When Iraq veteran Lt. Dan Choi appeared on the Rachel Maddow Show last year, his proclamation of three words - “I am gay” - sent a ripple into the growing debate on the U.S. military's controversial “Don't Ask Don't Tell Policy.” In the months that have followed, Choi was discharged from active duty and launched down a different path: That of an activist.
While touring the nation and speaking on his experience as human proof of the devastating effects of discrimination, he has become one of our community's most recognizable voices on one of our most contentious battles. And, as of last month, he returned to drill duty, an experience the Arabic and Farsi translator described as a homecoming offering a glimpse into a world where soldiers are free to both ask and tell.
While in town for Unite+Fight, the Equality Across America Midwest conference, last weekend, Choi spoke with ChicagoPride.com on where he sees the soul of the current LGBT movement, a movement he considers to be based in responsibilities rather than rights.JE:
(Joseph Erbentraut) How are you enjoying your stay in Chicago so far? What are you most anticipating with the conference this weekend?DC:
(Lt. Dan Choi) Some of the organizers took me out yesterday on Halsted and I got to see some of the nightlife here. I'm not a club kind of person, so it's always a bit uncomfortable for me to go to the bars, but there was a really lively feel to several place we went. It was good! I know that there is a lot of energy here also and whatever we see this weekend, I know that it's really going to be, at least from my prediction, a real cadre of the heart and the soul of the movement right now.
A lot of people question whether conferences like this or the [National Equality] March itself are worthwhile ventures and they discount the very real fact that what we do has intrinsic value beyond a legislative outcome. I think [those people] are distracted from the real purpose of the movement. I think that, within the gay community, we are still in a soul searching and identity formation phase. I hope this weekend we'll get to the source of not only our community's strengths, but also our weaknesses and who our opponent really is. I don't think that's accomplished by lobbying and legislative actions. As I understand it, we are still in a slavery phase of our existence. We are enslaved, still, by the stereotypes we cast on ourselves. And I believe a lot of people are losing hope in legislative organizing. This year has evidenced that to us.JE:
Speaking of that loss of hope in the legislative powers-that-be, we have to look to the man who branded himself with that very term - "hope" - to win political office: President Obama. In the State of the Union address two months ago, Obama promised he would repeal Don't Ask Don't Tell, but as you've said yourself, talk is cheap.DC:
Yes, talk is not only cheap, but in instances like that, if we are to emulate that kind of talk, then cheap would be too gracious of a term. In that way, talk is damning, expensive and it exacts a heavy burden on our community in particular. When we're given that kind of hope, that we have true leaders - not only in the President but also in the elites from our own community - who will act beyond their words, we lose a lot of the desire to give them our hopes and dreams blindly.
And some people would go toward cynicism because of that. But I think the hope was misdirected and misguided. To build hope on only a legislative foundation ignores the fact that we can change all of the legislative priorities - including [DADT], DOMA - and have all of the laws passed, but we're still going to be struggling with the very source of the enemy: The religion-based bigotry. We passed hate crimes legislation, but then look at what happens in Virginia, where the Attorney General says it's OK to discriminate. So where is the source of this? Why is it still emerging? We learned from previous civil rights struggles that, for example, the Civil Rights Act did not stop the racism and discrimination. It certainly helps to have the laws on the books, but until you attack the source of the oppression, the community has gone nowhere.JE:
On that note, you mentioned the National Equality March, which you were part of and which did receive some criticism from people within the LGBT community who ask what its legislative result was. Would you identify that march as the start of that soul-searching phase you described earlier? And how do you respond to that criticism?DC:
The purpose of the march was not just to enact certain legislation, pretending it was an embodiment of all of our goals. The march, I think, would fall short if it was just with the distinct purpose to hurry along a certain piece of legislation. The march was as much of a message to ourselves as it was to Congress. We were telling all of the elites within the movement that you cannot sensor and control the power of the people. Unfortunately, some of the elites and the lobby groups have, whether purposely or not, underlined that there's a certain kind of "gay" they're trying to convey through their messages.
And I think one of the resounding messages was that the gay community is not solely represented by those who are constantly seen as the front people of the movement. But, rather, there are young people, homeless youth, immigrants, racial minorities, Republicans, Veterans and all sorts of people who are not the traditional voices. I saw all of us there [in D.C.] confronting those who would deny our diversity. Our march was open to all, with the basis of participation in our gaining full federal equality. And everyone was able to express their views and stand up for themselves.JE:
On that note, there are some within the movement who feel stifled in expressing their views, specifically with regard to the debate on Don't Ask Don't Tell. How do you respond to skeptics of anti-war sentiment who question the movement's focus on [DADT] because of their view of the military as an imperialistic, oppressive institution?DC:
First of all, I recognize and acknowledge that our movement was accelerated because of the anti-Vietnam war movement as well as the reform and civil rights struggles of the '60s into the '70s. And you did see a lot of the elements of Veterans for Peace as well as Iraq Veterans Against the War at the march. I understand that they have certain beliefs and to that point in particular, I would say that the repeal of [DADT] doesn't force them to join what they call an imperialistic force or a war-making force based on the view that - as I believe the argument goes - all wars are racist and for the corporate greed. That's one historical viewpoint based on their research. I cannot fully agree with their jump from this war theory to military service legislation.
If they're opposing the repeal of [DADT] because of this war theory, it would be parallel to me saying we need to put everything on hold, putting the whole force of the gay community behind veteran pension benefits, for example. That would be hijacking the movement and our community's soul for a particular self-interested motive which is irrelevant to the ideas of full federal equality. They're entitled to their opinion but it has the continued threat of being distracting.
We are fighting for the repeal of a discriminatory law. Once that happens, people will have a choice to join or not join [the military]. And with marriage in the same light, we are fighting for the repeal of DOMA and the access to equal benefits like social security so people have a choice whether to do that or not. For anyone to say that if we fight for the repeal of [DADT] and DOMA, then you're forcing everybody into the hetero normative institution of marriage and the imperialistic institution of the military, I think it's a false argument and it falls flat on its face. But I recognize that there are some differences in the community and I respect what they're doing.JE:
On a different note, you were back on drill duty as of last month. Were you surprised to get that call from your commander? Tell me more about the reception you got there and how that felt to you?DC:
My commander has always been very supportive and very professional. I was a little bit surprised, but the call was precipitated by the upcoming deployment and we needed all the soldiers that were able, capable and willing and he made that clear to me. When I returned to duty, I think it was a very loud message to everyone in the unit, some of whom hadn't seen me for nine or ten months. The nonverbal message was always louder than the verbal one. After being on television with over 50 live interviews this past year, when I came back to drill, I was a regular soldier, did everything they did and it was motivating to a lot of the soldiers to see that.
Some people counted me off as some kind of media whore and going back, being able to thank some of the people in person who wrote letters of recommendation for my trial back in June was, I think, the best part. They just wanted to finally ask questions and there were no inhibitions anymore. No one had to tiptoe around my orientation and people could just ask me about my relationship or gain some baseline knowledge of gay people. Even in a New York-based unit, there were many questions about how a gay relationship works - Is it like there's a woman role and a man role? Answering these very simple questions from my peers and subordinates and even some of my superiors, I imagine this is what it will be like when DADT is repealed. People will still serve and nobody is going to walk around and every third word out of their mouth will be "gay." People will tell their best friends and those who are curious can ask and they'll be educated. But will everybody come out of the closet? No, I doubt that. There's a lot of people who go into the military because they have issues with their own sexual orientation. It's the same in other certain occupations, including the clergy, politics--JE:
Actors in Hollywood.. [At least, if they listen to Rupert Everett's advice.]DC:
Yes, and we're all dealing with that. But the core of our soul right now, which we're still struggling with, is coming out. And as long as we're struggling with that, I think the soul of our movement will always be conflicted and that has important implications to everything we do. It's a foundation and starting point and it always will be until every single last person in the U.S. rises up in whatever kind of conservative or homophobic house and is comfortable approaching their parents, friends, clergy or whatever. Our work is not done and hasn't started if it doesn't work toward that. The legislation certainly helps and sends a message on a certain level, but we have to see whether that trickles down to the user level, the child growing up in the homophobic home.JE:
On that subject, in a previous interview you said you were uncomfortable with the labeling of our movement as the "LGBT rights movement," preferring the "LGBT responsibilities movement" instead. Could you tell me a bit more about that distinction and how the issue of coming out plays into that for you?DC:
I think what hits at the soul of our community and speaks to why myself and other activists are drawn to this work isn't because it's part of our innate desire to have to fight this grueling-at-times battle. It's because we know there's somebody else out there who needs to hear this message. We need to be reminded of the fact that whenever you come out, while we might see it as a private and personal act of identity, that best friend you tell will tell somebody else, even if it's in anonymous terms. They can say "I have a friend who's gay" or "I have a cousin who's transgendered." That word gets out and lets somebody else have that same kind of safety. You don't know when that indirect knowledge can help that one third- or fourth-grade kid who is feeling trapped. We don't want one more person to go through that living hell, to have to cry in the bathrooms of the dorms or to have one more person contemplating suicide. That's really what it is.
At the soul of it all, this is a responsibilities movement. To just call this a liberation movement, while there's a liberation that happens, is a short-sighted definition to stop it there.JE:
And I think you are able to have a very different perspective on that than a lot of people do given that you served in an environment for over 10 years where you couldn't "come out" and be honest in that way. And that's certainly speaks to why you've become a poster boy, of sorts, for this movement. And yet, underlying all of this, it must be unnerving to know that at any point on any day you could be officially discharged from the military.DC:
My best defense through all of this has been the public nature of my story. It's the only reason why I haven't been fired yet. In a way, yes, it's been very destabilizing to have to be on-call for any television, radio or print interview and know that, because of one wrong thing I say on some of these topics, I could be prosecuted for things outside of [DADT], such as speaking the president. There are a lot of things I tried to be careful about in the beginning, but I soon realized there is a message that has to be shared with people; the most oppressed class of people. I believe we have a responsibility to send that message as loud as possible.
One problem I see with our movement is that in the minor setbacks you see in Prop 8, the disappointment and shock is there is founded on the premise of not being guided in a very solid foundation answering the question of why we're doing this - where our soul is. People can analyze this demographic or this or that kind of canvassing or media strategy, but that's all bullshit. We lost Prop 8 because we were lacking in our very soul and that has to be remedied first and foremost. Applying a military kind of operational perspective to this, I think we need to have a compass check and examine what direction we're going and refocus. I gather that, underlying the diversity of our community with so many different skill sets and perspectives, we all want to create a better environment for that younger child to come out. But as long as we're ignoring that, we're going to continue to fail.JE:
With all of that said, given that your career has, in so many ways, been destabilized by your decision to come out publicly as gay, you must sometimes feel nostalgic for "simpler" days with your family, partner and a steady job. Do you ever regret your decision to catapult yourself onto an activist track?DC:
You're always going to sacrifice something when you stand up against conventional norms and rules and you're going to make people uncomfortable. This was all based on my relationship to begin with. I didn't just wake up one morning and say "[DADT] is the most absolutely ridiculous policy" before quoting all the facts and figures. That didn't move me to be a part of this. It was having to lie about my partner, my first relationship ever. I was in love and we sacrifice a lot when we fall in love. It's a risk. And in the same way that I risked for that relationship, when I was off active duty and became an activist and gone along this roller coaster, I think you can't look at it as comparing to stress to "not stress" or stress to comfort. It's about comparing the lessons that you gain from falling in love to having not experienced that emotion at all. So I don't regret it at all. Love is worth it. And people say that's very ambiguous because what's "it"? What is it compared to? It can mean so many things. A career? $100? But I know that having experienced love, yes, it's certainly worth it.
And regarding sacrifice, when you take a look at all the heroes that we regard as role models throughout history, going back to Harvey Milk or Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Rosa Parks, Jesus Christ, Moses, Socrates or Gandhi. Why do we remember them and not all of the others that were their contemporaries and did, if not the same amount, but even surpassed their organizing abilities or their know-how? We do it because they sacrificed and put it all on the line. That is the hallmark of their leadership. Until the people who right now consider themselves our leaders are willing to show that same dedication, I think they will be seen as, in the best way, a dollar short. And in the worst way, phonies.Interview written by Joseph Erbentraut for ChicagoPride.com and GoPride.com.