Interview: Daniel Choi Challenges Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell

November 4th, 2009 · No Comments

Lieutenant Daniel Choi is a member of the New York National Guard who previously served as an infantry officer in Iraq in 2006 and 2007 and before that graduated from West Point with a degree in Arabic. This March, Choi came out on MSNBC’s The Rachel Maddow Show and was subsequently served a letter of discharge for his admission of homosexuality. In response, he sent a letter to President Obama and every member of Congress sharply criticizing the military’s Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell policy. He is now challenging his discharge and has become active in the LGBT rights community, which has included his role in cofounding Knights Out, an organization for West Point graduates who support allowing gays to serve openly in the military.

On November 3, Choi visited Iowa State University’s Memorial Union to give a lecture titled “End Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell: Let Gays and Lesbians Serve Their Country Honorably.” Afterward, he sat down for a brief chat with the Ames Progressive.

What response to your letters have you heard back?

Nothing. Nobody said anything. Oh, one person, a representative from California named Mike Honda, even said that he has been pushing [other members of Congress] with the letter, and Alcee Hastings of Florida has said that he appreciated the letter.

But President Obama himself has not even mentioned my situation or any of the particular situations that are going on. He just talks about it in general terms, and I think that as a commander he needs to take specific responsibility, because there have been 600 people that have been kicked out under his administration. And as commander-in-chief of all of the forces, it’s important for him to issue an executive order that says, I am not going to fire anybody for being honest during a time of war. During a time of two wars.

And then Congress actually hasn’t done anything either. They also need to, because it’s under their mandate to outfit the Army and the Navy, or the armed forces. And so, when you think about their responsibility, they have been AWOL from their duties.

Barack Obama has voiced support, both as a candidate for president and as president, for the repeal of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell. It sounds like you’re saying he’s moving too slowly on that?

Here’s what I think is happening. He’s surrounded by cowards. He’s surrounded by people who count the votes and think about the elections. I remind all of them what happened in 1948 with Harry Truman. He was surrounded by a lot of people who were chickenshits, and they all said, “You’re not going to win this election. You’re not going to win this upcoming year.” And we all remember from our history books when Harry Truman was up on the podium and he’s got the newspaper that says “Dewey Defeats Truman.” Even the newspapers were writing him off the night before.

But we all remember that Harry Truman did the right thing, because we elected, and we elect, and we continue to volunteer for and vote for our leaders in order to be leaders, not to be reelected. And if people think that that’s what our focus should be, either as the gay community or as military community or as any political party or as Americans, if you think that our responsibility is to make sure that somebody gets reelected, I think that’s a backwards view of what the process of government and what the purpose of our government is.

It’s not our responsibility to keep people in office. It’s our responsibility to make sure they’re leaders. That’s why I voted for people, so that they could be our leaders, regardless of what political party they’re in. I think it’s most disappointing when you see a lot of the Democrats that are in power – and, of course, whatever political party – because it’s just their modus operandi to take advantage and exploit the people they always feel are going to be on their side.

They feel that the LGBT community is always is going to vote Democrat; it’s just something that’s in the bag. And that’s absolutely not true! When you look at some of the things that we’re fighting for, we’re talking about marriage and kids and being in the military and serving during times of war. We’re talking about tax equity, and we talk about things like joining our churches. These are all Republican taglines [laughs], so I think that – I know this is an underground paper so I’ll say whatever the hell I want [laughs] – I think the Democrats are afraid to give us equality, because we’re all going to become Republicans once we do get equality [laughs].

That’s a joke, obviously, but in all seriousness the Democrats need to realize that we put them in power. We put all of the leaders that are in Congress right now in power because they need to do the right thing and be our leaders. They are not the ones that need an advocate. The people are the ones that need an advocate. And to think that the gay community will always donate money and volunteers and votes and canvassing and all of our time and resources continually, continually, continually, and put certain candidates first on our lists and our ballots, to see that when they get into office and then put us last on their list and their agendas is an absolute slap in the face.

And I think that you’re not going to go anywhere with any community until you realize that we as Americans, as citizens, regardless of our orientation or our race or our political affiliations, have a responsibility to hold our leaders accountable.

In popular culture, the soldier is portrayed as being very masculine, very tough, and I’ve seen numerous instances in film and television where the drill sergeant’s going down the line and he’ll use openly homophobic rhetoric.

And that’s not going to change.

But you said that when you came out you had a generally positive response from your peers in the military. Did you have any negative response?

I heard more Asian jokes than I heard gay jokes, actually [laughs]. And I know now, meeting with all these gay people in the military, that I can tell you as a fact there are more gay people in the military than there are Asian people in the military [laughs]. I would say that if we’re judging our idea of the military based on pop culture and a drill sergeant saying certain homophobic things, then there is a grain of truth to the jokes that are put out, but that doesn’t mean that those drill sergeants are openly homophobic themselves.

When I came out, there was a soldier that asked me, “Sir, are you talking about gay shit on TV? I think you were talking about gay shit on TV.” He had just come back from Afghanistan, so it was just like, “Yeah, that was me, I was talking about gay shit on TV.” And he was like, “Sir, you need to go get some glamour shots and some makeup, and you need to get a powder room,” or whatever [laughs], and I was just like, “No, that would be way too gay.” And we’d all have a laugh about it. And you realize that particularly in infantry unit – that’s the ground-pounders, the grunts, the guys that just know how to shoot and move forward and yell and scream, and we do other things too, but that’s the majority of our job – you would think that the greatest amount of pushback would come from them. Well, I’m in infantry unit, and we realize that especially in those units you’ve got to laugh about yourself.

You go through so much harrowing shit that if you are not able to joke about who you are and go through that discomfort, you’re not meant for being in the military, or in the infantry, particularly. And as a Korean, I went through with a lot of people joshing me around about, you know, “You’re such a bad driver.” And I was like, “Yeah, so when I drive it’s going to be like an additional weapon [laughs], because I’m going to be running people over.” And it’s just like, “Make sure you buckle up twice, because Asians are such bad drivers, and don’t ever expect me to parallel park; I’ll probably be thinking about math or calculus in my head or something.” And you’ve got to laugh about those things, and you’ve got to joke.

But I got a lot of intense support, a lot of people who’d say they’ve known a lot of gay people, and they’re especially glad that I am stepping out. There are a lot of people who won’t talk about it, and I realize there are just as many people who are still racist in the military. There are still people who express chauvinistic views or religious bigotry in their day-to-day comments. And if you think about it, there are a lot of people who are uncomfortable with Muslims, particularly right now in a time after September 11. But Muslims are allowed to serve.

Assuming that the Obama administration does fulfill its promise to repeal Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell at some point, do you foresee there being any sort of backlash in the armed forces?

Within the armed forces, I think you have to realize that 99 percent of the military is under the age of 30. I think that’s even a lowball estimate right there. If you think about it, the vast majority of recruits are 17-, 18-year-olds. They’re not coming from places that would have backlash in society against gay people. They come from the inner cities; they come from places where they know about the world, and people watch TV. They understand, and they know people that are gay in their high schools, so within the military I think you’re seeing very little pushback.

But you’re hearing a lot of politicians that are saying, “Oh, well, gay people are this and this and this.” So they’re stuck, and these are some Democrats even saying like, “Oh, we don’t want to push this Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell thing. We know it has to be repealed, but it’s something that we don’t really want to do.” Because they’re stuck in 1992, 1993, where they said, “Oh, well, look at the fight that they had,” and that stuff obviously is nonexistent even in Congress today, that kind of pushback. You’re very rarely hearing any of that.

Society has woken up to the fact that there are gay people that serve, and a lot of people have expressed that it is a generation gap. There are older people in the military that are against it, and younger people are okay with it. I don’t think it’s a generation gap. I think it’s an education gap. For every one older person that might say something like, “Well, I don’t know about gay people,” there’s one that says, “I’ve served with gay people. It’s not an issue.” And the gap is that those people who know gay people, they are attuned to the reality on the ground. The ground truth. So it’s education, and it’s a leadership gap. Those people who have no idea what’s out there on the ground have no purpose in being in positions of leadership, and they shouldn’t flaunt that they’re so ignorant. It’s a leadership issue.

You say it’s not so much a generation gap as an education gap, but a generation from now, where do you see the state of gay rights in America?

I don’t doubt that there will still be homophobic people, but they won’t be allowed to make policy based off of their ignorance.

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