by Shaun Knittel -
SGN Staff Writer
On August 18, Army Lieutenant Dan Choi added his voice to those calling for Gays and Lesbians to march on Washington this October. Choi, a founding member of Knights Out, the group of LGBT alumni of the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, and an active duty Infantry officer, Iraq veteran, and Arabic speaker, has been notified that he will be discharged under the military's 'Don't Ask, Don't Tell Policy' (DADT) for coming out as Gay on the Rachel Maddow Show.
With the debate raging over the repeal of DADT, the U.S. military's policy prohibiting Gays and Lesbians from serving openly, and the October 11 National Equality March less than 60 days away, SGN spoke with the soldier-turned-activist about his views on former President Bill Clinton, repealing DADT, and the state of the Gay movement.
A CALL TO DUTY
"We need to stand together in our nation's capitol [at the National Equality March] and claim our place as a part of this magnificent national movement," Choi told SGN during an August 24 phone interview from New York.
The march is sponsored by a new grassroots organization called Equality Across America and is scheduled for October 11, the 30th anniversary of the first national march on Washington for LGBT Rights.
"I took former President Bill Clinton's words as an insult," Choi said, referring to Clinton's August 13 comments that the Gay community did not deliver the political support needed in 1993 to prevent DADT and DOMA. "The lawmakers enacted rules that said we [LGBT servicemembers] have to be silent. It would be easier to offer support if we were actually allowed to speak."
Choi wants to turn the insult into action. "I'm marching on Washington," he said.
THE ROAD TO WASHINGTON
Choi, a 2003 West Point graduate with degrees in Arabic and environmental engineering, appeared on The Rachel Maddow Show to talk about Knights Out in March, 2009.
"The Rachel Maddow Show chose me," Choi told SGN. "Knights Out didn't think we would get that kind of publicity. At first we were just blogged about, but then the Army Times picked up the story and before I knew it, Maddow's producers called and asked me to do the show."
Knights Out officials and Choi decided the time to be silent was over, and in front of millions of viewers the military officer declared he was Gay and was thrust into the role of activist almost overnight.
"The timeline was intense," Choi recalled. "In March I said publicly 'I'm Gay,' and on May 6 I got a letter saying I was going to be discharged unless I put up a fight. I asked to stay, and on June 28 a board of four officers wrote that they are recommending a discharge."
Currently, Choi has not been technically discharged from the United States Army. It is a waiting game; he said his official discharge from the service could happen today, tomorrow, or even months from now.
"We are just waiting to see what kind of discharge they recommend," he told SGN.
The type of discharge is of utmost importance when a servicemember is booted out under DADT. Choi said if you are asked to leave under "other than honorable" circumstances, then you lose all benefits, including the Montgomery G.I. college fund, home loan, and other important VA benefits - including medical coverage a servicemember may need due to injuries suffered in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. He said although it is unlikely he would receive an "other than honorable" discharge, "thousands of people have gotten that."
In the fallout from his nationally televised coming out, Knights Out has seen a dramatic influx of support and membership numbers are rising.
"We started out with 23 members, and now we have 79," Choi said. "People are very supportive and you start to realize why it is important to speak out. I personally have received e-mails from people telling me their real stories and saying 'thank you for what you do.' When you get those messages, the mission changes and you realize that what you are doing is needed."
Choi said, "By and large the most important element is for people to come out." In the end, he said, that is what is going to be what we have to fight: people who "are afraid to come out."
As for DADT, he believes a repeal is the honorable thing for our Congress to do, saying, "Nobody is saying it is illegal to be silent. But, there is a branch of the government that says you cannot come out of the closet. Our country's servicemembers are forced into silence."
Choi told SGN he endorses the National Equality March because it is a grassroots event and a call to action.
"Maybe it's an Army philosophy," he said, "but you cannot get anything done without boots on the ground."
He said the current generation of LGBT activists needs to claim its place in the movement, and now is as good a time as any.
"What happened with DADT and DOMA in the 1990s was before some of us had even hit puberty. We didn't even understand what the words Gay and Lesbian were, let alone identify as such," Choi said. "We need to meet each other, be trained and see what we can do. Our movement has older leaders who are willing to offer support and training; it's time to pick their brains and move forward using some of their lessons learned."
Education, he said, is key. People need to learn how to successfully lobby Congress, how to get there foot in the door and "come together nationally to meet each other."
"In today's society, there are a lot of people who exist as Gay only on the internet," Choi told SGN. "This generation hasn't really had our marches and rallies. The National Equality March will show people they are physically not alone."
"This is our time and it is critical that we, as a movement, get together and share skill sets," Choi added. "We'll get to shake hands with each other, then join hands and march together as a community."
Choi said a national showing is important because, "Our struggles are at a federal level. You can't repeal DADT state-by-state. & Discrimination is out there no matter what state you live in. Marriage equality is not the only issue; we deserve equality across the board."
A MOVEMENT WITH HONOR
Choi will soon be stripped of his rank and join over 250 servicemembers discharged from the military since Obama and the 111th Congress was sworn in. Still, he told SGN, he believes DADT will be repealed.
"Integration is not the right word, 'integrity' is the word," Choi said, pointing out that you cannot integrate a community that is already there. It is estimated that over 65,000 Gays and Lesbians serve silently under DADT. "We all know the truth; everyone in the military knows someone who is serving and is Gay. It is largely a non-issue."
Choi, who is Asian American, said he knows more openly Gay servicemembers than Asian ones.
When a repeal happens, he said, he doesn't think that "all of a sudden one day, all of the servicemembers who are Gay will come out all at once." If a soldier or sailor is comfortable with telling the truth, he said, then they will.
The most significant change you will see, according to Choi, is servicemembers not being afraid to come out.
"The biggest impact a repeal will have on the military is a positive one. Repealing the law will allow people to serve instead of being kicked out," he said.
Besides the National Equality March, Choi said October will also serve as a time when the U.S. Senate will hold a hearing about DADT. He will not be present at the hearing, but said Knights Out is putting together written stories from members which include testimony on their struggles serving under DADT. He said high-ranking generals and admirals who have experience working in coalition with foreign militaries such as Israel, the U.K., and Italy which include Gays and Lesbian servicemembers, will attend the hearing.
For Choi, it all boils down to honor and integrity.
"Various communities, be they religious or cultural, have taken the sense of honor and diluted it with what makes you popular or what makes them look good. True honor belongs to people who tell the truth," he said. "Not lying isn't a conservative or liberal view, it's an honorable view. We [out LGBT servicemembers] are picking up the banner of integrity. The truth strengthens every bit of everything we do."
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