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.

By Steven Thrasher

published: October 27, 2010

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.

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."

When the Texas Tech kids wouldn't play ball by his rules, he says, "I didn't have time for it."

Money is a touchy subject for Choi, who says that, regardless of the amount he charges, "there are those who even question, 'Who are you to charge anything?' " It's no one's business, he says, but "those plane tickets don't buy themselves." Over the past couple of years, he has gone from earning $62,000 a year down to about $700 a month (from a monthly disability check for his Iraq service, which has left him 50 percent disabled with a lung condition that, he says, won't prevent him from re-enlisting).

For all his fame and his presence on Grindr, Dan Choi does seem to have a rather lonely existence. "I am homeless," he tells people. Since being honorably discharged from the 69th Infantry of New York's Army National Guard, he has had no home to go to. He is registered to vote in New York City (and, when he endorsed Mike Bloomberg last year, found himself smack in the middle of a war between lesbian activist lawyer Yetta Kurland, lesbian City Council speaker Christine Quinn, and the city's term-limit supporters).

Choi has broken up with the boyfriend he used to stay with in Chelsea, and he is estranged from his parents in California. He says he has few, if any, friends from "before."

Instead, he's a couch-surfing activist, staying with other movement folk around the country wherever he needs to speak or organize. When he first spoke to the Voice, he was crashing in San Diego with "a lesbian with five kids. I've practically gotten pregnant just staying here!"

The friend—a veteran named Lisa Kove, who is president of an organization for openly gay military contractors—says that "being discharged under the best of circumstances can be disorienting. And Dan's were hardly the best of circumstances." Kove says she feels maternal toward Choi and was glad to have him stay in her home and play video games with her son. "He needs to have time when no one is wanting anything from him," she says. "It's not fair that all this pressure to come out is placed on his shoulders. Everyone should come out."

Choi says he lives out of a couple of bags and, being used to "falling asleep wherever you have to" in the military, he doesn't seem to mind the nomadic life. "I'm in a relationship with the movement," he says. "And in any relationship, sometimes you have to sleep on the couch. And sometimes, even with the movement, the couch is literally a couch."

Going home isn't an option. He says he won't speak to his first-generation Korean-American parents because he thinks "they are imposing their own 'Don't Ask, Don't Tell.' " In other words, they would see him, he says, but only while refusing to acknowledge his sexuality.

In recalling how he came out to his parents—shortly before going on Maddow last year—Choi typically disregards political correctness and throws in several dollops of humor to play both parts of his conversation with his mom. She had been pestering him about who he was going to marry when he sat her down and told her: "I'm not going to marry a Korean girl."

"Oh, no! " he says, mimicking his mother's voice with a high-pitched, heavy Korean accent and broken English. "Don't marry white girl!" (It was a sin his brother had recently committed.)

Choi (assuming the stentorian tones of a professional broadcaster): "No. I'm not going to marry a white girl." He says he made his mom promise that she would love him, no matter what he was about to tell her.

"Why you not marry Korean girl?!" his mom cried. "What kind of girl you going to marry?"

"I'm not going to marry a girl at all. I'm gay. God made me this way."

"I love you," his mother replied. "But gay don't exist. It's not in the Bible. It's fake. Did you pray about it?"

"Yes," Choi said. "I prayed all the time! I prayed in the fourth grade, at the church retreat! I prayed, 'Jesus, Lord, make me pop a boner for Michelle Pfeiffer.' It doesn't work!"

"Pray more!" she barked. "Just have sex with any Korean girl! Pray for boner for Korean girl!"

Turning serious, Choi says he knew the hardest work was over, despite the fact that he was still in the military as a gay soldier. "After I came out to my parents," he says, "I realized I wasn't afraid of anything."

But his coming out to his parents has not had a storybook ending—no PFLAG rallies for Mom and Pop. They can't accept the news, he says, so he has cut them out of his life until they can. He calls it "an act of love," adding, "Asian parents are happy to repress and repress and repress and to drag things on for years. I am forcing them to deal with it now. It's less painful that way."

On his latest trip to California, Choi did plan to visit them. But when his sister picked him up at the airport and told him their minister father was plotting an ambush "exorcism," he says, he thought better of it.

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.

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!"

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.

"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.

"I am gay, and I was discharged under 'Don't Ask, Don't Tell,' " Choi tells the recruiter for the Army, his old branch (and the only one that will accept recruits over 28). And, per the Pentagon's directive earlier that day, they started processing him.

Re-enlisting is a process that can take a few weeks, and Choi emerged some time later knowing he'd have to return the next day to do more paperwork. Stepping into the heart of Times Square, he handled the deluge of press with his characteristic aplomb, making jokes about being "a little too old for the Marines" before speaking seriously about the meaning of Judge Phillips's ruling.

"Just like all of the other minorities that have been scapegoated and stigmatized throughout the history of America, [who've] depended on the courts to protect their rights, and protect the American virtues and values and foundational principals—that's what happened! And it's a day we can all celebrate. Not as gay people, not as straight people, but as American people!"

"Are you worried about it being overturned?" a reporter asks, making Choi break into a huge smile.

"I'm not worried! I'm gonna keep on serving. How 'bout that?"

Choi disappears with a few friends for drinks in the Mandarin Oriental before he has to appear on AC 360. "DADT is DOA!" he toasts. "DADT is MIA!"

He has gone from being the leader of a platoon to a leader of a movement. How will he deal with becoming a grunt? How will his superiors cope?

When the subject comes up, one friend, former Army Sergeant Denny Meyer, jokes that Choi will "come face to face with his new commanding officer, whose eyes will widen in terror. He will put his face in his hands and say, 'Why me? I'm due to retire soon!' " But after laughing, Meyer says, "In all seriousness, I honestly believe [Choi] will get the utmost respect. In today's army of professional Non-Commissioned Officers, I can assure you no NCO would tolerate anything but respect."

Putting the officer status aside, after spending time with Lt. Dan Choi, it's unclear how he'll fit into the life of a grunt infantryman just after having been a national celebrity.

One thing's for sure, though—he's out, and he intends to serve in the armed forces again. Even the next day, when the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals granted a temporary stay of Judge Phillips's halt of the discharge policy, he said "My plans have not changed. I'm going back in."

And, as if there was ever any doubt, he has no plans to cancel his Grindr account. "I was already starting to see a couple of other guys popping up on Grindr the last few times I went to training, before I was kicked out," he says with a sly grin.

sthrasher@villagevoice.com