Dan Choi: Being All That He Can Be

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Lt. Daniel “Dan” Choi is a 28-year-old veteran of the Iraq War, an Arabic linguist and a distinguished serviceman who is facing discharge from the military for coming out as gay on The Rachael Maddow Show in March. He will be speaking at the University of Utah’s Pride Week.

I caught up with Choi to talk about his coming out, being a Korean-American servicemember and how gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender military members can help the broader gay and transgender rights movement.

JoSelle Vanderhooft:
The resurgence of the gay rights movement after the passage of Proposition 8 has been called “Stonewall 2.0.” Do you have any thoughts on this movement, or on its name?

Dan Choi:
Stonewall 2.0, I think, is underestimating what this is. While it is important to draw back on our roots and remind people of this generation that they’re part of a long legacy of people who have done great things, I think you’re seeing something that certainly we’ve never seen before. This goes beyond Stonewall and to the Civil Rights Act, it goes to the Declaration of Independence. It goes beyond that and even has gone to some of the purpose of what Jesus Christ was talking about, that we should love one another.  

For sure we have to point out that we are the ones now who are taking up the banner of what it means to be American, to be a part of this larger global society. Since we’re historically seen as the most hated minority in America and in the world, what shame [on] all the other people that we are the ones who are living up to [these ideals]. I think people need to realize it has a lot more to do with than just us.

JV: Since we’re talking a lot about the military and coming out, I’ve got to say that I don’t know of many other Asians in the military who are openly gay. I’d love to hear some of your thoughts about that.

DC: It’s interesting, yeah. From the very first day of West Point in 1999, my brother who is two years older than me, warned me — nobody knew I was gay, I hardly even admitted it to myself — that you’d better watch out because there are going to be people who hate you because you’re Asian, and you have to stand your ground. I found that in a lot of ways it was more difficult being Asian in the military at West Point than it was being gay. You’re openly Asian from the first day you step in.

JV: Yeah, you can’t really hide.

[both laugh]

DC: It is more difficult for me to be Asian in the military than it is to be gay. I notice it first hand. There was a lot of racism within the military ranks, and I got over that and realized not everyone is going to like me. In the military when I came out there was so much support and a lot of people saying they wanted to help out within my unit. I think if I invited them to come to a Korean event there’d be more resistance to that. For sure there are more gay people in military than Asian people. I know that for a fact.

… I would have a difficult time identifying with other Asians, too, in a lot of places. Being in the military and going back to my Asian community or friends it was sort of like being displaced once again. I had the same kind of feelings being a Korean-American; if I were to go to Korea, I wouldn’t be able to speak Korean. I wouldn’t have the same kind of acceptance there, and then in America I obviously look different [from the majority white population] so there are some people who wouldn’t want to be friends with me because of that.

So when you are not accepted by either your community or your local, traditional nest, you resort to a larger ideal or a fundamental truth or value. And that’s why you see [that] a lot of people who are normally displaced within our society, like minority groups, tend to be more patriotic when they join the military. I think it’s tribute to the fact that they are rejected or have this fear of rejection potential or knowing they’re different so they must latch onto something of greater value.

JV: Before you came out very publicly on The Rachael Maddow Show in March, you had served under Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell for ten years. What prompted you to come out so publicly when you did?

I was so comfortable in the closet and it was never really an issue. I actually agreed in a lot of ways with Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell because for me, why would I want to come out for a lot of other reasons than being in the military; from being in the [religiously conservative] family I was, from Orange County and the church I was from. I didn’t think I was ever going to come out to my parents. But the moment I started a relationship — and I was 27 years old — that’s what really made me think deeper into the reasons why. It was sort of that epiphany I got; the [military] uniform and the relationship made me realize there are things we are comfortable in that we give up as far as identity, but there are other things we gain as far as identity. I got this epiphany that this relationship is everything in the movies and in poetry and in the love songs.

I started to come out. I was very secretive at first and only at that point when I was in a relationship did I understand the damaging effect of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell. I was like well, OK, the government should have no business in our bedrooms. I agree with that to an extent if the identity of being gay is only about sex, but I think that’s the most dangerous thing, more dangerous than DOMA or Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell. When we have this understanding that gay is all about sex. And when I got over that part of my identity, it was like OK, now I have commitment, maturity and growth and I understand what it means to really sacrifice for someone you’re intimate with. After I came out to my parents I reached out to other veterans and West Point graduates.

There was so much pain and so much toxic poison inside of me I’d waited so long to come to terms with, and there are other people dealing with the same thing and realizing OK we have to step up. So that’s how we started our group Knights Out [for gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender-welcoming West Point graduates]. We were going to start our organization as a support group. We were going to exist and if people found out about us they can come to us. And then when people started emailing me —particularly minorities —and talking about how [they had felt like] committing suicide or were depressed. So we thought this is something that needs to be out to anyone who can hear.

My initial strategy is whether it’s a podcast that only two people listen to or a news letter in China or somewhere, if there’s one gay person that listens to it and can relate and they feel a little more healed because of it, it’s all worth it. You have to do all of these interviews, every single one.

And then you put the message out there, and military leaders started noticing?

DC: As we continued to blog on our site, Army Times picked it up and then it became an issue. And if you look at the political atmosphere after Prop. 8, I think my story wa what a lot of gay media wanted to pick up as well. There were a lot of people who cautioned me not to come out so publicly.  I was only one in the group to do that, basically give up their career, but you know what? If there’s nothing you’re willing to give up your career for then it’s not worth anything.

JV: Can you tell me a little about your court hearing?

DC: I threw it in their face that right outside the hearing room there’s a poster that is part of the new army campaign against post-traumatic stress disorder and suicide that says “no soldier stands alone.” I said, “How can you say that while this rule that you’re kicking me out on forces thousands of soldiers going through PTSD from war who can’t even cope with some of those issues feel so alone and so isolated? How can you say out of one part of your mouth that you want them to feel connected and embraced and support Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell out of the other?”

I told the officers on the panel I am gay and that alone should have made it a quick 20 minute deliberation process. They just had to type up the paperwork and sign it. But it took five hours. They had to consider all the letters and the people who wrote in. They said [things like] soldiers coming out brings credit to the army and shows that there are people in the military willing to bridge the gap between the military and the GLBT community which doesn’t always support it. That lack of support can be disastrous. You need the whole support of all of America when you go to war.

JV: I’m imagining Miracle on 34th Street with all the mail bags coming in.

[both laugh]

I was sort of like the gay Santa Claus!

JV: Any other thoughts?

When you do come out, you don’t come out for your liberation or freedom of speech or rights. That comes with it of course, but that’s not why we do it. First and foremost you come out because somebody else will hear about it and we have a responsibility to that other person. That person might be in grade school or not even born yet, and they’re going to go through the same things. So many people do not emphasize that, and when so many people in the military are on the bubble wondering if [coming out is] worth it, of course it’s worth it. It’s the same kind of responsibility you saw when you signed up. You raised your right hand to defend others. Well, you’re doing it again. It might not be physically like with a gun, but you are giving them that bubble of security and that sense that there is somebody out there when you step up and say just like you did when you raised your right hand, that you’re gay.

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