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.

Choi acknowledges that he doesn't pray "as much as I used to," but he emphatically states, "I am a born-again Christian, in the truest sense." He has had a "lifelong flirtation with Islam," something he attributes to "the intersectionality of oppressed people." It was largely while living near Muslims that he first started to come out. But he is still a preacher's kid at heart and often attends Metropolitan Community Church in New York when he's in town.

As much as it might enrage some evangelicals, Choi is not at all reluctant to proclaim his born-again bona fides. "If you follow what Jesus taught, and look at the political forces of the time, and realize the persecution he was under," he says, "you would see that gay people are bearing the real cross today."

It was in that spirit that he approached Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid this past July. Choi was in Las Vegas at Netroots Nation when he got the final word that he'd been discharged from the military.

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"

"I just wanted to be alone, and I was in the belly of the beast, surrounded by every liberal blogger in America!" he says. With all eyes on him, he thought, "I have nothing else to give."

But he did have one thing left: his West Point ring. And when he saw Reid, he gave it to him.

Three months later, Choi sits in the Senate gallery when Reid, as promised, brings the issue of "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" to a vote. But it rapidly becomes obvious that Choi wouldn't be getting his ring back anytime soon: Reid attached repeal of "Don't Ask, Don't Tell," along with the controversial DREAM Act (luring immigrant children to legalize their status by committing to military service or completing two years of college) to the Department of Defense budget.

Idealists thought the Republicans couldn't bring themselves to vote against the troops, while cynics knew better (and thought Reid took this tack just to rally gay support before the midterm elections).

After a day of lobbying and press hits on the Hill, Choi seems calm enough when the Senate vote starts. But he tenses up slightly when one moderate Republican after another vote, "nay." When Arkansas Democrats Mark Pryor and Blanche Lincoln vote "nay" as well, it's all over.

"Someone's e-mailing me, 'What is your reaction to the vote?' How 'bout I just respond, 'Fuck!' " Choi wonders aloud shortly after as he scrolls through his iPhone.

In uniform, Choi meets the Voice in front of the White House the next day to have his picture taken. Immediately, Secret Service agents descend upon him.

"Hi, Lieutenant Choi," the most senior agent says. "Are we going to be handcuffing ourselves today?" The agent, two weeks from retirement, seems quite relaxed, but his underling—Deputy Barney Fife to his Sheriff Andy Taylor—appears as nervous as one of the hungry squirrels outside the East Wing.

"Hmmm," Choi teases, "I don't think so—but you never know!"

"Well, let me know if you can do it in the next few minutes, 'cause I was going to break some of my guys for lunch," the agent responds. After a few minutes of banter—including good-natured ribbing—the agents leave Choi alone.

Watching Choi back where he was first locked up, it's hard not to wonder: If he had just come out on Rachel Maddow's MSNBC show, without his having repeatedly broken the law, could he have stayed in the Army?

"It's complicated," says openly gay former Army captain (and Choi's West Point classmate) Anthony Woods. "Yes, I think that's possible. But while his case was pending, he may have left them no choice, with the actions he was taking as a vocal candidate. But Choi wouldn't have been in that position if 'Don't Ask, Don't Tell' wasn't on the books. In the face of that, he was left with no choice but to protest in the most effective way possible."

Of course, Woods knows the answer to this in his own case. He came out in December 2008, he never engaged in civil disobedience, and yet he, too, was discharged.

As usual, Choi himself is unequivocal: "The only reason I was discharged was because of 'Don't Ask, Don't Tell,' " he says angrily. "The civil disobedience charges were dropped, nor are they mentioned in discharge papers."

Official or not, Dan Choi is clearly not obedient. On the other hand, he can be quite civil and frequently funny and charming.

When he leaves the photographer after his photo shoot in front of the White House, he looks serious—the lone American soldier—walking toward Lafayette Park.

But before he even finishes crossing Pennsylvania Avenue, he pivots and walks toward the group of Secret Service agents who have been keeping an eye on him. He shakes all of their hands, and they immediately begin chatting animatedly. Within seconds, they are all throwing their heads back with laughter.

Last week, Choi Tweeted, "I'm headed to the Times Square Recruiting Station." Just a few hours earlier, Judge Virginia Phillips had denied the Obama administration's request to stay her injunction effectively ending "Don't Ask, Don't Tell"—and former Army Lieutenant Choi was attempting to enlist as a Marine.

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