By Alex Distefano
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For months, Choi wanted action from President Barack Obama, whom he considers a failure on gay rights and whose only record, as far as Choi personally is concerned, is that "I lost my job."
But when federal judge Virginia Phillips first ruled in September that "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" was unconstitutional, Choi told the Voice that he'd had a change of heart.
"Don't do anything, Obama!" he railed. "Just keep on doing what you're doing, which is jack shit. Don't appeal the decision. Don't add one more thing to your plate—your heavy-ass plate."
Choi wanted Obama to follow the playbook of California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, who hasn't appealed the overturning in court of Proposition 8. But now that the administration has appealed Phillips's decision, it's obvious that Obama—much as he did when Choi was handcuffed to his backyard fence—has ignored him.
When he first came out, Choi says, he could "never have imagined criticizing the commander in chief." Now, he does it routinely.
In a new century that seems far removed from the days of ACT-UP militancy, that makes some of his fellow activists jittery. "They keep saying, 'Don't say anything bad about Obama, or you're going to end up with Sarah Palin as president!' " He resents what he considers a Hobson's choice—Obama or nothing—because he says it lets the Democrats off the hook. To Choi, that scare tactic of trotting out the likes of Palin just shows that the Democrats "can wield fear just as well as a political weapon as the Republicans!"
He butts heads with activists on the most local of levels. When organizers in Maine didn't want him going door-to-door on behalf of gay marriage because they'd "done a poll, and Mainers only trust eighth-generation Mainers," Choi says, he thought, "That's a very subtle way of saying 'No Asians.' "
But more than his race or his open sexuality, it is perhaps Choi's outspoken militancy on political issues that scares the gay-rights movement. To tightly scripted organizations like the Human Rights Campaign, "I am destabilizing," he openly admits. "And it freaks the shit out of people when I tell young activists and soon-to-be activists that they have the power, and they owe nothing" to groups like HRC or the Servicemembers Legal Defense Network. (Neither responded to questions specifically about Choi.)
Now that Choi has stepped into the spotlight, he's not about to give it up—no matter how uncomfortably hot it gets. Many in the gay-rights movement have had something to say about how loudly he's acted, he says. Some have criticized him for going on a hunger strike.
"When I saw that, I thought it was ridiculous! You look insane!" says Jake Goodman, a founding member of Queer Rising. Goodman, no stranger to direct action, chained himself to the New York Marriage Bureau last year, but he was "very turned off" by Choi's strike.
"I have a lot of respect for Dan, and I know him personally," Goodman says. "If you feel someone shouldn't chain themselves to the White House, I say too bad. You can do your tactic, and you can see how well it's working." Still, he thinks a "hunger strike has to be about life and death. It shouldn't be done lightly as something just to raise the stakes."
Others have criticized Choi for supposedly charging too much for speaking engagements.
"I've lost all respect for you as a gay- and human-rights activist," Nonnie Ouch, president of the Gay-Straight Alliance at Texas Tech University, wrote in an open letter to Choi in August. Ouch, bemoaning "the exorbitant amount of $10,000 to get you out here," wrote that "after nine months of dealing with your agent, I received an e-mail directly from you. In short, you basically said that the only way I could get you to speak is if I raised enough money to bring you to Tech. No deals, no compromises, end of story."
Ouch had first seen Choi at the National Equality March in October 2009, where she was inspired by his "Love Is Worth It!" speech. It broke her heart, she wrote, to tell him, "You, sir, have lost sight in one of those many $10,000 checks written to you, of why you came out and became an activist in the first place."
Asked about it, Choi calls it "a strange situation" but is dismissive of Ouch's description of Texas Tech students who wanted to hear him as "poor college kids in an extremely conservative city." The poorest kids, Choi argues, "are not going to college." He says he's proud of the fact that he's been taking care of himself "since I left high school," by getting appointed to West Point and serving in the military. And he says that he donates a great deal of his fees to homeless LGBT youth of color, "who are really the poorest and the most marginalized."
Besides, students can get funds, he maintains, through their student activity boards and other sources to pay his appearance fees. He says he thinks the dispute "wasn't about money." He has a rider in his speaking contract that stipulates he won't come to a school unless all campus groups are invited—gay, military, Christian—and that "they must invite the most homophobic group, four times, in writing."