In the nearly six weeks since his arrest for civil disobedience, Lt. Dan Choi, an Army infantry officer turned gay-rights activist, soldiers: From coast to coast, Choi preserversspeaking out on college campuses and other public venues. His is a one-man advocacy campaign, pressing the president to show more leadership to repeal "don't ask, don't tell."
Despite some criticism for handcuffing himself in uniform to the wrought iron fence surrounding the White House gates, Choi remains unapologetic in taking aim at the commander-in-chief. Choi's beef with the president is this: Obama is not using his bully pulpit strong enough in pressuring Congress to lift the ban on openly gay military service.
What should the president do? Choi insists that the president include repeal language in the Defense Authorization Act of 2010. At the same time, Choi believes the commander-in-chief must immediately issue a "stop-loss" order, thereby putting in place a de facto moratorium on all discharges from the armed forces.
The 28-year-old West Point alumnus served "under don't ask, don't tell ( DADT ) " for 10 years before self-identifying as gay on the Rachel Maddow Show in March 2009. For saying out loud three words, "I am gay," Choi faces a very real possibility any day now, of being discharged.
New guidelines recently announced by Defense Secretary Robert Gates and designed to make implementation of DADT more humane, don't apply in Choi's case. In fact, 80 percent of all gay-related discharges are for tellingnot because of jilted lovers or third parties, snitching on ex-partners or buddies. The decorated Army infantryman, an Iraq War veteran and Arabic language specialist, has indeed laid it all on the line, including his career. And no one, he says, will silence Choi, who holds place as a national poster man for repeal-the-ban efforts on Capitol Hill.
In Boston recently, Choi discussed his one-man advocacy. "Some people were pretty nervous, "Choi told a packed ballroom at a black-tie gala fundraiser. "Nervous when I returned to serve with my unit. They thought maybe the Army is trying to get [ me ] to shut up."
"Some people were nervous," he continued, "when I found myself in prison for protesting 'don't ask, don't tell,' in front of the White House." Nervous, Choi continued, "because they thought maybe the federal government was trying to prevent me from coming to such a wonderful event."
"Well, for those of you are nervouslook around," Choi said, referring to the 1,300 ( mostly ) males in attendance at Fenway Health's annual Men's Event.
"I am still standing in front of you today. I am still speaking up, still telling the truth. I am still proud of who I am and still serving my country. And yes, I am still gay."
The audience roared with approval.
Choi traveled to Boston April 10 to receive the prestigious Congressman Gerry Studds Visibility Award from LGBT medical center Fenway Health for Choi's outspoken leadership on the national level.
During an interview afterwards, Choi discussed what he calls "pernicious" the nearly 17-year-old federal law and Defense Department policy that boots gay soldiers who tell the truth about themselves.
Choi has grown impatient, he said, explaining his activism. "Any civil disobedience has to be tied to strategy," he said, referring to his peaceful White House protest on March 18. "As I understand it, the president is the only person right now who can take the lead this year," Choi said.
That's why Choi refuses to let Obama off the hook. The president, he insists, has to include repeal language in the defense bill. It's a strategy that Democrats employed successfully last year to enact hate crimes legislation.
And yet Sen. Carl Levin, D-Mich., chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, can also slip repeal language into the defense bill. But, "if Sen. Levi does not have cover through executive action with the defense authorization bill," Choi believes, "it's going to be very difficult for him, particularly this year" to lift the ban.
Because it is federal law, as well as Pentagon policy, repeal of DADT must come legislatively. "Of course, Congress has to repeal the law," Choi said. "We know that." Meanwhile, President Obama could put an end to discharges of gay soldiers by issuing a "stop-loss" order, Choi insists.
Under federal law ( specifically, 10 U.S.C. Sec. 12305 ) , the president, as the commander-in-chief, fact holds power to issue a "stop-loss" an order that would halt, at least temporarily, all pending DADT discharges, including Choi's. As a May 2009 Palm Center report explains, "Congress grants the president authority to suspend the separation of military members during any period of national emergency," such as Iraq and Afghanistan.
Meanwhile, the time clock for congressional action to repeal DADT this year keeps on ticking. Accordingly, Choi's activism gains heightened urgency.
Sure enough, Choi has his critics. In fact, one gay activist called the White House protest "politically unsophisticated beyond belief," adding "It's a shame that our community needs to be educated about the political process and they don't get it," Phil Attey told local gay media in Washington, D.C., "They don't understand that Congress needs to be moved on this issue and that people across the country have the power to do that. And if they're going to get them to yell and scream at the president, we're going to fail, we're going to lose."
But Choi takes exception. "The president said it's our responsibility to keep the pressure on leaders like him," he said, adding that is why "I've got to keep talking and educating people."
Other critics admonish Choi for being arrested in combat fatigues. "The [ military ] uniform is for a purpose," he said. "If we are not using it to stand up to those who are oppressing us, the we are desecrating it."
And yet Choi has strong defenders. Richard Socarides, former White House advisor to President Bill Clinton, offered this perspective: "The president has been slow to act despite his promise to the contrary. To those who complain about Dan's actions, I would say, put yourself in his shoes. He has been mislead by his commander-in-chief, treated as a second class citizen by the country he was willing to give his life for, then told to wait indefinitely for justice, while he faces the loss of his job. I'd say his actions were quite measured under the circumstances."