QUEERTY Q&A — While U.S. Army First Lieutenant Dan Choi waits — like so many other gay soldiers — for President Barack Obama and Congress to kill Don’t Ask Don’t Tell, he’s taken the lead as one of the most prominent openly gay service members to campaign for the policy’s repeal.
In a personal chat with Queerty‘s David Hauslaib, the Arabic linguist reveals he’s as committed as ever to serving his country — if only we would let him.
QUEERTY: You were dismissed for “homosexual behavior.” That was for simply declaring your sexuality?
FIRST LT. DAN CHOI: Behavior is such a weird thing, for me, because I always thought of behavior as far as action. Maybe that’s because I’m a military guy and I judge people based on action not on words. But I look at that and I say: Well I’ve never done anything homosexual while on duty. I’ve never done anything heterosexual while on duty. I don’t do anything sexual on duty!
There’s a difference between Don’t Ask Don’t Tell, and Section 654 of Title 10. Did you violate either of these policies?
Everybody says that it’s just a policy, that it can just be overturned, that President Whoever can say, “You know what, this is my military and this is what happens.” But because of Section 654 of Title 10 of the U.S. Code, part of the U.S. Constitution, the Congress is actually the organization that has to say, “Nope, this is how you run the Army for this specific issue.” So as far as I understand it, I have violated … the Constitution, which says “You will not be gay.” It’s actually written into the code that homosexuality and military service are incompatible. … There’s another code that we learned, the honor code, that said we will not lie, so I’m not lying anymore about who I am. So these [honor] codes are more important. These codes don’t have as much celebrity status [in the media or in front of Congress]. … If my commander told me that I had to discharge or kick this guy out of the military who was in my unit, I would have to do that, if that was a moral thing. Now what would I do, because that is an immoral law? … I’m willing personally and professionally to give up every single thing in my military career because I know what’s the greater justice, and what is the greater right. Like they say at West Point, “Choose the harder right over the easier wrong.”
How open were you during active duty?
Oh, I was very open. I don’t go around and say “Hi sir, good morning, I’m gay.” I don’t do that. I hardly ever bring it up. If people ask me, and they’re interested because we’re friends, of course, then I’ll let them know.
Did you feel reluctance to keep it a secret?
Of course I did. For nine years I was living under DADT from West Point to active duty. I never told anybody on active duty. When I started to have a boyfriend, that was the first relationship I ever got into after Iraq. … It was just so awesome, I want to tell people about it, I couldn’t stop talking about it. [Laughs] “I have this ‘girlfriend,’ named ‘Martha.’” … I was getting advice from all these people in the office — “Do you give flowers?” — because I had never dated! … Six months ago I came out to my dad, he’s a Southern Baptist Korean minister living in Orange County, California. He also does China missions works. My mom is more conservative than he is. … My parents never asked about it. I actually told them about 17 times.
What fears did you have about being out?
The arguments against repealing DADT. How do these sit with you?
That now is not the time to repeal DADT, because we’re in the middle of two wars? Now is exactly the time. We are in two wars and we don’t need to be losing some of the best soldiers.
This argument that DADT destabilizes the military? No, it actually makes the military more stable.
It will hurt recruitment and retention. I don’t think it’s any logic. … [The retired military generals who penned the op-ed are] talking about certain numbers and saying, “Okay, well that’s going to be to the determent,” and “There’s mass exodus from the military” — it really is an insult … Just what they said right there is an insult, a very black and white insult, to the commanders that are still serving right now saying they won’t be able to handle that.
Is supporting DADT the same as supporting homophobia?
I think it’s a lot that they haven’t really considered, and they really haven’t gotten to know a lot of the people that are actually in the military that are gay. It’s really just when they have the chance to realize some of the facts, they’ll see it in a military lens. And they’ll see it in a human lens. And it’s a lack of information is what it really is.
Can Obama stop Don’t Ask Don’t Tell with the stroke of a pen? Does Congress need to act?
How do gay gay soldiers differ from straights?
There’s the argument that the repeal of Don’t Ask Don’t Tell is the equivalent, or at least similar, to the integration of people of color with white troops. The argument is made that President Truman was able to end segregation in the military with the stroke of a pen. Do you see these two scenarios as the same thing?
It’s different in many ways, and similar in many ways, but I want to talk about the differences. We had to integrate people of color — myself I’m included in that too. I’m very outwardly Asian. [Laughs] I’m very out of the closet Asian. It’s so visible, if you want to discriminate against me, you could very easily. … Well gay folks are already in the military, already in the highest levels and most elite units, they’re in all of these organizations that all of these people are saying, “Oh it’s going to be so hard.” It’s kind of funny when you say, “How we going to to integrate?” We don’t have to integrate. We’re already there. We’re already serving. We’ve already fought and bled.
The Supreme Court ruled in Rumsfeld v. Forum for Academic and Institutional Rights, Inc. in 2006 that the federal government could withhold funding from universities to force them to let military recruiters on campus, even though the military might violate universities’ non-discrimination policies. Is that fair?
If Obama and Congress don’t repeal Don’t Ask Don’t Tell, what will you be doing?
I haven’t made too many particular plans … I want to finish my degree. Eventually I would love to continue serving my country. I considered being in the State Department and working in the Middle East-Near East bureau. Love to do something like that. My hopes are still right now that I can continue being an officer in the U.S. Army. … Life is good. … All I know is that when they do get their act together and get this all corrected, I’ll be in line at the recruiting station. I’ll be right there.
Read Lt. Choi’s new open letter to Barack Obama, pleading with the president not to fire him, here.