't Ask, Don't Tell"?
DC: What is denied to people under this law is access to telling the truth. And, when you deny that access to people, to their own honesty, I think there is no greater poison to our moral fabric.
Choi is one of 59 gay Arabic linguists, and nine gay Farsi linguists, who have been discharged from the military as a result of DADT.
For more on Lt. Choi, visit www.ltdanchoi.com .
Choi, Pietrangelo opt for April 26 trial
Lt. Dan Choi and Capt. James Pietrangelo IIwho is being discharged and was let go under "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" ( DADT ) , respectivelyopted to go to trial after being arrested March 18 for handcuffing themselves to the White House gates while protesting the policy, according to MetroWeekly.com .
Choi was speaking at a Human Rights Campaign ( HRC ) rally about repealing DADT when he asked HRC President Joe Solmonese if he would march to the White House. Chanting protesters clashed with police officers, who had surrounded the gates of the White House with yellow tape, Advocate.com reported.
D.C. Superior Court Judge Richard Ringell gave Choi and Pietrangelo two options March 19: pay a $100 fine and close the case, or to go to trial. Both selected the latter option, and the trial will commence April 26, MetroWeekly.com stated. ( ''I am not guilty, I am not ashamed, and I am not finished,'' Choi said while in chains." ) After the arraignment and outside the courthouse, Choi said, ''There was no freer moment than being in that prison."
Actress/comedian/LGBT ally Kathy Griffin, who was in D.C. to meet with federal legislators about repealing DADT, was also at the March 18 rally. Choi also asked her if she would march, to which Griffin replied, "Of course!" However, neither Griffin nor Solmonese went to the White House protest.
Activist Robin McGehee was also arrested after she had apparently helped Choi and Pietrangelo handcuff themselves to the fence. She was released that evening.
A statement from HRC sent to Windy City Times read, "Today HRC along with veterans and entertainer Kathy Griffin hosted a rally at DC's Freedom Plaza between the White House and Capitol Hill, calling for the repeal of 'Don't Ask, Don't Tell.' HRC President Joe Solmonese welcomed the crowd of more than 1,000 and encouraged them to take action and put pressure on the White House and Congress to end this discriminatory law NOW. More than 500 people signed up to become more involved in the fight to repeal DADT.
"Singer Tom Goss kicked off the event followed by the first American wounded in the Iraq war, retired Marine Staff Sgt. Eric Alva. Also speaking were Ben Mishkin of Servicemembers Legal Defense Network and Alex Nicholson of Servicemembers United. Finally, Kathy Griffin took to the stage, talking about her experiences this week in Washington, welcoming Lt. Dan Choi to the stage to make a few remarks and then calling for a moment of silence to honor our troops who serve in silence.
"There's been some confusion about Lt. Dan Choi's role in the rally. As Joe Solmonese was walking on stage Lt. Choi asked Joe if he could have a speaking role. Joe explained that it wasn't his sole decision to make on the spot given that there was already an established program that included Kathy Griffin, other organization and veterans. After Choi then spoke with Kathy Griffin, she agreed to bring him up on stage and speak to the crowd during her remarks.
"Lt. Choi in his speech called on the crowd to march on the White House. Joe Solmonese along with Eric Alva and others felt it was important to stay and engage those at the rally in ways they can continue building the pressure needed for repeal. This does nothing to diminish the actions taken by Lt. Choi and others. This is the nature of social change and everyone has a role to play."
Rick Jacobs and Cleve Jones, both with the Courage Campaign, released a statement supporting Choi and Pietrangelo, saying, "Lt. Dan Choi and Capt. Jim Pietrangelo today demonstrated the growing frustration with the pace of change in Washington. History shows us that nonviolent civil disobedience can be a very effective tactic in the struggle for social justice. Lt. Choi is a friend of ours and of the Courage Campaign and we are proud of the action he took today."