Soldiering Against “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell”

Dan Choi on becoming the public face for the fight against DADT policies

By Erasmo Guerra Sep 03, 2009

Dan Choi had been warned that the Army would be tough.

As he prepared to enter the prestigious United States Military Academy at West Point in 1999, his older brother, who was well-meaning but lacked military experience at the time, told Choi he’d encounter people who were going to give him a hard time for being Asian.

A first-generation Korean-American, Choi, who jokes that he doesn’t wear his race on his sleeve, but on his face, didn’t tell his brother he was also gay. He kept his sexual orientation a secret until as late as last spring, when he came out on The Rachel Maddow Show, publicly challenging the military’s "Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell" policy banning gays from serving openly.

Soon after his announcement, Choi received a letter of dismissal from the Army on the grounds that disclosing homosexuality "constitutes homosexual conduct."

More than 12,000 soldiers have been discharged under this policy, which has been in place since 1993, and this past summer, a June 30 hearing of National Guard officers recommended that Lt. Dan Choi be likewise discharged. A final decision has still not been issued.

The Senate Armed Services Committee has agreed to hold a hearing this fall on whether to repeal the policy, but until that happens Choi plans on continuing his fight for gay rights. He has spoken out at rallies across the country and will take part in the National Equality March in Washington, D.C., on October 11.   

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During his decade-long military career, Choi, now 28 and a U.S. Army First Lieutenant, says he’s put up with the occasional, racially-motivated comment. Determined to keep a sense of humor about it, he has a few jokes of his own.

"Whenever I’m driving a Humvee, I tell everyone to buckle up twice," Choi says. "We might be good at math but we’re not so good at driving."

Jokes aside, Choi claims that it’s been harder to be Asian than to be gay in the military.

Growing up, Choi wanted to be nothing less than the best in all of his pursuits. As a high school senior in Orange County, California, he was student body president, a swimmer on the varsity team, a drum major for the marching band, and a participant in community activities.

It’s no wonder that Choi was drawn to a branch of the U.S. Armed Forces whose motto was once "Be All That You Can Be."

As the son of immigrant parents who lived through the Korean War, however, joining the military wasn’t easy. "My mom was a war orphan," explains Choi. "She did not want me going to West Point."

When he first arrived at the academy the summer of ’99, "Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell" had been in place for six years. An officer counseled incoming cadets on the official policy.

Choi put all sexual thoughts out of his mind, one of the "benefits," he says, of being raised in an ultra-conservative, Christian family, with a Baptist Minister father.

"They always said ‘No Sex Before Marriage! No Sex Before Marriage!’ and I was like, well, that’s easy."

Choi focused on the rigorous physical and academic program at the academy. And, as part of his mandatory foreign-language requirement, he chose to challenge himself instead of going along with what everyone else was doing.

"All the other Korean cadets, and all the other Asian cadets were trying to take Chinese," he explains. "I was very interested in one day visiting the holy land and pursing, perhaps, a career in the clergy, in religious and spiritual leadership, like my dad."

He decided on Arabic, and when he graduated from West Point in 2003, Choi was one of a handful of classmates who had completed this course of study. In national proficiency tests Choi earned the top score.

Being gay, Choi believes, gave him the edge in learning a language.

"Knowing that you are different … gives you this empathy for people that are different from you. And, regardless of what race you are, it allows you to have compassion. And those things are so important to learning a language."

Choi speaks Arabic so well that when he talks to people on the phone they mistake him for a fellow native speaker. When they meet him for the first time they draw out their disbelief, "You’re Asian!" to which he jokes, "Did you expect me to pronounce the Ls as Rs?"

Yet despite this valuable expertise, Dan Choi, who deployed to Iraq twice and then transferred to the New York National Guard in 2008, is in the process of being forcibly discharged for coming out as a gay soldier.

Choi says he came out in order to tell his truth. Living that truth has not only led to the loss of his military career, it has also put a strain on his family.

Choi says, "When a Korean son or daughter comes out of the closet, the parents tend to go into the closet."

As Baptists, his parents place a great value on praying together and announcing prayer requests at church, but they have kept their son’s coming out a private, family affair.

At home, he endures traditional Korean talk about how he "doesn’t have shame," or how the "family must save face."

"It’s a bigger shame to not have integrity," he argues. "There’s no face to save if you’re lying."

Still, they’ve been able to have conversations that Choi says Korean families never have. They’ve discussed sex, relationships, and emotions. "We get to be more open–and that’s wonderful," says Choi.

In January 2009, Choi joined the Service Academy Gay And Lesbian Alumni (SAGALA), a group that had operated under the radar, and was at the time considering coming out publicly.

"We needed to be out, we needed to be public about this, especially because we are West Point graduates and former cadets," he says.

But even with that rallying cry, no one immediately stepped up to take the lead as the public face for the organization and their mission to challenge the "Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell" policy. Choi was reluctant himself. He was only now coming out to his own family and, he admitted, "I’d never been a spokesperson for anything."

The group, Knights Out, came out in March and its board of officers includes Lt. Dan Choi as its official spokesperson. "We look at all the other soldiers that are out there and we say, ‘As long as they have to stay silent, we cannot stay silent’," Choi says.

The group started with 23 members and by the first week they’d grown to 38. Now they count more than 60 other gay former West Point cadets.

Choi says that if there’s one thing he’s observed as an infantry officer it’s this: "People … follow courage. They follow audacity. And they need to see that in their leaders. And that was something that we learned at West Point from day one. A certain Patton-like leadership. With us, we realized that that kind of audacity is really what not only our group, Knights Out, needs, but the entire movement needs."

Choi came out to his brother, who currently serves in the Army, after he’d told everybody else. "But when I told him–and I told him on Facebook–," Choi says, "–he admitted that he cried a few hours just looking at the message and finally decided to call me and just say that he supported me so much and sorry for all the things he might’ve said and the damage it had caused me."

Choi says many gay soldiers have come up to him, with tears in their eyes, and have shared stories about the difficult times and harassment they’ve endured under the "Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell" policy.

"I don’t think any of us really understand the full extent of the trauma that the law causes," says Choi.

He receives emails from soldiers serving in Iraq who have admitted that if Knights Out hadn’t come out they didn’t know whether they could live anymore.

"They were on the verge of suicide," he says, speaking of one soldier who hadn’t been eating for a week, until her company commander, one of Choi’s straight, West Point classmates, reassured her that things would soon change.

Blasting arguments that the military will become a sexual free-for-all should openly gay soldiers be allowed to serve, Choi says, "I never engaged in any homosexual conduct while on duty. And I never engaged in any heterosexual conduct while on duty. You don’t go into the Army for sex."

To those people who question why he entered the Army if he was gay, Choi says he signed up to serve something greater than himself.

"My dad always said that in Korea if you don’t serve in the military you’re not treated as an adult no matter how old you are," says Choi. "I took that to mean that if you don’t serve something greater than yourself, if you don’t devote yourself selflessly to something else beyond your own interests–if you’re only interested in your selfish motivations–you aren’t respected."

Erasmo Guerra is a Lambda Award-winning writer who lives in New York. He attended West Point his freshman year.