Five Minutes With
Five Minutes With Lt. Dan Choi, ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’ Activist
SOURCE: (Flickr / paul)
Lt. Dan Choi, a graduate of West Point, has been a leader in pushing for the repeal of "don't ask, don't tell," legislation that bans gays and lesbians from serving openly in the U.S. military. Recently at the Netroots Nation progressive blogging convention in Las Vegas, Choi presented Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) with his West Point ring, as a symbol of Reid's promise to repeal the legislation.
Choi sat down with Campus Progress to talk about his experience confronting Reid, why he thinks his tactics have pushed the repeal of DADT, and his advice for others who may be struggling with whether or not to come out. The edited transcript follows.
Campus Progress: Let's start by talking about your encounter with Harry Reid at Netroots Nation last week. Can you describe how it made you feel?
Choi: I heard about my discharge two days before that moment. I was sad because I got the notification knowing that it would come some day, but I felt that there's very little you can do to prepare yourself for that emotional moment. I felt that a lot of things were stripped away from me: Career, paycheck, rank, status […] all of that somehow felt stolen from me.
The ring meant something completely different now. In a lot of ways it was physically all I had left as proof of being who I was, a soldier. When I got the phone call from my commander, it was the first thing I looked at when I hung up the phone.
I felt that I need to use that to make a powerful statement for others. An amazing thing happened when I [gave Reid my ring], when I committed myself to doing that: It made the ring a lot more valuable to me. By giving it to him, I renewed my promise to keep serving.
One course of direct action you've used has been chaining yourself to the White House fence on multiple occasions. Even among those who agree that "don't ask, don't tell" should be repealed, many consider it controversial. What would you say to those critics?
It's probably threatening to some people to see tactics used that they themselves may not be ready to use. There are always people who will be uncomfortable [with] tension of any sort.
There will always be people at the table, they will always lobby, and they will always throw money at the situation. I can see where those tactics are necessary, absolutely. As far as showing how important this was and pushing the dialogue and the action, that alone was not doing it.
It's fascinating to hear the arguments that are counterproductive or that I'm causing the tension. The tension already exists in my mind between the law is and what America should be, what America must be.
I spoke with someone earlier this year, her name was Sara Isaacson, and she had been dishonorably discharged from her ROTC program after her decision to come out to her commander as a lesbian. When I talked to her, she said she would consider going back into the military, since it was something she wanted to do her entire life, if DADT was repealed. Is that something you would ever consider?
Of course. In my unit people came up to me and thanked me for coming out. I didn't push it, obviously. It's fairly well known now, particularly within my unit. It was a sad moment [when I was discharged]. A lot of people texted me, my friends in my unit. A lot of people are waiting for the day I will come back.
What would you say to any young LGBT folks who are struggling with that same choice that you made about whether to come out while they're still enrolled in the military?
Being in the closet and being deceptive about your identity and being forced to lie about your love relationships — it all creates this poison. It creates this toxic and gripping enslavement. You won't understand how painful it is until you come out.
I disagree wholeheartedly with people who proclaim that they are fully self-actualized by being [closeted]. It might be easy to say that sometimes because that might be what the status quo is. Sometimes you feel a sense of community because of the other closeted folks that you hang out with. But it's still a life of shame.
For those people who are afraid, my situation is not exactly like theirs [but] I'm taking the journey with them. They need to know that they're not alone. Of all of the things that really do make the journey worthwhile is when you finally understand what love is — even with the consequences — love is worth it.
Kay Steiger is the editor of CampusProgress.org.
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