After Don't Ask, Don't Tell: Former Lt. Dan Choi Doubles Down On His Fight For Gay Equality
NEW YORK — The American gay rights movement marks a milestone Tuesday — the official end of the U.S. military’s “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy.
But one of the leaders in this battle for equal rights, Army National Guard Lt. Dan Choi, won’t be joining in any celebrations.
Discharged from the Army in July 2010 for violating the policy, the decorated gay soldier who galvanized the repeal movement is still busy fighting on two fronts against the federal government — one political and one legal.
“I’m not going to party. I have to get ready for court,” said Choi, an Iraq war veteran and Arabic-speaking linguist, sitting comfortably in his bright midtown Manhattan apartment, ringed with public service awards for activism and military service.
His case, the United States of America v. Daniel Choi, stems from a protest he led in front of the White House in November 2010. He and 12 other LGBT activists handcuffed themselves to the fence at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue to bring attention to the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” (DADT) repeal effort. Now Choi faces a possible six months in jail for disobeying an order to get off the fence.
“To have something that is your country versus you is not something you expect when you’re coming back from war,” Choi says, part of a government legacy he terms “federal homophobia.”
Uncompromising and focused on the larger political front in the struggle for gay rights, Choi says he is highly skeptical of the Democratic leadership, particularly President Obama, and of many established gay rights organizations. Lt. Choi, age 30, is still in battle mode.
“The government treats us just like terrorists,” Choi says. “It’s the same thing in countries where revolutions are happening. The president wants to stay in power and doesn’t want any embarrassment.”
The cost of dissent
The West Point graduate still suffers from post traumatic stress disorder. He sustained damage to his ears, lungs and bones after repeated exposure to mortar explosions during 18 months in Iraq, where he served as an expert translator. He says his treatments are expensive and increasingly difficult to afford on partial disability benefits — reduced by 50 percent after he was discharged. Choi is also going head to head with the Department of Justice, refusing to return $2700 of a bonus he was awarded for joining the New York Army National Guard.
Choi’s last two and a half years serving as an unofficial spokesman the anti-DADT movement helped him build a serious track record as an activist. He’s also met numerous times with military generals from around the world, and has spoken at rallies with LGBT activists from Amsterdam to Moscow. He rode on The Netherlands’ first officially sanctioned military gay pride float and enduring a rough arrest in Russia’s capital earlier this year. He is booked solid for appearances at churches and international gatherings and makes time for lobbying sessions with members of Congress. He says he has done 300 school appearances and as many as 1000 live interviews. And, again and again, he pressured Obama to push Congress to act. But the effort has taken its toll: two nervous breakdowns; six trips to jail.
“It happened because we got in Obama’s face," Choi said, always ready to launch a barrage of criticism against his former commander in chief.
Perhaps of greatest concern to Choi is that the repeal will appease the gay community enough that it will settle for less than full social and legal equality. “DADT has become something of a manipulation,” Choi says. “It’s clear that Obama has not fulfilled his promises to our community. DADT means for me that I can go back [and serve]. And it means that I can die for my country. But I still can’t get married in my country.”
Although the Defense of Marriage Act continues to block federal recognition of same-sex marriages, its repeal could be next, said Harvard Law Professor Laurence Tribe.
“Tuesday is a very historic day,” said Tribe, who hired Obama as a research assistant in his first year of law school. "It’s part of the dismantling of a nationwide system of apartheid against gays and lesbians. And it’s coming apart faster than anyone thought was possible.”
Tuesday marks the conclusion of what is widely viewed as a failed policy that led to the discharge of more than 13,000 service members because of their sexuality. For decades, the U.S. has trailed behind all of the European Union member states and all original NATO signatories in permitting gays to serve openly. Though President Truman signed Executive Order 9981 desegregating the U.S. armed forces in 1948, America has waited 60 more years for out gay soldiers to serve side by side with straight ones.
On his left index finger, Choi wears his 2003 West Point class ring. It’s the ring he gave to Sen. Harry Reid three weeks after the New York Army National Guard discharged Choi for violating Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell. Reid promised to return the ring upon repeal of the policy, Choi stood and saluted him from the audience and the two men embraced. Five months later, after two key failures in the Senate, Reid made good on his guarantee.
But Choi says the repeal alone is not enough, and holds a great deal of bitterness against the commander in chief, Obama, whom he said has betrayed the LGBT community.
“Tuesday is nothing like the 1948 order to integrate,” he said. “With a swash of his pen, Obama could say [to gays], ‘You are a legitimate minority.’ That’s what the 1948 order recognized: equal opportunity. But as it stands, people are still going to be kicked out, chased out, discriminated and harassed. There’s still going to be that.”
And as for Obama?
“This guy that I thought was so amazing, he can hurt me more than anybody because there’s nobody who can hurt you more than the one you once loved, and continue to love. He knows that,” Choi said, revealing the level of emotion he is grappling with.
Choi admires countries like The Netherlands and Sweden, where full LGBT equality is on the verge of reality. In the U.S., full equality is still far down the road. But Harvard’s Tribe says milestones like the repeal of the Defense of Marriage Act are likely in the next five to ten years.
“People are all catching up to the recognition that the skies doesn’t fall when we recognize gay rights,” he said. “It’s about time.”
The path to victory
Although military leaders had evidence in front of them for years that the presence of openly gay service members would have basically zero effect on military readiness, and that it could actually reduce on-the-job harassment and violence, many of them denied or mischaracterized it for years.
Aaron Belkin, director of the Palm Center and a political science professor at San Francisco State University, said former Gen. John Shalikashvili’s op-ed in the New York Times in January 2007 began to correct the record.
Shalikashvili, who had been the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff from 1993 to 1997, wrote: “I now believe that if gay men and lesbians served openly in the United States military, they would not undermine the efficacy of the armed forces.”
Then in 2010, current Joint Chiefs chairman Adm. Mike Mullen told Congress, "We have in place a policy that forces young men and women to lie about who they are in order to defend their fellow citizens. For me, personally, it comes down to integrity: Theirs as an individual, ours as an institution."
Belkin had been working tirelessly to educate military brass about the true effects of repealing DADT, which he and his team argued would be a “non-event.”
“I believe this policy was about homophobia and paranoia,” Belkin said, adding that the Palm Center would be winding down post-repeal. “I believe this represents a triumph over paranoia.”
But Choi is still extremely wound up.
“The only thing you can control is that you don’t give up, “ he said. “And that is what is missing in the entire field of activism.”
He has his sights on the repeal of Defense of Marriage Act, but also passing the DREAM Act, repealing the Bush tax cuts, and environment issues like stopping the Keystone XL oil pipeline that would connect Canada’s Tar Sands with refineries in Texas.
Choi is also seriously considered reenlisting in the Army, to “finish up in Iraq.”
“It’s been hard as an activist to claim this as a complete victory,” he said. “If you’d asked me two or three years ago, I’d have said, ‘Hip hip hurray, we did it! We won!’ But for some reason I feel that throughout the journey something’s been taken away from me.”
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