Wednesday, May 26, 2010

A Conversation with Dan Choi, Part 2: Agitation

If you’ve been following the news this week, you’ve heard that the U.S. military’s Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell policy is now on the path to repeal. But yesterday, GetEQUAL cofounder Kip Williams was arrested for disturbing the peace after interrupting President Obama's speech at a political fundraiser event. Williams had interrupted the President to ask him to move faster on repealing DADT. The President seemed irked by the activist, as if he didn’t understand what else this malcontent expected him to do: “[M]aybe he didn't read the newspapers, because we are working with Congress as we speak to roll back Don't Ask, Don't Tell,” Obama said.

Why are DADT repeal activists still unhappy with President Obama if he is, in fact, moving forward to repeal DADT?

Because the proposed plan is a "compromise" that allows the military to continue discharging out gay, lesbian, and bisexual soldiers while the Pentagon conducts an expensive study to determine how to implement the repeal.

In fact, the repeal bill up for a vote in Congress—an amendment to the Defense Authorization Bill—establishes no date for the end of the discriminatory policy, and the repeal is contingent upon a number of conditions being satisfied after the study is completed. GetEQUAL is currently circulating a video of Lt. Choi asking the important question, "When?" attached to a petition to the White House “to enact repeal this year and to issue an Executive Order to end military discharges immediately.” Choi writes in an open letter published today in Newsweek:

My question for the president that I ask in this video is simple: under your compromise, when will the discharges end? How long can we ask gay service members to live a lie? How long can we deny existence to their families? How long do we need to study the injustice in order to understand that discrimination is un-American?

In Part 1 of our interview on March 28, Lt. Choi spoke extensively about sacrifice. In Part 2 of the interview, he continues along that theme, and explains the necessity of agitation in social justice movements, as well as the importance of repealing DADT even if one opposes war and the military in general.

More from Lt. Choi after the jump.

Choi continues:

…I wholly disagree with anybody who would say that civil disobedience is irrelevant. It is absolutely relevant. It demonstrates that there is such an absolute intolerable level of discrimination, that it means something in such a tangible and such a riveting way that people are willing to sacrifice. It also signifies very clearly that the truth is, we are on the right side of history.

And we wouldn’t see so many people that are sacrificing to push this if just being on the right side of history only required being on that side. We know that we’re on the right side of history. But it’s not going to happen all on its own. I know there’s a lot of people who say, “Well, it’s going to happen anyway,” and I know a lot of people who’ve come up to me and said that I should be encouraged, because, “Oh, it’s going to happen. They’re going to repeal Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell eventually.”


And if it weren’t for the work of so many people who have agitated, and who have brought—and seared—into the moral consciousness of larger society the absolute, fundamental importance of that sacrifice, you wouldn’t see as much of the progress that we’ve seen in civil rights movements and in movements for social progress. We wouldn’t be where we are as a country today if it wasn’t for the sacrifices of people in the American Revolution. And we could go back to people in the Boston Tea Party, who were accused of agitating to the point of alienating those who were in certain powerful and influential positions. They certainly didn’t appreciate that their tea was being thrown overboard.

There were no movements in the history of our American progress—as well as our human progress—that depended solely on the theory of just wait.

To be afraid of agitating is to be afraid of the progress that we all seek. And when we talk about what it requires of all of us, we don’t just have to look at the American narrative, but I am personally inspired by so many people throughout history that have agitated, like Socrates. Obviously, we don’t see him as an agitator, but he was at that time. He was absolutely alienating and infuriating to the established ruling class of people. They put him to death. But when you read great works by Socrates, like Crito, or The Apology, we know very clearly that our own academic freedom that we enjoy in America and around the world today is based on that agitation, that sacrifice, that unwillingness and unrelenting motivation to engage in civil disobedience. And at that time, many people saw him as distasteful in what he was doing.

And then we could talk about heroes like Galileo, or any of the Renaissance thinkers. We could go back to Moses, when he went to those that were powerful and said, “Let my people go.” We could go to Jesus Christ and his time on this Earth when the entire establishment was against him. They called him a blasphemer and a heretic. And his country didn’t treat him very well at all; they put him to death, as well as the majority of his followers in the early church.

So we have a plethora of examples as to why the thinking that “the change will just certainly come,” is so absolutely misguided and unfounded. And I know that when we take a look at the entire gay community in America, we are so diverse and we have so many different traditions and backgrounds where we come from, but every tradition in the history of human progress demonstrates quite clearly to us that, if not for the sacrifices of those who were labeled as agitators and troublemakers, we would not be where we are today. And it’s a clarion wake-up call to everybody that we now require more than words and more than theories, and more than decisions based on fears of certain political schedules, or popularity polling. It requires sacrifice based on an innate desire to do the right thing, and to push history forward, because history would not happen all on its own and be a history that demonstrates the kind of progress—and the kind of enlightened thought or equality, or freedom and justice—[that we deserve] if we just let the time go by as if time itself, and time alone, will bring us equality. And I believe very firmly that, while we all deserve equality, it’s not going to be achieved by simply saying it.

You have said that Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell is an immoral policy. But some might argue that joining the military and fighting in the Iraq war are immoral actions. Why should someone who's against the war—or against the military in general—care about repealing Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell?

Well, I believe that everybody has the right to their opinions about particular wars, but there is a reality that the world is still a very dangerous place, and there are soldiers who sign up because they are willing to sacrifice in order to defend and protect their country. Being in the military is not just about war, although there is a very important decision that people must make, that when they sign up, they know that they are potentially going to be sent to war.

Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell is immoral because it enforces shame in the hearts of gay, lesbian, and bisexual soldiers. And the immorality of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell is unlike any kind of discriminatory law, immoral law, in our federal government right now. It actually says that you must fire somebody just for telling the truth about who they are. And I think that when you ask why should we support Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’s repeal on a moral basis, I think that there should be no organization that forces lying, and enforces shame and hiding and deception. So it’s absolutely very clear that, for those people who want to just serve their country, Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell is an insult not only to them, but to the whole of society.

Additionally, for those people who understand a little bit about history, this point needs to be made very clearly: that in 1948, Harry Truman, through an executive order, desegregated the military, and allowed blacks and racial minorities to serve along with their white counterparts. Those white counterparts who might have come from racist backgrounds went back to their homes, and their hometowns, having worked with people, having seen that they were just as capable, just as valuable, human beings on their teams—and whether they were in wartime or peacetime, one thing that the military does is allows people from all over the country to see the diversity and the strength of our country.

Six years later, after Harry Truman gave that executive order, you saw Brown v. the Board of Education, which declared that segregation—“separate but equal”—is absolutely unconstitutional. It goes against the very fabric of our society and who we are as people. The one couldn’t have happened without the other.

It’s absolutely important for people to realize that there is, right now, an entire system of inequality against gay people, against trans people, against our community. And for me, I see that clearly. When you have discrimination against people in the workplace, when you cannot be married to the person that you love, when you don’t have the social security tax or any of those benefits; also the death notifications for people, you can’t be at the bedside of your lover, and gay men can’t even donate blood. Or immigrants can’t have the same partner status and the benefits that straight immigrant families have. That kind of inequality makes up an entire system. It deeply penetrates into the schools, into the churches, into the homes, in so many ways. There is an absolute intersection of all of this oppression. And within the military, it is most rampant, because it enforces that shame on a very foundational level. It is the only law, at this moment, that says you must be forced to stay in the closet while you’re an employee of the federal government, while you are a serving member, somebody who serves our country.

So I think that when we look deeply into where our movement is going, I don’t want anybody to be left behind. I think that we all have a role to play, and we are all united by the fact that—while we might have our differences on tactics—we all want our full equality as human beings, and we know that it’s in keeping with America’s promise. And we’re all going to do everything that we can to try and manifest that. Try our best. Give everything that we can. And if we want to see it within our lifetime, or if we want the next generation to be able to see the promises manifest, then we will have to do everything that we can, and it does require a sacrifice on many, many different levels. I welcome that opportunity, as I welcome the opportunity to serve in any capacity. I think that it is not only an opportunity and a right for all of us to take part; it is a responsibility. And we’re reminded by our deep motivations; we should all remember that we are the ones who are manifesting not only a promise to ourselves, but also for all of America.

This interview has been edited for readability. Many thanks to Adam Shriver and Colin Murphy for their advice and assistance with editing. If you want to get involved in grassroots LGBT activism in St. Louis, please visit If you want to join the movement to Get EQUAL, you can contact the GetEQUAL activists at Stay tuned for Part 3 of my interview with Lt. Choi.

No comments:

Post a Comment