Lt. Dan Choi
Arabic Linguist. Iraq Veteran. West Point Graduate. Infantry Officer. Gay... Fired... and Fighting Back!
Published Thursday, 30-Sep-2010 in issue 1188
On March 19, 2009, Lt. Dan Choi, a West Point graduate and Iraq veteran fluent in Arabic, announced that he was gay on The Rachel Maddow Show. Because of three words – “I am gay” – Lt. Choi’s life changed forever. Despite his extreme value as an Arabic speaker able to communicate quickly and clearly with the Iraqi people, one month after his announcement Lt. Dan Choi was notified that the Army had begun discharge proceedings against him. He was one of only eight soldiers from his graduating class who majored in Arabic. Lt. Choi kindly agreed to an interview with The Gay & Lesbian Times
and this is his story.
GLT: What was it like for you to be discharged from the Military?
DC: As gay people there is no shortage of pain in our lives, but in a lot of ways it was one of the most painful moments of my life. I came out on my own. I made a conscious decision to state it publically. For me it was more important to do the right thing. I realized the potential consequences of doing this and what it would do to my career. But it was taking DADT face on. DADT is anti American. Throughout our education and our lives we are taught to be honest and truthful. Truth and honesty is the basis of life. The bedrocks of any soldiers training is truth and honesty. It could mean life or death in a combat situation. On coming out the reaction of my colleagues was the opposite of all the hearsay surrounding gay people in the military. My colleagues were very supportive and respected my honesty and trust. I wanted to shatter the stereotypical perceptions of gay people. Less than two years ago I came out to my parents and it was not easy for them, but I felt free and empowered. I came out publically on the Rachel Maddow show on MSNBC in March 2009.
GLT: What makes someone in the military different from someone who is not?
DC: In the military you may well die in combat! It is a stressful situation. When you put on the uniform you lose some of your identity. You are all meant to be the same. There is a desire for anonymity. You gain a new identity based on what you do, what you accomplish. There is a camaraderie that is intense and unlike any other in the world. You can’t put a price tag on that and the value of being a part of that family. There’s one thing that people must understand. Those who go into the military are generally not privileged people. They are a very diverse group of people. It is a very regimented and stressful lifestyle but you gain something that you do not get anywhere else. It is very egalitarian. You are judged solely on your abilities, rather than anything else. It is a meritocracy. It teaches you a co-dependence that is not based on someone having more money. You don’t join for the money. The benefits are small compared to the sacrifices. You go there because you want to give and be a part of something greater than yourself and your own interests.
GLT: What were some of the emotions that you went through as a gay man serving his country with DADT in place?
DC: When I was going through West Point I knew I was gay but I was in such serious denial. I thought I could change, I could pray, deny it and hide it. I felt I was like a 007! I never wanted to meet another gay person as I was so afraid that someone would find out. There was a lot of denial. I just focused so hard on doing my best, doing my job and not even contemplating a relationship. I never allowed myself to access those same levels of support that a loving relationship brings. I was always very religious and in the military Chapels they never preached about being gay, not in any way. They just preached about going to war and sacrifices. I never reconciled what it meant to be gay and religious. In the military I didn’t deal with being gay - I denied it; I just dealt with being Asian. I even contemplated getting married for show in the Middle East. When I finally met someone I loved, I wanted to introduce them to my buddies, who had no problem with gay people, but I couldn’t. I eventually talked about my partner but under the pseudonym Martha! For two years! The process of coming out was very slow and nerve-racking for me.
GLT: How do you cope with the loss of not being able to serve your country and what road blocks have you encountered because of this?
DC: I knew that when I came out I was risking everything. Veteran’s benefits, school benefits and more. I did get an honorable discharge but was threatened with an “other than honorable” discharge, which would have meant losing everything, even though I was fifty percent disabled as a result of my military service. I miss the relationships, the team and the structure. There is a lot of confusion in my mind. I never identified myself as part of the gay community. It is not the easiest thing to do to go from the military into gay politics. I went to school after the military. I stopped that because of all this activism. This activism has taken over my life.
GLT: When you handcuffed yourself to the fence along with fellow service members what were you feeling at that moment?
DC: I was feeling that was a moment when politically the environment was very bleak. The President was uninvolved and we had been abandoned by many organizations. We disrupted a rally organized by the HRC with comedienne Kathy Griffin. There was uproar in our community. But we thought we don’t need to engage comediennes, we needed to engage the President and Senators. We went to the White House and chained ourselves to the gates three times. Clearly the President got engaged finally. Part of our community’s problem is visibility. Be patient, they say, but you have to counter that. It is more important to stand up for yourself and not to expect other people to help you. What we are starting here is more important that just a legislative victory. After repeal GLBT service people will still need our help and support. Our community lacks a self confidence to stand up and say I am somebody. We confuse political friendships with true dignity and respect. Those who are realists will argue that the Democrats are the best hope that we have. But true dignity and respect does not depend on one single party.
We have been invited to the table and that is the only barometer to success. But you have to have the self confidence to use that seat at the table
GLT: If you could serve again openly would you?
DC: Yes! They have to get rid of this law. I served for a year and a half openly with no problems. In fact it was a positive experience. Without DADT thousands would go back and tens of thousands would join.
GLT: Were you ever harassed or discriminated against while serving, and in what ways?
DC: For being Asian. There are a lot of gay soldiers who don’t fit the stereotypical gay person. Hiding being gay is like hiding your religion. I suffered from racism whilst at West Point for being Asian, not gay. A lot of times I was the only Asian person in my unit. Racism has got better, though - it always does with time and education.
GLT: With the current ruling at the Senate with DADT, where do you believe we go from here?
DC: We have plenty of people hoping that there will be a new vote. I think the bill will go back to the Senate but I’m not sure when. My job is to pressure the Senate to vote and the subsequent repeal. I will keep pushing the President as the firings must stop. The President is going to have to use his strength to end this discrimination and institute a non-discrimination policy. The Military Working Group Study on homosexuality in the military is published on December 1st and it is currently being used as an excuse not to repeal the law. What we have here is a refusal to accept responsibility. We have to stand up for ourselves.
GLT: For those who are GLTB and still serving in silence what would you say to them?
DC: Coming out is a very personal decision. I encourage it and recommend it. I do not recommend staying in the closet. When you are in a loving relationship you become a better soldier, a better human being. Anyone who recommends staying in the closet is doing you a disservice. Staying in the closet leads to isolation, depression, traumatic stress and suicide. I don’t want that on my conscience. There will be consequences. They said the only way I could win my case was to deny I was gay. I could not do that. It was a lie. When you break DADT you are helping not only yourself but others. Wasn’t that the reason you joined in the beginning?
GLT: For those who would like to help or get involved can you suggest any organizations?
DC: I never recommend specific organizations, that would be disingenuous of me. You have to find deep in yourself what your talents are. Can you write, sing, compose, and make videos, call or shout. Whatever you can do, do it to your congressman and the White House. Don’t limit yourself to one group. Look what Lady Gaga did. It got visibility. Do anything that will gain visibility. Bring attention to the heinous nature of this law and discrimination overall.
GLT: Lt. Choi, thank you so much for your time and all your efforts to get DADT repealed. The Gay & Lesbian Times wishes you well in all your future endeavors. Thank you.