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Looking at Dan Choi's journey
by Chuck Colbert
2010-09-01

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It was official first. Now it's public. Army infantry officer and Arabic language specialist, Dan Choi has been discharged from the armed services, effective June 29.

"Based on board findings that [ Lt. ] Daniel Choi did publicly admit, one more than one occasion, in person and through the media, that he is a homosexual, such conduct being in violation of [ Army and National Guard regulations ] , I direct that Choi be discharged from the New York Army National Guard with an Honorable characterization of service," wrote Brigadier General Patrick A. Murphy.

Choi first learned of his honorable discharge by telephone, a call from his commander, according to a Newsweek report last week. From yet another source, the Iraqi war veteran discovered that his father, living in Orange County, Calif., had received a letter, the official discharge notification, sometime earlier. But the West Point alumnus and his father a Southern Baptist minister, are not on speaking terms, a family communications breach, explaining the information time lag.

Still, the 29-year-old Army man stands resolute. Issuing a statement following his discharge notice, Lt. Choi said the news is "both infuriating and painful," coming after 11 years of military service, beginning at the US Military Academy, and including 17 months of openly gay service.

"But my service continues," he said, adding, "To all those veterans who have endured similar trials and injustices or prematurely ended their military service because of the unjust policy: Our fight has only begun."

Choi's military discharge bring to close 17 months of whirlwind activism that began on national television, May 7, 2009, when he said out loud on the Rachel Maddow Show three words, "I am gay," a clear violation of the military's don't ask, don't tell" ( DADT ) policy. Since then, the articulate and passionate all-military man has spoken out continuously, advocating coast to coast, repeal of the nearly 17-year old federal law and Pentagon policy that bans openly gay service.

Choi's lift-the-ban odyssey even included a March 18, 2010, arrest outside the White House for a non-violent civil disobedience protest against the DADT policy, an incident in which he and another former Army officer, Capt. James Pietrangelo, handcuffed themselves to an iron fence surrounding 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. Consequently, Choi faced police charges for refusing to obey a lawful order, but those charges were dropped by the District of Columbia July 14.

For the most part, Choi's activism has been well-received among LGBT activists, bloggers, and gay media—and within the larger gay and lesbian community But after a seven-day hunger strike ended June 3 without achieving its ends, criticism of Choi's direct-action approach gained some traction. For example, blogger Bil Browning, co-founder of the Bilerico Project, wrote, "With all of Choi's recent actions, tons of media appearances, chaining himself to the White House fence and this hunger strike, many in the community think Choi's gone off the deep end. They say this has become more about his ego than a smart strategy to repeal DADT quickly."

But dynamics for grassroots activism seemed to shift significantly most recently. Recently in Las Vegas, Choi and U.S. Sen. Harry Reid, the Senate majority leader, embraced at Netroots Nation. In a poignantly defining moment, moderator Joan McCarter presented the Nevada senator with Choi's West Point ring, along with a copy of his discharge papers. When Reid promised to return the ring after DADT's repeal, Choi's said he would hold Reid accountable for his word. On stage together, the two men shook hands and embraced.

Truth Wins Out ( www.truthwinsout.org ) Executive Director Wayne Besen, in attendance at the Netroots Nation gathering of progressives, offered an assessment of Choi and recent direct action of the new grassroots organization Get Equal ( www.getequal.org ) .

"The new generation of activists, such as Choi, are the best crop I have seen," he said. "They have added incredible verve to the movement and immediacy to our issues. While they are known for direct action, it is important to note they are not one-trick ponies. These are intelligent, media savvy, multidimensional people who are reasonable, rational and very focused."

Besen, whose organization fights religious extremism and the "ex-gay" myth, also addressed Choi's detractors. "Some of the critics appear stuck in the past or they seem to be trying to defend the ineffective strategies of old. It is time to give the new generation a chance to accomplish our unfinished business. They deserve our full support for their valiant efforts."

Former Clinton administration official Richard Socarides couldn't agree more. "The battle to end don't ask, don't tell is not over. The other side has not given up and neither can we," he said, adding, "Dan Choi has played a heroic role in the last several chapters of this struggle and we have been lucky to have his courage, forcefulness and charismatic presence as part of the effort. I'm sure he has a big role to play going forward in our movement generally and I, for one, am very happy for it."

Copyright 2010 Chuck Colbert. All rights reserved.


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