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Lieutenant Daniel Choi is most well known for getting kicked out of the U.S. military. An infantry platoon leader who served two tours in Iraq (and was one of the relatively few who was fluent in Arabic), he was tossed out after he outed himself in March 2009 on national TV—on prime time. A West Point grad, son of a Baptist preacher, and himself a born-again Christian, Choi, 29, became the face of the movement against "Don't Ask, Don't Tell."
But it isn't just getting kicked out of the military that irks him. He's also not happy about being kicked off Grindr—four times.
Grindr is an iPhone app that uses GPS positioning to show your location, and it also shows the whereabouts of other gay men nearby who are eager to have sex.
Unlike other Grindr users, who tend to adopt screen names like "Top-Jamaicanbkl" or "SmoothBoyish," Choi uses "Lt. Dan Choi," and his profile features an actual photograph of him in uniform.
But Grindr repeatedly cancelled his account. "They kept saying, 'You are impersonating the Lt. Dan Choi.' I had to go onto Facebook and find the owner of Grindr and say, 'Can you please tell your people to stop deleting my account?' " It stopped, but he still gets messages from other users asking if he's really that Lt. Dan Choi, baffled to be cyber-cruising the spokesman for repealing "Don't Ask, Don't Tell."
There's no doubt that when Choi came out last March on MSNBC as a gay soldier, he helped take the movement to a whole new level.
"When he appeared on the Rachel Maddow Show, he was very buttoned-down, very conservative, very professional—and clear as a bell," says Rick Jacobs, leader of a group fighting California's anti-gay Proposition 8, The Courage Campaign.
But Choi isn't buttoned-down anymore. There are many across the political spectrum who wish the lieutenant would be quiet once in a while. He angered the right by appearing as the grand marshal at last year's San Francisco and New York Gay Pride parades, where, as he puts it, he was gleefully "breaking 'Don't Ask, Don't Tell' all up and down the street!" (In uniform.)
He has angered the left by not being lockstep antiwar enough at times, and by warmly welcoming Ken Mehlman, Bush's campaign manager, to the gayborhood when he came out.
In a movement awash with political correctness, Choi decidedly isn't. He is now speaking out without being asked, sometimes even angering people in his own camp. Rare among gay-rights activists in the national spotlight, Choi mixes an irrepressible sense of humor into his growing militancy.
Choi "has a public role and a private life," one friend tells the Voice. "In his private life, he sometimes exhibits behaviors that, I fear, if caught on YouTube by somebody who was a conservative spy, would reflect very poorly on him and, by extension, on the movement. On the other hand, I'm just kind of jealous. There's a lot of me wishing I could be out there and be as open as he is."
Choi is unapologetic. He says he resents it when anyone, especially those in the gay-rights movement, discourages him from exploring—well, sexually—his newly revealed homosexuality.
"I think our movement hits on so many nerves," he says, "not just for reasons of anti-discrimination and all the platitudes of the civil rights movement. I believe that it's also because it has elements of sexual liberation. And it shows people that through what we're trying to do, they can be fully respectful of themselves, without accepting the shame society wants to throw upon them."
"Sexual liberation"—that probably won't play well on Capitol Hill. And therein lies the conflict between Choi and the establishment. His bold public actions—from chaining himself to the White House fence (twice) to going on a hunger strike for seven days—as well as his almost complete lack of inhibition about making his private behavior public, unnerve the old guard of both the military and the gay-rights movement.
Everyone, he says, is "happy to send out e-mails when a good court case comes out, but no one is willing to take a risk for fear of taking blame. If people want to blame me for being the reason 'Don't Ask, Don't Tell' isn't repealed, I say fine. Bring it on, motherfuckers."
Last July, in Las Vegas, he personally handed his West Point ring to Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, telling the Nevada senator to keep it until he could repeal "Don't Ask, Don't Tell."
But to Choi's mind, Reid's gamble of attaching gay rights to a defense bill gave the Republicans a legitimate reason to feel shut out of the debate. So what happened in Vegas didn't stay in Vegas.
"Harry Reid is a pussy," Choi angrily said after the failed vote in the Senate last month, vowing to speak out about the Democratic leader, "and he'll be bleeding once a month."
Lieutenant Dan Choi personifies the growing rift between gay-rights activists who want to cooperate with lobbyists and elected officials, and those who demand direct action. It's pretty obvious that the establishment activists—having allies controlling the White House and the Congress for two years with little to show for it—are having a hard time keeping people like Choi in line.