When I first heard about Dan Choi being arrested for handcuffing himself to the gates of the White House, my initial reaction was the usual pointless snark that is generally reserved for us writers and bloggers. I had all sorts of clever little titles made up in my head, with Dan Choi's Excellent Adventure being my personal favorite. In fact, I actually wrote an entire first draft of a piece that simply asked that first question, but then I began to think about what happened in Washington, D.C. yesterday, and the cold, hard truth about my first reaction to the news became clear as day: for all of my writing, speaking, and so-called activist behavior, I had totally forgotten what real activism was.
Let me be quite clear about one thing: what Dan Choi did yesterday was of questionable sincerity, most likely intricately plotted as to gain the most amount of press and attention, and undoubtedly will dominate the conversation going into the next Don't Ask, Don't Tell news cycle. It's big, over the top, political theater of the type that is destined to get tongues wagging about the issue once again and will definitely secure Lt. Choi's place as a major figure in gay activism. What it won't secure, however, is the title and rank that his entire public career thus far has been about retaining, which is why the behavior is simultaneously inspiring and baffling. There are some severely mixed signals here that need to be addressed.
I'm also a gay veteran, and I have recently begun to speak out about my experiences serving under Don't Ask, Don't Tell. While I have no real desire to serve in the military again, I speak out for the same reasons that other gay veterans do: because there are thousands of gay soldiers currently serving whose voices are rendered completely silent due to this policy, and if we don't speak up for them, nobody else will. It is our job to make people care, and to put a human face to the Don't Ask Don't Tell conversation, and to engage people on a more grassroots level so that they can get a good idea of the damage that the policy does. Since exploding onto the scene just under a year ago, it is arguable that Lt. Dan Choi has done this more effectively than anyone else.
That said, Choi's hard-line activism and the spectacle of this entire endeavor seems to fly in the face of his entire public profile thus far, that of a respectable (albeit guarded) military officer who wants nothing more than to be able to serve his country openly. Is this not the same soldier who just a few weeks back scored what seemed like a major victory when he was called back to training? At what point did the smiling face in the picture he tweeted from his barracks turn into the face of defiance that would handcuff himself to the gates of the White House in his military uniform, no less? At what point does the desire for attention trump the desire to serve, and which one is more heavily at play here?
This is either bold gay activism, the likes of which we haven't seen since the days of ACT UP, or it is a deafening cry for attention that just damaged the brand and credibility of one of the few real gay leaders the community has right now. Taking into account my conflicted feelings about the entire situation, I actually think that it may be both. I'm not entirely sure when it was that gays became so complacent that our idea of 'activism' is throwing gala fundraisers for the usual heterosexual celebrities who deign to be supportive of us, but however theatrical and overwrought they may be, Lt. Choi's actions seem to hearken back to an era that I've never really experienced. It's the era that Cleve Jones talks about when he reminisces about the work he did with Harvey Milk back in the 70's, the era when gay men founded ACT UP after becoming sick and tired of seeing each other dying from AIDS and getting nothing but silence from the Reagan Administration, and it's the era where LGBT people actually fought for their rights instead of waiting patiently for them.
I know that a lot of African-Americans don't like the comparison of the gay rights movement to the civil rights movement, but I happen to be Black and gay, so I'll say this: if the majority of the leaders who fought for my rights as a Black person were as complacent and easily placated as those who are allegedly fighting for my rights as a gay person, I would certainly not have had access to the opportunities and education that led me to this very point.
I could write a hundred articles, dozens of books, and speak to thousands and thousands of people at gay pride events and college campuses, but Dan Choi will always be that rock star activist that handcuffed himself to the gates of The White House. Of course Dan Choi jumped the shark, and he did it in his military uniform for all the cameras to see. You know what, though? I think what we needed was to see something like this to light a fire under each and every one of us that cares as deeply as he does about Don't Ask, Don't Tell repeal, and about full equality in general. This movement needs him as much as it needs me, or Jarrod Chlapowski, or Lt. Col Victor Fehrenbach, or any of the other gay veterans who share our past of silent service knowing that it reflects the present of thousands of gay soldiers currently serving. Maybe it's time to act up all over again. Maybe the rumblings of this being a part of a more coordinated activist effort are true. Maybe it is time to Get Equal.
People keep wondering who's going to be the Martin Luther King of the gay rights movement, and that I still don't know, but I think yesterday's actions may have put us one step closer to finding our Malcolm X.
Follow Rob Smith on Twitter: www.twitter.com/robsmithonline