Lt. Dan Choi doesn’t want to lie. Choi, an Iraq war veteran and a graduate of West Point, declared last March 19 on “The Rachel Maddow Show,” “I am gay.” Under the military’s “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” regulations, those three words are enough to get Choi kicked out of the military. Choi has become a vocal advocate for repealing the policy, having spoken before tens of thousands of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) people and their allies at last Sunday’s National Equality March in Washington, D.C.
Shortly after Choi’s public admission to being gay, the Department of the Army sent him a letter stating, in part, that “you admitted publicly that you are a homosexual which constitutes homosexual conduct. ... Your actions negatively affected the good order and discipline of the New York Army National Guard.” Since “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” was signed into law by President Bill Clinton in 1993, 13,500 soldiers, sailors and Marines have been discharged from the military for similar alleged behavior. Choi could receive an “other than honorable” discharge, losing the health, retirement, educational and other benefits to which combat veterans are entitled. While Congress acts to remove the restrictions on health insurance for people with “pre-existing conditions,” Choi’s pre-existing conditions, being gay and being honest about it, may be enough to keep him out of the Veterans Affairs health care system for life.
The night before Sunday’s march, President Barack Obama spoke to the Human Rights Campaign, the largest and wealthiest gay-advocacy group: “We should not be punishing patriotic Americans who have stepped forward to serve this country. ... I will end ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.’ ” He laid out no timetable, however.
After receiving the letter from the Army, Choi wrote an open letter to his commander in chief, Obama. He said: “I have personally served for a decade under Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell: an immoral law and policy that forces American soldiers to deceive and lie about their sexual orientation. Worse, it forces others to tolerate deception and lying.” U.S. troops in Afghanistan are serving side by side with NATO forces that include openly gay and lesbian troops.
Longtime gay-rights activist Urvashi Vaid, author of “Virtual Equality: The Mainstreaming of Gay and Lesbian Liberation,” is opposed to war and militarism, but told me, “The military is a large employer, and has to commit to not being discriminatory.” She, too, was at the march Sunday, whose turnout surprised many of the mainstream gay organizations, as they hadn’t actively organized it. She said: “First, it’s a generational shift in the LGBT movement. There is a new wave of activism coming up. And it’s gay and straight. That’s a second big change ... the third shift that’s happening in the LGBT movement is that it’s much more of a multi-issue agenda that is being carried by the people who are marching.” In addition to “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” the LGBT movement is also intent on repealing the Clinton-era Defense of Marriage Act, and on achieving marriage equality. This will be a hard fight, Vaid predicts, based on grass-roots activism in every congressional district. Challenging discriminatory laws couldn’t be more timely: On the day before Obama’s speech to the Human Rights Campaign, a gay man in New York City was taunted with anti-gay slurs and savagely beaten by two men. He is currently in a coma.
Lt. Dan Choi is still technically a serving officer. Obama could halt proceedings against Choi. Activists contend Obama could stop active enforcement of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” through an executive order. Presidential or congressional action may not come in time to save Choi’s military career. If he loses his health benefits, he has a plan. Choi got a message from an Iraqi doctor whose hospital Choi helped to rebuild while he was there. He said the doctor is “in South Baghdad right now. And he’s seen some of the Internet, YouTube and CNN interviews and other appearances, and he said: ‘Brother, I know that you’re gay, but you’re still my brother, and you’re my friend. And if your country, that sent you to my country, if America, that sent you to Iraq, will discharge you such that you can’t get medical benefits, you can come to my hospital any day. You can come in, and I will give you treatment.’ ”
Choi ended, “I hope that our country can learn from that Iraqi doctor.”
Denis Moynihan contributed research to this column.