Lt. Dan Choi: ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’ is a ‘disease of shame’
Monday, February 22, 2010
T.M. Lindsey — Iowa Independent
Although Lt. Dan Choi’s current status in the military remains murky, one thing is clear: In his heart and mind the military’s “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy is a poisonous disease that spreads beyond the military.
“Through my experiences while serving in Iraq, I discovered why ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’ is so poisonous is that it forces people to lie about who they are,” Choi told an audience of about 200 LGBT students, allies, school administrators and educators gathered at the 5th Annual Governor’s Conference on LGBT Youth at Drake University in Des Moines Feb. 18. “This is a policy of shame that forces people into the closet.
“I wonder how many of us have a DADT policy in our churches, families, schools, clubs, classrooms, or even here in our own hearts that we’ve placed on ourselves, imposing shame and saying to ourselves: ‘that’s an order,’” Choi said. “DADT is the disease of shame that we all suffer through. For the past 10 years, I had no problem with DADT and thought it was just great. Since I was already in the closet, DADT provided cover and gave me a place to hide.”
Upon returning from active duty in Iraq, he could no longer hide his true identity. Choi, a West Point graduate, Iraq war veteran and Arabic translator, was eventually discharged from the Army when he said “I am gay” on an episode of “The Rachel Maddow Show” that aired last March.
In an exclusive interview with The Iowa Independent, Choi said one person who could contribute to the end of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” is Iowa’s highest ranking military official, Gov. Chet Culver, who did not attend his LGBT conference.
“If Gov. Culver, Iowa’s commander-in-chief, were here today, I would ask that he join my brothers in arms and call upon the federal government to repeal DADT,” he said, adding: “Gov. Culver is the highest ranking military official in Iowa, so it would be great to see him make some sort of public declaration to show he supports the repeal of DADT.”
Culver can’t formally change the policy, Choi said, but seeing the governor speak out would “mean a lot to the gay Iowa soldiers already serving and those who have been discharged, knowing that their leader supports and stands up for them.”
“In fact, I would call on all commanders-in-chief across the country to stand up for their troops, who have been shouldering a significant portion of the war efforts in Iraq and Afghanistan,” he said. “I would be honored to have Gov. Culver serving with me in my foxhole.”
The Iowa Independent contacted Culver’s office on multiple occasions but received no response.
Reconciling family and faith
According to Choi, the courage it took to come out on “The Rachel Maddow Show” was nothing compared to what he had to muster when he came out to his parents. He was raised in an evangelical household by his father, a southern Baptist minister, and his mother, a nurse on the maternity ward who always dreamed of a house filled with Korean grandchildren. Feeling the continuous pressure from his mother to marry a Korean girl and have a big, traditional wedding, Choi admitted to the audience that she annoyed him to the point that he buckled and came out to her. “I am not going to marry a Korean girl, nor am I going to marry a white girl,” he told his mother. “I am gay, and I was born that way, and I tried to pray the gay away.”
Choi confessed his father was even more shocked than his mother, to the point of irrationality. “Since when?” was his father’s first response. “You can change, it’s just like Barack Obama, you can change. Yes you can,” his father said to him.
“Thanks to Obama, yes we can turn straight again,” Choi quipped to the audience.
Despite their initial reactions, Lt. Choi stuck to his guns, realizing he was out of the closet and would not turn back on his decision or himself. “It is because I love you that I am telling you the truth,” he confided to his mother. “If I didn’t tell you, that’s when you should be truly concerned, because I would continue to keep lying to your face.”
Reconciling a new path with his father, however, was more challenging, given his father’s religious position and background, not to mention the irrationality of his initial responses. “This is the biggest shame, the biggest sin,” Choi’s father told him when he first found out. “Number one sin.”
“I learned about the biggest sin that you taught me in your church and while growing up in your house was to not accept Jesus Christ, your lord and savior, who said you should love your neighbor as you love yourself,” Choi responded to his father. “Which means you have to love yourself before you can love your neighbor. You have to love yourself as God has created you, and I do, and I love you, and this is why I am telling you this.”
Since he came out to them, Choi’s mother and father have slowly grappled with coming to terms with their son’s sexuality.
“The last time I was in Iowa last October, my dad called me and said he had seen me making appearances on all of the television shows and told me he knew what I was doing and that he accepted me as his gay son,” Choi said.
However, Choi admits that not everyone who shares his faith has been so accepting or understanding.
“There are a lot of people out there who use their religious sentiments against my sexuality and that is the source of their hatred,” he said. “I don’t think I should have to give up my religion and faith, because the politicians and the people with a political agenda within those faiths want to hijack it.”
To help illustrate his point, Choi pointed to Chaplain Gordan James Klingenschmitt, a religious pundit and founder of “The Praying in Jesus Name” project. Klingenschmitt singled out Choi in some of his online posts, calling him a liar for knowingly breaking the West Point Honor Code by lying about his sexuality and called for his immediate separation from the military.
Not knowing how to respond to Klingenschmitt in Jesus’ name, Choi offered the audience an open prayer:
I just want to pray and lift up Chaplain James who needs to learn the pain he causes. You teach us to love our enemies and to pray for those who persecute us. And how many times did you teach us to turn our cheek when somebody does wrong to us. Chaplain Klingenschmitt just doesn’t understand the pain he is causing, and I realize that he doesn’t understand the lessons we learned though your son, Jesus Christ, when He was here on earth. But the tradition and the law and his people turned their back on Him and gave him the death penalty for telling the truth. When oppression and discrimination were present in his time but He stood up. Chaplain James can be blessed to learn these messages.
“That is how I respond and how I pray in Jesus’ name,” Lt. Choi said. “There will be some people who will continue to use their views and religious bigotry to push their agenda. It is not our job to hate them back, rather to show them the truth and pray for them to understand.”
Despite having been formerly discharged from the Army, Choi was recently called back to active duty and recently reported to his National Guard unit in New York to complete some drills.. “I have been training hard with my unit, with the intent that I will join them when it receives its orders for deployment to Afghanistan,” Choi told The Iowa Independent. “However, a discharge continually looms over my head, and as far as I know, I could be discharged the day before deployment.
“Mentally, I am stuck in a schizophrenic holding pattern,” he added. “In the meantime, like other members in my unit, I will continue to plug away at my day job, which for me is a full-time activist.”
Choi helped form Knights Out, an organization comprised of West Point alumni advocating for the rights of gays and lesbians to serve openly in the military, and continues to speak out to the press and events across the country. “Whether I am reinstated or not in the military remains to be seen. Either way, I will continue to speak out against the DADT policy until it is repealed and my fellow gay soldiers can serve openly and without having to serve our country in shame.”
“Ironically, there are gay men and women over in Iraq and Afghanistan fighting for and protecting the very freedoms they themselves cannot openly exercise,” Choi said. “Meanwhile back at home there are some states, like Iowa, that recognize these rights and protections for our gay citizens. Unfortunately, these same rights do not extended to them when they return to their civilian lives and families — who also have to hide the truth and share this overwhelming burden of shame.”
Choi will return to Iowa Thursday to speak at 7 p.m. in the Iowa Memorial Union’s Main Lounge at the University of Iowa.