“I Am Not the Defiant One”: Lt. Dan Choi and the Vital Need to Achieve Full Personhood

Lt. Dan Choi is, without question, one of the most outspoken figures in the contemporary LGBT rights movement. Of course, he’s but one in a long line of such brave figures — Harvey Milk, Col. Margarethe Cammermeyer, and members Act Up!, to name but a few, come to mind.

In Lt. Choi’s case, it all started in 2009 when he publicly came out of the closet on The Rachel Maddow Show. The U.S. Military’s Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell (DADT) policy was still in full effect, and shortly after his appearance Choi received a discharge letter. Choi, along with a great majority of his peers, felt that his sexual orientation did absolutely nothing to impede his job, having already served in the 10th Mountain Division in Iraq from 2006-2007. He has publicly fought each and every penalty the courts have handed down on him, and has done so often with the media in tow, as he doesn’t merely wish to fight these battles himself: he wants to cast the spotlight on these injustices for the whole world to see (and has made even further headlines following his multiple arrests — all stemming from his various forms of non-violent protest).

Already, 2011 has proved to be another eventful year for both the LGBT rights movement, as well as Lt. Choi himself. He made headlines this past June when, attending the progressive-leaning Netroots Nation Conference, he confronted an Obama supporter about the President’s record on gay rights, promptly tearing up some campaign flyers to cheers from the packed audience. (The following day went no better when White House Communications Director Dan Pfeiffer drew jeers for noting that when Obama said he was in favor of gay marriage during an Illinois Senate race questionnaire, Pfeiffer explained that the survey was not personally filled out by the now-President.) Just a few weeks earlier, Choi was beaten and arrested for taking part in a Pride Parade in Moscow, which proceeded despite a ban from the city.

Speaking to PopMatters a week prior to the passage of the bill that legalized same-sex marriage in New York, Lt. Choi discussed his role as a spokesman for LGBT rights, why supporters shouldn’t stop to celebrate those smaller legislative achievements in that field, and the one piece of advice that he truly regrets following …

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Since your discharge, you’ve proven to be one of the most prominent and outspoken contemporary figures about gay rights. It appears to be a role that you’ve proudly taken on, but at the same time, seems to have been tackled out of sheer necessity.  How has your own life changed since?  What challenges have you run into?  What have been some of the best experiences?

Serving under the policy for over a decade was suffocating and I suffered from severe self-hatred and suicidal ideas. So let me say without any hesitation: this is the one mission I have no doubt or fear of accomplishing. I have no doubt we will achieve full equality in our lifetime, but only if we fight for it. I am proud to push stridently for equality, because I know our youth are suffering from their own suicidal ideas, or the belief they are never going to be good enough. They are the future and they deserve a better world than the one we inherited. 

Our tactics [that of fellow LGBT soldiers] were profoundly different from the traditionalists who ran the once courageous organizations that purport to represent our community. The Human Rights Campaign [HRC] bowed to the powerful instead of pushing them towards equality, betraying the entire LGBT community and making a farce of the movement. Instead of heeding their disastrous advice, we chose to speak out, often to the dismay of their cowardly leadership who blamed us repeatedly for setting back the movement a few decades. They trotted out spokespeople and high powered, high-access insiders to hack away at our reputations as military servicemen and grassroots activists. They refused to criticize the President when he dragged his feet on Don’t Ask Don’t Tell. They acted as if they were employees of power instead of the leaders of a movement.

To this day, HRC and high powered lobbyists have zero credibility with the day-to-day folk of our community. We have been told our entire lives as gay folk that we will never be good enough. Now the HRC and the Democratic National Committee (DNC) tell us we are still not good enough as gay activists unless we tout their party line or donate enough money to their coffers. They say we should be satisfied and we do not possess the requisite resume to demand what is rightly ours. They say we are perennially dissatisfied children.

My message to all my brothers and sisters is simple and absolute: you are good enough, just as you are. When any high powered lobbyist says otherwise, it will become clear who the truly perennially dissatisfied children are in this community. 

A soldier is actually restricted by law from doing what we did in the past two years. Coming out on national television, publicly speaking truth to politicians, engaging in civil disobedience and non-violent direct action in uniform, keeping political pressure on the elected officials: these are not the trained skills of any soldier. Those who have criticized my actions due to the sensitivity of wearing a military uniform to repeal military discrimination should ask themselves what they did out of uniform to simply allow me to do my job as a soldier. The embarrassment of the past two years has been the ineffectiveness or inaction of those on the sidelines who readily attack their fellow gay Americans for stepping into the fray but never jump in themselves. Their commentary is a sad episode in our journey, and it makes a tragic parody of honor.

The best part of this journey is the transformation of our community members who have found their voice. The inspiration shared between new activists is perpetually growing, and increasing exponentially with every action. On the streets we no longer should chant, “What do we want? Equal Rights!” because our journey is more than legal. We should declare “I AM SOMEBODY. I DEMAND FULL EQUALITY!” because the political battle is only a vehicle for the true purpose of our work: achieving full personhood.

By acknowledging our “somebodiness” we tap a spirit within that finally honors the full dignity inherent at birth. We shout “I AM SOMEBODY” not for our own sense of self, but so that others can hear and be inspired, as well. For if my community, which comprises the most stigmatized and legally discriminated of American citizens in the present day can declare its somebodiness, there’s no excuse for other groups and communities to not stand up and declare also: I AM SOMEBODY, too. When we lower the wall of injustice for one group, we lower it for all groups, and we share in the struggle for justice. When we fight for justice, it is not for “just us.” 

With the repeal of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell, it seems that one of the biggest and ugliest pieces of anti-gay legislation has finally been laid to rest.  What surprised me most — in a story that was relatively underreported — was that you then received a bill for $2,500 from the US Government for the “unearned portion” of your service contract.  On your own website, you posted a very defiant open letter stating that you refuse to pay the claim.  How did this whole thing even come about?  Have there been repercussions?

So far the President has done nothing to help me or others who have been charged even more: some like University of North Carolina ROTC Cadet Sara Isaacson had to repay $80,000. My debt has increased to over $3,000, now, and they are threatening to decrease my veterans affairs disability pension in order to regain what they feel is rightly theirs. I will likely suffer bad credit, the debt will grow, and the collection agency might press charges.

These consequences are minor compared to the consequences of acquiescence, and I am honored to fight any system of power that denies the full measure of dignity and fairness to its citizens in order to make examples or scapegoats of them. My strategy has been clear from the beginning: I will not stop fighting, I will not disappear, and the privileged few who run the system of government will have to deal with the situation. In this strategy, I am not the defiant one, for it is this government that defies the foundational principles of our democracy. They who deny us equality and full dignity while providing excuses and scapegoats radically defy the honor of America. I am proud to combat them so long as I live.

In a Gallup national poll released in May of this year, a majority of Americans favor gay marriage for the first time, showing a gradual cultural shift towards acceptance of gays in everyday life. In your travels, have you personally noticed any changes in the way that people treat you for the better?

The only political weapon of consequence available to the gay community is coming out. Meeting a gay person increases the likelihood of favoring our equality exponentially. So when we discuss tactics for marriage in states such as Minnesota or New York, California or Iowa, we must remember the effort and resources are wasted if all we care about are focus groups, studies, polls and election statistics. A ballot initiative is repulsive, for civil rights are not best maintained through popular opinion. But a ballot initiative is quite a blessing in that we gain an opportunity to send gay couples knocking on doors in the suburbs, meeting farmers on their fields, introduce themselves as gay neighbors and see where the conversation goes.

It is that easy. Any other strategy is putting the cart before the horse, regardless of how much money the consultants who devised them get paid.  

Basing our equality on polls is also offensive because moral issues such as LGBT Equality provide opportunities for political manipulation and profiteering by both sides of the fight. We have seen the enormous revenue brought to states that host these battles. Millions of dollars are raised and spent while lives are ruined, but the political operatives get paid regardless of the outcome. For this reason, I cannot see polling as a very inspirational point.

If decision-making is solely based on popularity, this country might as well become an entertainment talent show. The motives of justice must be clear, and we must be guided by principles that founded our country, and not popularity or profitability. For the greatest heresy is doing the right thing for the wrong reason.

You recently took part in a Moscow gay pride parade wherein you were beaten for marching in a very peaceful demonstration.  While America is coming to terms with gay rights, what do you see on an international level?  Are there countries that are further ahead in the gay rights movement then we are here? Countries that are much farther behind?

When we engage in activism anywhere, we show a mirror to the face of the oppressor so they can see their ugliness. In Russia, the mirror was double-sided: Americans were aghast at the treatment and discrimination that Russian officials and Neo-Nazis inflicted, but this did not make America perfect, either. When I flew back to America, I remained a second class citizen.

If America is to claim freedom and justice as its banner, we should not be farther behind most of our NATO allies on LGBT military service and marriage equality. In fact, the war we started in Iraq created a dangerous genocidal situation for gay Iraqi men, now facing religious death squads. America, which occupies the country it invaded, remains immorally silent. Countries throughout the Middle East, Africa and East Europe have despicable records on gay human rights, but when American actions helped foster them, American inaction will not help eradicate them.

The name escapes me at the moment, but I recall someone on MSNBC talking recently about President Obama’s moves towards gay rights — whether it be the small things like some benefits for Federal employees in same-sex relationships, to the eventual appeal of DADT — as really just “crumbs from the table” in the larger scale of things. Do you think there has been genuine progress made since Obama took office, or do you think there are expectations left to be filled?

Both. But it is not my job to celebrate. It is my job to agitate. Celebrations make us feel empowered and euphoric, but the tranquilizing effect of outward success ultimately sets back the movement forward. It is not my motivation to simply celebrate the victories as if our movement were only a communist propaganda machine announcing the glories of a central government.

We have come a long way, but not because of Obama. We have come this far because of ourselves. For President Obama to rob the community of that credit is arrogant and manipulative. If not for the litigants, spouses, activists, authors and agitators rising up throughout our long history of gay rights in America, we would not be here, and I remind this President: neither would he be in power.

We still have a long way to go and the President still disagrees with marriage equality. How do get him there? The past two years, indeed the past 50 years have shown us one truth: what got us to this war will not necessarily get us to win this war. This President has allowed us the opportunity to fight. That in and of itself is no victory and no reason to celebrate until we have achieved the full victory.

What has been your biggest regret, and conversely, what has been your proudest accomplishment, in your struggle thus far?

I regret listening to my first mentor, an 80-year-old gay millionaire. He told me early in my army career that I should never come out, but try to climb the ladder and gain fortune, rank, and prestige, which would help me live a comfortable albeit closeted life. He died in the closet. 

I am most proud that my life out of the closet has found deeper, richer, fuller meaning than could never be achieved by rank, status, fortune or title. When I visit a gay homeless shelter and a teenager tells me he saw me on TV and he is going to go to college, he proves to me that money cannot buy this kind of influence and rank cannot command this level of integrity.