Lt. Dan Choi, a West Point graduate and fluent Arabist being discharged from the Army for being openly gay, was arrested last week along with former Army captain Jim Pietrangelo II, after handcuffing themselves to the White House gate in protest of Don't Ask, Don't Tell. They were handcuffed with the help of Robin McGehee, a former PTA president turned activist who last week cofounded GetEQUAL, an LGBT activism group inspired by civil-rights organizations and gains made through civil disobedience. "We've held marches, lobbied, manned the phone banks," says McGehee. "The last resort is to rumble."
All three were arrested, and Choi and Pietrangelo spent one night in jail. Both men appeared in court the next day, in shackles and handcuffs, and pleaded not guilty to the charge of failing to obey a lawful order. A trial date is set for April 26. Several other GetEQUAL activists were also arrested last week for staging sit-ins in support of federal antidiscrimination in employment legislation at the San Francisco and Washington offices of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi.
In his first interview after the arrest, Choi spoke with NEWSWEEK's Eve Conant about what drove him to act, the schism within the gay movement, and why those in support of gay rights need to be prepared to make personal sacrifices in the quest for full federal equality. Excerpts:
When you walked into the courtroom after your night in jail, you were in uniform, handcuffed with a chain around your waist. You are a West Point graduate and Army lieutenant, how did you reach this point?
Being in chains, for me, matched what was in my heart the whole time I was serving and was closeted. Harriet Tubman once said she had freed 1,000 slaves but could have freed so many more if they only knew that they were slaves. People don't always know that they are in fetters. Even my feet were shackled so I could only take small steps forward. To me that symbolizes what it is to live under Don't Ask, Don't Tell, the only law that enforces shame. Those chains symbolized how my country is trying to restrict my movement, how we are only allowed incremental, tiny steps.
Critics of last week's civil disobedience at the White House and Nancy Pelosi’s office say this is not the time for actions like this. They argue that the gay-equality movement is so close to progress, why risk it all now?
Why not now? Within the gay community so many leaders want acceptance from polite society. I think there's been a betrayal of what is down inside of us in order to achieve what looks popular, what look enviable. The movement seems to be centered around how to become an elite. There is a deep schism [in the gay-rights movement], everyone knows this. But this shouldn't be about which group has better branding. There is a tremor right now in every gay and transgender youth that these groups are not grasping. I would say to them—you do not represent us if all you are looking for is a ladder in to elite society.
When I get messages from people who want to be a part of this I ask back: what are you willing to sacrifice? We are tired of being stereotyped as privileged, bourgeois elites. Is someone willing to give up their career, their relationships with powerful people, their Rolodex, or their parents' love to stand up for who they are? I'm giving up my military rank, my unit—which to me is a family—my veterans' benefits, my health care, so what are you willing to sacrifice?
They say freedom is not free, but it doesn't have to cost anything either. Jesus up on the cross did not have a party with all his major donors to raise money for his cause, his cross was free. Gandhi did not need three-course dinners and a cocktail party to get his message out. These are people who sacrificed their lives. For them it was hemlock, a cross, the bullet that shot Harvey Milk … it was not the size of their distribution list, but their message that endured.
When did you decide to take this step, to go beyond talking and do something like chain yourself to the White House gate?
There are so many moments. When I first fell in love? When I was closeted while serving in Iraq? You know, the military puts the idea of sacrifice in your mind the very first day you join. We learned very quickly that someday we might be asked to sacrifice life, limb, comfort, and freedom. My soldier training has made me a better activist, and being a gay activist makes me a better soldier. I can use tactics of both to make both roles better.
Why now? Because you get tired of talking. [Over the past two years] I've done 50 live interviews, a hundred other interviews, how much more talk am I expected to produce? When I heard Kathy Griffin was going to be a spokeswoman for Don't Ask, Don't Tell, I wondered about that. I have great respect for her as an advocate. But if [the Human Rights Campaign] thinks that having a rally at Freedom Plaza with a comedienne is the right approach, I have to wonder. Don't Ask, Don't Tell is not a joking matter to me. To be at Freedom Plaza and not at the White House or Congress? Who are they trying to influence? I felt like they were just trying to speak to themselves. If that's the best the lobbying groups and HRC can do, then I don't know how these powerful groups are supposed to represent our community. Kathy Griffin and [HRC president] Joe Solmonese said they would march with me to the White House but didn’t. I feel so betrayed by them.
We all know the political reality now. The only way for the repeal to go through is for the president to take leadership and put it in the Defense Authorization Bill. There's a sunset on this, and it's happening quickly. Obama told us at the HRC dinner last year, you need to put pressure on me. I was there at that dinner, in uniform. So this is my mission; the president said to pressure him and I heard that as a warning order.
What was it like in jail? Were you at all scared at where this might be headed?
I've detained people in Iraq, I've read them their rights, and I've applied handcuffs and zip ties. I've talked with people in Arabic who've just been arrested. I know what it means to arrest someone for my country's mission. But I've never been incarcerated, and for something that I thought was not my country's mission. I know my country's mission is not to make an entire group of people into second-class citizens.
I asked seven or eight times to speak with a lawyer. I was not given a phone call. I was called a liar by one officer; I was scoffed at by another one. But there were others who wanted to talk with me about their service. The first time I saw a lawyer was in the courtroom, and I didn't know who he was and I couldn't understand what he was telling the judge at first. I asked him, "Did you just plea for me?"
[Choi, shortly after Pietrangelo did the same, went against the lawyer's advice to pay a $100 fine and walk away, instead pleading not guilty and preparing to stand trial.
So what is next for you?
When I was handcuffed to the gate someone else asked me what's next. I'm standing there with hands lifted skyward and I just told him, "This is." I have fully committed my life and all the sacrifices necessary to manifest equality and America's promises. Like I said at court, "I'm not guilty, I'm not ashamed, and I'm not finished."