Bad Lieutenant, Dan Choi

What the networks don't ask the poster boy of the movement against "Don't Ask, Don't Tell," he's happy to tell.

However, Choi hasn't cut off his Muslim friends—"both Shia and Sunni, some quite religious"—in Iraq. "I had a very highly educated friend in Baghdad," Choi says, "who e-mailed me saying I could not have been gay when he knew me because I was a good person!"

And a valuable one to the war effort, considering that the U.S. military has been—and still is—desperately short of skilled translators. Choi can back up his contention that "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" hurts the military: "It doesn't hurt me, other than losing my job—it really hurts straight Americans," especially those serving in Iraq, he says. One of 59 Arabic linguists who have been discharged under "Don't Ask, Don't Tell," Choi says, "I get e-mails regularly from soldiers—gay and straight—who are still over there." The most worrisome are from those "who will e-mail me a cell phone pic of some graffiti [in Arabic] and ask me to translate." Their platoon's linguist doesn't understand street Arabic enough to read the tagging the way Choi does, or—worse yet—their platoon has no translator at all.

On a recent trip to D.C., Choi is staying in a Columbia Heights town house with a gay power couple, both of whom have worked high up in Democratic circles. Choi looks much younger than he does on TV. Decked out in jeans and a T-shirt and sans makeup, some acne is visible, and his smile seems too boyish for a man who has already done two tours in Iraq and has turned the gay-rights movement on its head.

C.S. Muncy
Outside the U.S. Capitol, shortly after the Senate fails to repeal "Don't Ask, Don't Tell"
C.S. Muncy
Outside the U.S. Capitol, shortly after the Senate fails to repeal "Don't Ask, Don't Tell"

He's in town to lobby the Senate on "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" the following day. "It's 6 o'clock at night, and my day is just getting started," he says as he disappears upstairs. He has three interviews booked all over town tonight, and three more tomorrow.

When he returns—wearing a blazer and sharp tie, his hair gelled in spikes—he looks much more like the Lieutenant Dan Choi you know from TV. His baby face starts to disappear into his public mask.

Getting into a black Mercedes that Al Jazeera has sent for him, Choi sighs. "The problem with this kind of work is that it never ends," he says, though he seems to not really want it to. "Political work is like an addiction. When I'm not doing it, I feel guilty."

Naturally, Choi is at ease exchanging salaam-aleikums with a member of the Al Jazeera crew, and the interviewer is sympathetic to him. From the K Street studio, the Mercedes will take him right into the lion's den: Fox's D.C. affiliate across town, where Choi will debate black preacher Harry Jackson, an anti-gay activist.

Fox 5 in D.C. is staffed by more open homosexuals than you might imagine, including a male reporter who had very publicly taken a husband when D.C. legalized gay marriage. Gay and straight, the reporters and crew members are falling over themselves to tell Choi how much they admire him.

Although Choi, Jackson, and the moderator are all in the same building, they're on different floors and never meet in person. Once the on-air light comes on, Choi proceeds to rip Jackson a new asshole. "Nobody's telling you to be gay!" he shouts into the camera.

Choi's responses are as rapid and staccato as fire from the weapon he carried during tours of Baghdad. From the studio, you can't hear Jackson or the moderator, but Choi's verbal assaults make the weather reporter look up abruptly from a screen where she's tracking a hurricane, an expression of horror or shock on her face.

"I've faced racism in this country, and I've faced homophobia in this country," he proclaims to the camera, "and it feels exactly the same!" And later: "I refuse to bear false witness to my neighbor, as my daddy taught me." Saying he was raised religious, his voice has the rhythm of a Baptist preacher's.

When the light finally goes off, a couple of people in the office applaud.

"Goodness," the weather reporter says to Choi, "that's about as lively as it ever gets around here at night!"

Two adoring staff members are escorting Choi out of the building when he is approached by Jackson's driver—a portly, elderly black man—in the parking lot.

"Sir," he says to Choi, "I want to tell you I was in the military for a long time. I was at the Tet Offensive. And I never heard anyone say anything like what you just said." The words are spat out of his mouth, and then the man turns and walks away.

"I don't think you should feel the right to be able to say that to me and just walk away," Choi says, following the man.

"It's not right what you said," the man retorts over his shoulder.

"I'll pray for you, sir!" Choi hollers, which elicits a grunt from the driver as he gets into his car.

"I will pray for your soul! God bless you, sir!" Choi yells at the top of his lungs, over the screech of the car's wheels. "JESUS LOVES YOU!"

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