Dan Choi: Getting Equal
Army Lieutenant Dan Choi could not remain silent any longer; he had to tell. On March 18th of 2010 he, along with Captain James Pietrangelo, put on his military uniform handcuffed himself to the White House fence in protest of the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” (DADT) policy, which prevented lesbians, gays, and bisexuals from serving openly in the United States Military. Though Choi knew about the DADT policy, it was not until he served in the Iraq war from 2006 to 2007 that he gave serious consideration to whether or not he should come out. Realizing he could die at any moment, Choi questioned when he would begin living his life authentically.
Following a Human Rights Campaign rally, Choi was frustrated that established gay rights organizations were not exerting enough pressure on the Obama administration, who had promised to put an end to DADT, so he marched to the White House. He and Pietrangelo were eventually removed from the fence, arrested, and charged with “failure to obey a lawful order” as onlookers cheered their bravery. The pair was assisted by Robin McGehee, who had recently, along with marriage equality activist Kip Williams, founded the direct action LGBTQ advocacy organization GetEQUAL. McGehee described GetEQUAL as “a civil rights organization that is fighting for LGBT equality. Our mission is to empower the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer (LGBTQ) community and our allies to take bold action to demand full legal and social equality, and to hold accountable those who stand in the way.”
McGehee had been radicalized when, in November of 2008, she was ousted as president of the parent-teacher organization at her son’s elementary school due to her public opposition to Proposition 8, a ballot initiative that sought to define legal marriage as a union between a man and a woman within the California State Constitution. In response, she organized Meet in the Middle for Equality, a state-wide protest against the successful passage of Prop 8 during the November 2008 elections. Based on the success of this action, veteran gay rights activist Cleve Jones asked McGehee to serve as the co-director of the National March for Equality along with Kip Williams.
Held on October 11th of 2009, to coincide with National Coming Out Day and the eleven-year anniversary of the murder of Matthew Shepard, the march called for President Obama to end the ban on gays serving openly in the military and for the equal protection of LGBTQ people under the law. Following the march, on October 22nd, Obama signed the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act into law and pledged to end the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy, though he did not outline a concrete plan for doing so.
GetEQUAL emerged from the energy of the march. McGehee and Williams sought to set GetEQUAL apart from more established organizations, such as the Human Rights Campaign and the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force, and believed that simply lobbying the government on behalf of LGBTQ rights was not enough. GetEQUAL insisted that grassroots activists have a seat at the bargaining table along with more established “insider” organizations. Inspired by the militant direct action style of ACT UP, their first task as an organization was to take on the DADT policy. DADT, they argued, was not just a lobbying issue, but a disruption in people’s lives that warranted a response in the form of civil disobedience.
“Gays and lesbians have lobbied for years and years,” said McGehee. “Now it’s time to rumble.”
Choi and Pietrangelo had both been ousted from the military for being gay. When Choi came out on MSNBC’s The Rachel Maddow Show in March of 2009, he received discharge papers for “telling” — and on national television, no less. Following his discharge, Choi penned an open letter to President Obama and Congress. The DADT policy is “a slap in the face to me,” he wrote. “It is a slap in the face to my soldiers, peers, and leaders who have demonstrated that an infantry unit can be professional enough to accept diversity, to accept capable leaders, to accept skilled soldiers.” Choi and other West Point alumni also formed Knights Out, an organization to support gay West Point graduates, and he was elected as the group’s spokesperson.
Choi, the son of a Korean-American Baptist Minister, was born in Tustin, California on February 22nd of 1981. He attended the United States Military Academy at West Point, where he graduated in 2003 with specializations in Arabic and environmental engineering. Following his time at West Point, he served as an infantry officer in the Iraq War and worked as an Arab linguist. In 2008, Choi transferred from active duty to the New York Army National Guard. He remained in the closet, never revealing his sexuality to anyone, until 2009. Being forced to stay in the closet “traumatizes people in a way,” Choi said. “Number one, I’m taught the honor code at West Point: do not lie. Units are based on honor code. But ‘Don’t Ask Don’t Tell’ says you have to lie. It forces people to lie, to hide. Hiding and lying aren’t army values.”
In 2008, however, Choi met the man he described as his “first love” and knew that he could no longer live with the incongruence of concealing his personal truth while claiming to uphold the honor code of his unit. He first told his parents, whom he described as “anti-gay,” in part because they had voted against gay marriage in California. His father stopped speaking to him, but he figured if he could come out to Reverend Choi, he could tell others as well. Yet, he acknowledged that his ethnicity made it all the more difficult for him to be the public face of a movement. “Asian people are not very visible people, and they don’t break rules,” he said. “But I felt that this was the next step of what I needed to do.”
Choi was not the first member of the armed services to protest the military’s barring gays, lesbians, and bisexuals from serving openly, but after his televised coming out and acts of civil disobedience, he became the face of the movement to repeal the DADT policy. In 1974, Leonard Matlovich, a member of the United States Air Force, had not heard of the Gay Rights Movement until he read an interview with pioneering activist Frank Kameny in Air Force Times. Kameny, who had himself been expelled from his job with the federal government when it was discovered he was gay, had counseled service members who were discharged for being gay or lesbian. He was looking, however, for a test case to directly challenge the military ban.
Matlovich, who had served three tours of duty in Vietnam and had a spotless record, decided to volunteer. In consultation with Kameny and David Addlestone, a lawyer from the ACLU, Matlovich, on March 6th of 1975, delivered a letter declaring his homosexuality to his commanding officer. His discharge hearing was promptly scheduled for September of 1975. That same month, he appeared on the September 8th issue of Time magazine, bringing the government’s discrimination against gays and lesbians to national awareness.
At his hearing, Air Force attorneys informed Matlovich he could be reinstated if he signed a document attesting he would never again act on his homosexuality. Matlovich refused, and was issued a “general”: a discharge one degree below honorable. Despite his excellent record, the Air Force panel deemed him unfit for continued service. In October of 1975, the discharge was upgraded to honorable at the recommendation of Matlovich’s base commander.
Matlovich then began the long process of suing for reinstatement. When he spoke publicly about his case, he took care to highlight the arbitrary nature of his discharge. “When I was in the military,” he said, “they gave me a medal for killing two men and a discharge for loving one.” By September of 1980, the military failed to provide an explanation of why Matlovich was unfit for service, and District Court Judge Gerhard Gesell ordered his reinstatement. The Air Force, instead, offered him a financial settlement. Fearing that, if he was eventually able to reenlist, the military would find another reason to discharge him, Matlovich took the money. Following his initial discharge in 1975 he said: “Maybe not in my lifetime, but we are going to win in the end.” Time would prove him correct.
“When I was in the military, they gave me a medal for killing two men and a discharge for loving one.”
Matlovich, who died in 1988 from AIDS-related complications, did not live to see the instatement of the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy. Throughout his 1992 presidential campaign, Democrat Bill Clinton presented himself as a friend to the gay community. Clinton promised his old friend, openly gay civil rights activist David Mixner, that were he elected he would support increased funding for HIV/AIDS prevention and research and an end to the ban on gays in the military. Mixner enthusiastically raised money for Clinton’s campaign and joined the campaign’s National Executive Committee, becoming the first openly gay person selected as a spokesperson for a presidential campaign. Mixner even arranged for Clinton to speak at a gay and lesbian fundraiser at the Hollywood Palace in Los Angeles, California. “I have a vision of the future, and you are a part of it,” Clinton told the crowd that night.
But once he took office in 1993, Clinton found the campaign promises he made to the gay and lesbian community difficult to carry out. When Clinton called for legislation to allow open service, he met intense opposition from military commanders, his joint chiefs of staff, members of Congress, and the general public. Commander Craig Quigley, a spokesperson for the Navy, for example, argued that allowing gays to serve openly would erode unit cohesion and create discomfort in shared spaces such as shower facilities. “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” emerged as a compromise.
Under the policy, homosexuality and bisexuality were still deemed incompatible with military service, and service members could neither come out nor engage in same-gender relations. Military officials, however, could not ask or require service members to reveal their sexual orientation. The policy also established the criteria necessary to initiate an investigation into a service member’s sexual orientation or behavior. While, on paper, DADT represented a relaxation of the military ban on homosexuality — gays could legally serve, but not openly — in reality, discharges continued unabated. By 2010, more than 13,000 individuals were discharged for violating the DADT policy. Many, like Arab linguist Dan Choi, were highly skilled members of the armed services, whose discharges came at a loss to the military and the nation.
After handcuffing himself to the White House fence on March 18th of 2010, Choi, Pietrangelo, and other members of GetEQUAL repeated the process on April 20th. They were joined this time by Petty Officer Larry Whitt, Petty Officer Autumn Sandeen, Cadet Mara Boyd and Corporal Evelyn Thomas. All six were removed by law enforcement and arrested. Sandeen, who was not gay but transgender, protested DADT despite knowing she would receive transphobic treatment while in prison. In 2013, Sandeen became the first transgender service member to successfully petition the Department of Defense to change her gender marker on her military records.
Choi and Pietrangelo then initiated a hunger strike on May 27th. Their intentions were to use the strike as a means to bring public awareness to their cause and to pressure the Obama administration to end DADT. He participated in a final protest on November 10th when twelve protesters again chained themselves to the White House fence. Choi was arrested and charged in federal court, where he was convicted of “Failure to Obey Lawful Order” and fined $100. DADT was successfully repealed on December 22nd of 2010, in large part due to the pressure exerted by Choi and GetEQUAL. Choi was present to witness President Obama sign the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” Repeal Act into law. Lesbian, gay, and bisexual service members could now serve openly in the United States Military.
“People say it is inappropriate for me to get arrested in uniform, but to me it is the validation of all that I signed up to do,” said Choi, reflecting on his activism. “I say what I had to go through is what tarnishes the uniform more than anything.”