On March 28, 2010, I had the pleasure and honor of interviewing Lt. Dan Choi via telephone. Lt. Choi is a a fluent Arabic linguist, a West Point graduate, and an Iraq war veteran. He is also a vocal activist for the repeal of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell, the 1993 U.S. law signed by then-President Clinton, which forces gay, lesbian, and bisexual service members to remain closeted or face discharge from the military. Promises have been made regarding the law's repeal, but given the current political climate, its status remains uncertain.
More than 13,500 service members have been discharged under Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell since 1994, including almost 800 mission-critical troops in the last five years, according to the Servicemembers Legal Defense Network. Choi’s discharge is still pending after he came out publicly on The Rachel Maddow Show in 2009. He resumed military drills with his unit in early February of this year.
Choi was arrested on March 18 for handcuffing himself to the White House fence, along with Capt. Jim Pietrangelo, in protest of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell. He was arrested there again on April 20, along with five other service members in uniform who also chained themselves to the fence. Lt. Choi refuses to be silenced, and continues to speak out against the injustice of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.
In Part 1 of this interview, Choi emphasizes the importance and urgency of sacrifice in the struggle for LGBT equality, and the value that everyone has to contribute to the movement:
For a long time, we’ve been fighting and struggling to gain equality. Yes?
Well, for 40 years since Stonewall. People have been doing their part and paving the way.
Why do you think that sacrifice is so important in the struggle to gain full equality for LGBTQ Americans? Why are you calling for sacrifice now, when so many of us have had to make sacrifices just in order to make ends meet? As a military man, you are prepared to make the ultimate sacrifice if necessary. What would you say to someone who tells you that they can't afford to make any more sacrifices—or who hesitates to participate in civil disobedience, for fear of losing their job, their healthcare, their freedom, or even their life?
This issue, at its core, is about what America is, and when we talk about people who are losing their jobs, and when we talk about people who are going through difficult times, we have to remember that all people—who include the LGBT population—are significantly affected.
You bring up the economic situation. By the economic situation, we are significantly affected. And right now, as we don’t have the necessary protections for employment; and we don’t have, in the military, protections for expressing the truth; and we get fired for expressing the truth, even though we want to serve our country—we are all affected by that. Right now, because this is an issue about the core of what America stands for—the foundations of what America is—gay people, as well as straight people, are waking up to the necessity, and the urgency. I’m not creating this urgency. This urgency has existed.
And inherent in your question, Luella, is the idea that I’m the one that’s saying that everybody needs to sacrifice and create the kind of situation or tension—tension that exists. And the issue that exists is not something that’s created by people who engage in civil disobedience or make tangible sacrifices, or step up to be a part of this movement. The tension is already there. The tension is between America’s promises and America’s realities. America right now exemplifies a reality where you have certain people who do not have the protections of employment; and there are some people who do not have the right to serve—the freedom to raise their right hand and protect their country—and at the same time live an honest life.
I think that when we talk about service—and you brought up the idea of my military service—there’s a lot of people who certainly have invested quite a bit in their military service, and it is asking a lot; certainly, it’s asking a lot for people to potentially give that up for the benefit of the passing of this law to repeal Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell. And the same thing goes for all of the legislation in the movement for progress towards our equality. But when I think about my particular service being in the army, wearing the army uniform as an officer, you don’t join the military because you want to simply gain rank, prestige, power over others, or a benefit, or a pension, or a salary. Certainly, people in the military don’t get paid exorbitantly; I think that’s very evident to most people. You don’t join the military to get rich. You don’t join the military for all of those external reasons.
What is the reason why people join the military? What is the reason why I joined? It is quite clear that it’s to serve other people, to put the needs of others before yourself. And here we’ve seen so many people in the military step up. They refuse to lie, and they believe very ardently that Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell must be repealed, and it’s for the benefit of the future generations, so that people don’t have to lie. They don’t have to serve their country and at the same time be ashamed of who they are. They want to do everything that they can, and if that means that they have to sacrifice their careers or the benefits of service, so be it. I think there’s a lot of people who have contacted me, and who have stepped up already, that exemplify the fact that the values that we fight to protect, and the core of why we joined to begin with, can continue to steer our decisions and our actions when we are making the very clear statement to get rid of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.
For me, Luella, this is much more important than just my rank or my career, or even money. The number one priority of all of this is undeniably about restoring integrity to the service of gay and lesbian, bisexual people, soldiers, in the military, and allowing our future service members to be able to serve without having to lie.
As a fellow activist, I sometimes get frustrated with people who think that equality is inevitable, and don't feel the need to get involved in LGBT activism. What would you say to someone who prefers to wait for equal rights?
Well, Martin Luther King put it most eloquently that through the history of oppressed people, we are told, by those who would consider themselves to be our friends, the very familiar word, “Wait.”
“Wait your turn,” is essentially what we’re being told sometimes. And we all know the real meaning and the real translation of that word; “wait” most undeniably, most certainly means “never.”
And when people give you the reasoning as to why we should wait, and we shouldn’t push, there are many discussions that veer off into the directions of political timetables and election politics and campaign fundraising or political expediency; there are many peripheral ideas that somehow have hijacked the very essence of who we are as people and why we’re fighting for what we fight for—essentially for me why I cannot wait, and why I find it morally reprehensible to wait. Equality is not going to happen all of its own accord, and neither can it be purchased simply by monetary contribution; it’s not that easy. There are absolutely many different ways that we need all together to work towards the achievement of full equality, and many of the groups out there to improve the lobbying and the groups that do a massive amount of fundraising—they do great work. I’ve never said anything to indicate that the groups themselves are inherently evil. I’ve never said that. I think that they play a very important part in this.
However, the people who think that—and some people do feel that—our work as grassroots activists, those who are willing to sacrifice, is somehow unpalatable, or somehow less important, or somehow discountable, is another thing that many activists in the past in other movements for progress and for equality have run into. Obviously, there was Martin Luther King who said the same thing in America: that there are always those people who will say that the contributions of some are not as important as the contributions of others.
In your interview with Rachel Maddow on March 25, 2010, you stated, "And I've seen so many activists throughout the country, and so many organizations that do so many wonderful things. And I knew that when I was on that fence, I was not alone." What did you gain from your experience at the Equality Across America Midwest Conference? What have you gained from your interactions with other activists throughout the country?
EAA, and particularly the march on Washington, was such a signal to the rest of the country that there are gay people and straight people, transgender people, people of all different races, religions, backgrounds and citizenship statuses—all different identities—that realize that, particularly with the equality movement, nobody—no single person—should be seen as a lesser human being. And so, we’re also purely centered around that basic precept, and it becomes the foundation for a lot of the work that we do. Obviously, there are many people who are involved with separate issues; organizations generally form because of a specific issue. However, there is the connection between all of us that we are so inspired and motivated to achieve full federal equality.
When you see more than 200,000 people at the Capitol, it is inspiring to see so many. And I realize that for a lot of people, it was the first rally that they’d ever been to, and a lot of people just want to know how they can contribute. I see myself in them because I just wanted to be a small part of this, and I realize I am still just a small part, and I’m just contributing what I can to the movement. And there have been so many inspiring things that I’ve seen, particularly working with EAA, as well as groups like GetEQUAL, and other groups that are on the local level. I’m very inspired, and I just had to express that.
A lot of people would say that this entire movement and the Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell issue are centered around personal stories, or particular stories. And I’ve certainly gotten a lot of media attention and brought light to certain issues—particularly that there are Arabic linguists, or West Point graduate infantry officers [being discharged under DADT]—but the fact of the matter is, everybody has their story. And everybody has their skills and something that they can contribute.
I think, when I was on that fence, for a lot of people, it might be bewildering, because they think about the risk that’s involved there. But for me, there’s almost this counterintuitive sense about doing something like sending that kind of a clear message, and it’s the fact that when you’re up there, you are not alone. When you are sacrificing on behalf of others, it can be lonely at times, but you are not alone. What I mean by that is, so many people have come before us in our movement. At Stonewall 40 years ago, most of us that are now getting involved in the movement were not yet born. So many people stood up so that we can be here now, and we can continue on with the movement. And obviously, it was a lot more dangerous then, in many ways, to come out of the closet, and to become an activist, or an outspoken person.
Surely, the times have changed, and that’s why you see that EAA has so many young people. They just want to know what they can do. I want to send a clear message to all of them that whatever your gifts, you have something to contribute. And there are a lot of groups that are doing their part in the ways that they can best contribute, but I don’t want anybody in the entire community to think that they are somehow less valuable to the movement. Everybody is absolutely valuable to the movement, and everybody has something to contribute.
This interview has been edited for readability. Many thanks to Colin Murphy and Adam Shriver for their advice and assistance with editing. If you’d like to get involved in grassroots LGBT activism in St. Louis, please visit showmenohate.com, and please join us this Saturday, May 22, for a march and rally in honor of Harvey Milk. Stay tuned for Part 2 of my interview with Lt. Choi.