Interview: Dan Choi on ‘direct action’ gay rights campaigning

PinkNews logo on a pink background surrounded by illustrated line drawings of a rainbow, pride flag, unicorn and more.

Lieutenant Dan Choi is a controversial figure in the world of American gay rights. Critical of many mainstream gay lobby groups, he proudly states the only organisation he is a member of is the US Army.

His campaign of civil disobedience and public advocacy, often while wearing his military uniform, was for many a decisive factor in last year’s repeal of DADT. For others it was a distraction from the “more serious” business of political lobbying and at worst plain simple attention seeking.

I begin by asking what led him to choose a career in the US Army.

“As a Korean-American growing up with the Asian stereotype of asexual, good-at-math, bad-at-parking, effeminate boys, I wanted to be seen as a masculine, heroic, patriotic American. I’ve known I was gay since the fourth grade, but it was my sensitivity to the Asian identity that drove me. At that time I didn’t even acknowledge the gay identity.”

“I saw the film Saving Private Ryan and thought that was the stuff I wanted to do on so many levels. I wanted to be right there on the front line. I thought the greatest sacrifice you can make for your country is to put your body on the line. The fact that DADT was in force at the time didn’t bother me.”

Dan served as an infantry officer and Arab linguist in the US Army and later in the National Guard. His military career started in 1999 and included a tour in Iraq under Operation Iraqi Freedom. He was discharged under DADT in July 2010 following a public self-outing on MSNBC’s The Rachel Maddow Show in March 2009.

“I had an epiphany in Iraq waiting for a helicopter. I was in the most dangerous area of the world, 58 people from my brigade had been killed and I had a million dollars in cash in my backpack for the reconstruction effort. I knew this money was going to people who would likely be killed. I thought if I can do all of this, why was I so afraid to come out?”

Choi struggled with his faith and lying to friends and family, but when he came back from Iraq he also fell in love. Then, having been raised in California, he found himself drawn into activism after 2008’s passage of Proposition 8 the same day Obama was elected President.

“I slowly became an activist. After attending a Prop 8 rally a gay veteran educated me on DADT and I realised that the key to the fight was visibility. So with some friends I helped start Knights Out, a gay association for fellow West Point graduates. I was determined we should act to repeal DADT and I became the group’s spokesperson in spite of the fact that I was active duty. That’s how I ended up on The Rachel Maddow Show. All I needed to say was: I’m gay, but for good measure I cited the exact law that I was breaking as well. I knew the consequences of what I was doing.”

When he returned to duty his commander called him in and the process leading to his eventual discharge began.

Dan’s response was a full-blown assault on the media, highlighting not just his case but also the inequity of the law itself. He became a full time activist working 18-hour days, appearing on TV shows, leading pride marches, giving speeches and giving the issue a very public face.

By March 2010, an increasingly frustrated Choi was ready to take his civil disobedience to the next level. He and Capt Jim Pietrangelo, who is also gay, handcuffed themselves to the White House fence. They were arrested.

“We’d micromanaged every detail beforehand, but when we were up on the fence Jim turned and told me he didn’t have his ID on him. We’d been told beforehand that if you have your ID on you and one hundred dollars you could be released in about an hour. I turned to him and said I guessed we’d be spending the night in jail then.”

The next morning in court Choi told the judge he was not guilty, not ashamed, not finished and wanted a trial. The charges against him were eventually dropped and he repeated the handcuffing protest a month later with five others including transgender US Navy veteran Autumn Sandeen.

Come July the House passed its version of a bill to repeal DADT, leaving Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid next in Dan’s sights. At the Netroots Nation Conference Choi conspired with mediator Joan McCarter to hijack Reid, handing him a copy of his just-received discharge paper and his West Point ring. A shaken Reid agreed to give the ring back to him once DADT repeal had passed the Senate.

“I was planning on doing more than that! I was planning on ripping the podium out from under him! But then at that moment it was good that I was flexible with my thinking. I jumped up onto the stage and shook his hand but told him I would hold him accountable.”

By December the Democrats were in a lame duck session having suffered heavy losses in the November election. A September Senate attempt to repeal DADT was defeated as it was again in early December. Choi, having now been arrested four times in the course of a year and increasingly vilified by other LGBT groups criticising his every move, was hospitalised.

“I had a total breakdown and was involuntarily committed for a week. I was unconscious for three of those days. The tipping point was the second Senate vote, but there was a lot of other stuff going on that I’d let pass that came to a head.”

While Choi was in hospital a standalone DADT repeal bill passed the House by 250-175 on December 15th. The same bill then passed the Senate in a 65-31 vote three days later. Obama signed the bill into law on the 22nd December at a ceremony that Dan reluctantly attended.

“The way I saw it, if President Obama had lifted a finger to repeal DADT rather than just act as an occasional cheerleader, we could have won this without the knock-out, last-round fight we were forced to have.”

While he was in Washington Reid returned his West Point ring to him.

With the repeal of DADT now in process, I ask Dan whether his brand of direct action is more effective than the softer tactics employed by other organisations.

“I’ve never really been a fan of direct action, but I believe that direction action serves a purpose and keeps the media attuned to the anger on the streets. That’s what we’re seeing now in North Africa and Wisconsin. Politicians don’t like carrots. They don’t listen to carrots. To me that was the political lesson of this fight, one that I think is lost on so many people.”

Dan is now in the process of re-enlisting. I ask what the future holds for him.

“If I go back in it will be a private affair and I’ll go back as a reserve. That would mean I could still do other stuff for the other 28 days in the month. I don’t see any conflict between military service and activism. One makes me better at the other. It’s natural for me to lend whatever credibility I have left to struggles like DOMA, ENDA and gay marriage.”

For some Lt Dan Choi will remain a controversial figure. I have to lay my cards on the table and say that in my eyes he is nothing short of a hero.