DO ASK, DO TELL
A Conversation with Revolutionary LGBT Rights Activist LT. DAN CHOI
By Lori Zimmer
Some revolutionaries spend their lives working to make waves for their cause, and some suddenly find themselves there. One day, Lieutenant Daniel Choi was happy serving his country in the United States Army, and the next one of 2010’s most important LGBT activists. Coming out on the Rachel Maddow show pushed Choi into the spotlite, and gave him a soapbox to very publicly challenge the military’s unjust Don’t Ask Don’t Tell policy. Choi was soon seen speaking out against DADT on all over the news, and at protests around the country. He is an ideal accidental spokesperson, speaking with incredible intelligence, articulation, and benevolence.
At the stroke of midnight on September 20th, 2011, the policy that changed Choi’s life was changed. Don’t Ask Don’t Tell caused Daniel Choi’s dismissal from the military and loss of support of his religious Korean parents, but we gained a great leader for all of us.
Lori Zimmer: The pivotal moment for the LT. Daniel Choi of the “public realm” was when you came out on The Rachel Maddow Show. What was the pivotal moment in your private life of your military career? Was there a specific action previous to your discharge letter that made you realize it was time to take action, and lead you to come out on television?
Dan Choi: Coming out to my parents. It is so pivotal for gay people to come out to those who judge them most; until then, we are still children running from a fearful entity of judgment, hiding from a sense of shame that is never easily seen, heard, or manifested, but it is real. The judgment of parents, hypothetical or real, is the major barrier to our movement today, and once I came out to my mom and dad, I felt I could do anything. It was like, in Christian parlance, the Holy Spirit lifting me up. Then I finally joined a group of secret gays in the military, where many hundreds of West Point grads networked in senseless shame and anonymity. You know how the eeriness of anonymous silhouetted interviews makes your bones chill? That’s how it was for me, joining that group. But meeting some gay veterans in real life, for the first time–that was a watershed moment. We decided to start a group of West Point LGBT Alumni. The rest is history. So, truly, all you need to do is come out to the ones who judge you the most. Or the ones you think judge you the most. For most of us, it’s our parents. Or our church. Certainly not Rachel Maddow. She was a cakewalk compared to Reverend and Mrs. Choi.
LZ: After everything you’ve endured, you re-applied for the military in October of 2010. What made you decide to re-enlist?
DC: The same reason I joined. The military projects ideals of integrity and honor are like very few other organizations. Gay people are attracted to this purity of values because we find so little of it in our childhood, pretending to be straight. In all of politics and social movement, I have also found very little purity of virtue, hidden motives, agendas that subordinate truth to money or votes. This has made me very sick, sometimes literally. While the military still has a long way to go in treating minorities as equal and valued team members, going back is America as it always should have been. One distinction of the method of my return, I am not promised rank or pay or anything really. The only promise comes from my end: to fulfill my commitment to America’s defense as well as its constitution. And that does not end with one term of service, one election cycle, or even a successful civil rights victory. That journey presses on.
LZ: When “Don’t Ask Don’t Tell” policy was initially introduced in 1993, Clinton offered it as a way to protect and allow gays to serve in the military. Do you believe that this was the initial intention of the policy, to support gays? Or do you think it was intentionally oppressive in nature from Clinton’s first introduction?
DC: I doubt Clinton himself hates gays, but our country is struck with a debilitating disease of straight supremacy. In this supremacist construct, oppressors do not intend to inflict punishment, but see gay issues as unimportant, silly, or “nice-to-have”–much like white supremacists do not always necessarily inflict visible hate or violence on who they think are inferior. The bulk of any supremacy happens not in public, but around a kitchen table, or at a church barbecue. The inculcated supremacy of straight people who punish gays–not overtly but in a very finessed manner–by treating gay civil rights as a political, electoral or lobbying interest, rather than the moral cause that it is. In this, I would definitely indict Clinton or any leader, particularly Obama. Obama is not homophobic in a traditional sense (he has very little reason to actually fear gays in any way), but his view that gay rights are simply another of many political planks in his portfolio, one of many items “on his plate” that should be “kicked down the road” with delays, studies, troop polling, and certification periods. It all misses the point. And it infuriates the real, red-blooded gay families and citizens who do not live and breathe Washington inside politics. Both Obama and Clinton were presidents who fell into a trap of seeing the few hundred gays who rode the cocktail circuit in Washington D.C., and thought this represented the entire gay community. This is a profound political and moral blunder. Worse is the lack of courage, not lack of political experience, that all of our leaders exhibit on gay issues. The only remedy to cowardice is action. Trying to remedy cowardice with coddling, especially for public officials, only ends with disaster and disappointment. And the greatest mistake of the gay community today is celebrating Don’t Ask Don’t Tell Repeal as if that is all we are going to get from an administration that certainly knows how to ‘talk the talk’ and allow the community to do all the heavy lifting while taking credit in the end. Well, newsflash: we who are the real gay community do not care for political credit; we only seek equality.
LZ: When apartheid ended in South Africa, the relationship between blacks and whites was somewhat unchanged. Do you think that gays in the military now feel safe, or still threatened?
DC: And in the American corollary, when buses and lunch counters were desegregated, blacks and whites sat together but the hatred and white supremacy inculcated in the culture were not eradicated. Repealing ‘Don’t Ask Don’t Tell’ allows gay Americans to serve their country, but nothing else. Families, equal opportunity, “Forty Acres and Mule”…non-existent. That is why repeal being triumphantly overstated as complete victory is a blunder. In 1948, President Truman desegregated the military on race and religious identity, with Executive Order #9981, called the “Armed Forces Equal Treatment and Opportunity” order. Stunningly, President Obama stripped out the non-discrimination language from the original ‘Don’t Ask Don’t Tell’ Repeal bill (HR 1283) and still has not placed sexual orientation alongside race, gender, religion, and many other identities in the military’s Equal Opportunity channels. Gay soldiers will not be protected from harassment, discrimination, and religious rants on federally funded pulpits. By the way, military chaplains can still denounce gay people because Obama found religious provisions so important. Gay sycophants in Washington D.C. happily nodded and called it strategic, while activists on the streets fasted, heckled politicians, and shut down recruiting centers in protest of this stripping of non-discrimination (we did other protests too). In short, nothing has changed, especially for the soldier unwilling to come out. This is the fundamental difference between apartheid and ‘Don’t Ask Don’t Tell’. You can see the color of skin; coming out is a frightful step that many can never fully prepare for. And so, many will refuse to come out, finding it more comfortable or beneficial (rank, career, popularity, pension) to wait. Without important legal protections, many gay people will still feel threatened, especially in seemingly more “tough” jobs. That is why we call on President Obama to enact those protections, as he can, just like Harry Truman did 60 years ago (without congress or any other excuse). Until then, we are in an era where gays can die for America but not live free and equal in America.
Additionally, gay is very different from black, in that “coming out” normally involves close personal or professional relationships, or both. In many ways, the gay movement has surpassed the black movement in terms of acceptance because white supremacy has simply gone into hiding. It still exists and will remain the reason for stigma and resentment. With the gay civil rights movement, we are finding enormous and exponential progress, in some cases despite opposition from elements of the black civil rights movement, particularly in using the term “civil rights,” who fervently hate gay being equated with black. I’m not equating it at all. I know how it feels to be called a gook on the playground, decades after the word ‘nigger’ has essentially being abolished. Certainly, the word ‘faggot’ does not get the level of repudiation that ‘nigger’ does, but we cannot escape straight supremacy in school, work, or play. We are only starting to really see black inclusion in media. Asian men are certainly invisible, even more so than gay people on TV. We still have a great deal of racism more politely disguised as supremacy in our culture. Only in a mixed-race family can we see hope for the eradication of white supremacy. There, during Thanksgiving or birthday get-togethers, we can see supremacy blotted out. At Barack Obama’s childhood gatherings he would see many races indeed. My family was of just one race, and I heard many racist and Korean-supremacist philosophies pronounced very loudly.
When a child comes out to family, however, the entire family must deal with straight supremacy immediately. Those family members who were “pro-gay”–the worst of all definitions of allies, as if gay people were just a ballot measure to be chosen–still face their supremacist philosophies. Normally their unknown supremacy will go unchecked, especially within like company. Knowing someone gay as a close friend, or family member changes the entire equation. They see “the gay” face to face at intimate gatherings, and they cannot say straight supremacist things for very long, unless the child goes back in the closet for these get-togethers. (Many do, unfortunately.) So, coming out is the functional equivalent of an inter-racial marriage in the fight to battle supremacy. It forces all families to stop for a moment and recognize the diversity of the world, not glibly label it a “social experiment” for “those kind” of families. Coming out in conservative and ultra-religious households is infinitely more difficult, but infinitely more decisive for our cause of equality.
So where does that leave us with apartheid? It still exists, in our hearts. Likewise, ‘Don’t Ask Don’t Tell’ was not so much a legal entity than a chain for our hearts. How can we proclaim victory until we can live life with a full measure of integrity? That is the segregation and apartheid happening to gays today. It’s not a bus, water fountain, or a lunch counter (at least not in most countries). It’s the access to integrity that we seek. Gandhi, King, and Mandela would surely agree: integrity is a civil right and a human right, and blocking truthful living is undeniably an inhuman wrong.
LZ: You’ve said that your parents at first had a hard time when you came out to them, being from a Korean/religious background. Now that they’ve accepted that, how do they feel about you becoming such an important LGBT activist?
DC: It’s gotten worse. We don’t talk. Upon my dad’s request, it is important to him and his church that your readers know that he does not officially endorse who I am.
LZ: Did you always envision yourself as an activist? Have you always been an outspoken person, or was this a product of your situation?
DC: No, in fact, when I was in the army, we often derided activists; if we saw Iraqi activists, we called them “terrorist,” or “detainee.” I have been known to speak up on other occasions even before the army, when I saw injustice. But I certainly never imagined being on TV or at a podium speaking about such national and international issues, especially so early. I always thought: if I live to see 50, I’ll make it a goal to lecture about freedom and democracy in the Middle East somewhere. It was a life dream. Well, not to sound flippant, but I achieved that goal at age 26 in Baghdad. I thought to myself: well, what next? Now that I made it to 30, and I’m still alive (I doubted it many times), I truly see gay rights as the most important, moral, and righteous cause of our time. It took me a while to get to this point, to even say that. But I know it is true. In gay rights, there is very little middle ground.
I am very proud of every activist for gay civil rights, for all of us, no matter how we got here, that we are still fighting valiantly on this battlefield.
LZ: Do you think that the repeal of DADT will gradually become accepted within the culture of the military?
DC: It is interesting, this question–how about if we turned it on its head. Do you think the military as a viable option will increase in the minds of many gay Americans growing up today? The answer here and the answer to your question will work in tandem to create a truly accepting and more representative force made up of all kinds of American citizens. That we are only one in ten (as scientific studies conclude) is not cause for worry. How many openly gay people are out to less than 10 in their lives? It’s not like one’s sexual identity is a boring topic! Those who say they don’t care…liars. They do care. In fact, if a soldier comes out to only two people, the entire unit will know soon after. This situation existed before DADT, during DADT, and no document or legislation can change that; we are interested in those who make up our families. We want to know them, their spouses, their children. We ask about them because we are decent human beings. The notion that one doesn’t care is bullshit. We do care. We want to ask. We must ask, and we must allow our teammates to tell.
LZ: Now that you’ve become such an important face of LGBT activism, do you plan to continue in this realm, or does your heart lie in your work with the military?
DC: I don’t see why both are not possible. My work as an activist has taught me the reasons for America’s existence, and defending America’s freedoms include the right to protest and make our entire country better. Being a soldier made me a better activist, and being an activist made me a better soldier.
Lt. Dan Choi is a former American infantry officer in the United States Army who served in combat in the Iraq war during 2006-2007. He became an LGBT rights activist following his coming out on The Rachel Maddow Show in March 2009 and has been publicly challenging America’s Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell policy.
Written by Lori Zimmer
Edited by Meaghan Coffey
Photography by Megan Jolly & Eugene Mim for Patrick McMullan.com
Design by Marie Havens
Lt. Dan Choi, Electra, Night of a Thousand Gowns, Marriott Hotel, Times Square, NYC, March 26, 2011, Photography by Megan Jolly for Patrick McMullan.com
Lt. Dan Choi, OUT 100 Presented by BUICK, IAC Building, NYC, November 18, 2010, Photography by Eugene Mim for Patrick McMullan.com
Quote by Lt. Dan Choi