He’s coming to Birmingham Thursday week and he has quite a tale to tell. He is a minister’s son. He graduated from West Point, hoping to become the first Korean-American general. He served with distinction in Operation Iraqi Freedom as an Arabic translator. After his honorable discharge, he became a Civil Rights activist and was arrested for handcuffing himself to the gates of the White House.
Also, too: he’s gay.
Dan Choi may be the only person who’s ever had his life changed by appearing on The Rachel Maddow Show. When he was interviewed on March 19, 2009, he was a first lieutenant and an infantry platoon leader in the New York National Guard, to which he had transferred after falling in love and returning Stateside. The Army’s controversial “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy regarding homosexual personnel was a subject of national debate, and that night, Choi not only told, he told everybody.
“By saying three words to you today — I am gay — those three words are a violation of Title 10 of the U.S. Code,” he explained to the nationwide MSNBC audience. In Choi’s view, the honor code of an officer mandated zero-tolerance of deception. Though he served 10 years under DADT, by disobeying policy and outing himself, he forced the Army to take action against a combat vet and a West Point grad in a very public way, putting a face on a policy that was only words to most Americans, but anathema to gay Americans in uniform.
Lieutenant Dan was put on trial for telling his truth. A month after the Maddow appearance, the Army charged him with “moral and professional dereliction.” He wrote an open letter to President Obama and Congress equating his refusal to lie about his sexual identity with honor and integrity. 162,000 people signed an online petition asking for clemency. Nevertheless, in June 2009, Choi stood before a disciplinary panel in Syracuse, New York, to defend his actions. The panel recommended his discharge, but in February 2010, Choi was summoned to put his uniform back on and train with his unit in New York.
The lieutenant wore his camos to another assembly that month, as Grand Marshal of the New York City LGBT Pride March. Clearly, Choi was no longer interested in handling matters on the down-low. To raise the ante, in March, at a Human Rights Campaign rally, Choi and associate Captain Jim Pietrangelo handcuffed themselves to the gates of the White House in protest of DADT.
Both were arrested and released, but more protests followed, including another White House fence-chaining in April and a seven-day hunger strike in May. Choi’s Army discharge was finalized in June (and inexplicably sent to his parents’ home in California). At the Netroots Nation conference in Las Vegas in July, Choi gave those papers, and his West Point ring, to Senator Harry Reid, saying the ring had lost its meaning for him.
The ground began to shift in September 2010, when federal judge Virginia Phillips, citing the First and Fifth Amendments, ruled that DADT was unconstitutional. A month later, on October 12, 2010, she ordered the military to cease enforcing the policy.
Having won a measure of vindication, Lieutenant Choi deserved to relax and enjoy the triumph. Instead, he filed papers to re-enlist. President Obama, meanwhile, asked for a stay of the court order. One week after Judge Phillips’s ruling, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates reinstated DADT, though making it more difficult to oust openly gay troops. Choi professed disappointment at the time, saying, “When we signal to the rest of the world that… we’re the land of the free and the home of the brave, that doesn’t necessarily apply to some of our citizens.”
Congress closed the door on the past just before Christmas 2010, when the Senate voted 63-31 to repeal DADT. At a White House ceremony at which President Obama signed the repeal order, Harry Reid returned the West Point ring to Lt. Choi. “The next time I get a ring from a man,” Choi said, “it better be for full, equal American marriage.” However, it would be another nine months before the Pentagon officially ended the ban. In all, more than 13,000 gay servicemen and servicewomen were discharged after the policy was first instituted in 1993.
It had been a tough mission for the young man from Orange County. Coming out to the nation had been difficult, but coming out to his parents was especially traumatic. “They don’t accept it, and I don’t think they will anytime soon,” Choi told his hometown newspaper in 2009. They remain estranged. Maintaining a brave face in hundreds of public appearances during the next year and a half took a toll, and Choi was hospitalized at the end of 2010 with what he described as “a breakdown.”
However, his lonely quest for social justice got him back on the hustings in 2011, reaffirming the notion that Dan Choi is not only out, but outspoken. His recent advocacy of imprisoned Private Bradley Manning, who is being held in solitary confinement on suspicion of disseminating classified material, is every bit as controversial as his gay crusade. At a rally outside Ft. Meade in Maryland last month, where Manning’s pre-trial hearings were conducted, Choi called for declassifying “the truth we need to know,” and stated that the United States, not Bradley Manning, was on trial.
Dan Choi should feel right at home here in Birmingham, where 50 years ago another struggle for Civil Rights was simmering to a boil. He brings a message that you need to hear, first uttered by another controversial activist named Martin Luther King, Jr.: “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”
Lieutenant Dan Choi will speak next Thursday night, Jan. 26, at UAB’s Hill University Center. The program starts at 8 p.m. and it’s free. Be sure to thank him for his service.