Iraq War Veteran and gay rights activist Lt. Dan Choi spoke at the Milton S. Eisenhower Symposium (MSE) Tuesday.
Choi gained notoriety when he challenged the federal government’s “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy. During his speech, he discussed his decision to come out of the closet to his family—and then to his country in March 2009 on MSNBC’s The Rachel Maddow Show.
“The advice we get sometimes is contrary to the truth in our hearts,” Choi said.
The event was the second of the 2012 MSE lecture series, designed with emphasis placed on the theme of “The Power of the Individual” in the selection of each speaker.
Though far more sparsely attended, Choi’s appearance attracted a fair audience in spite of Tuesday’s rainy weather.
In his speech, Choi made a point to contrast the efforts of the United States to bring rights to Iraqi minorities with the inherent discrimination of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” back home.
“We were in Iraq with the notion that we were building a pluralistic government,” Choi said. “What we were trying to create there is a government that is open to all.”
He likened the effort to repeal the military’s ban on openly gay members serving to the civil rights movement of the twentieth century. Evoking the names of the leaders of the movement, Choi asked the audience to stand up at a point during the event and follow him in an activist chant.
“Repeat after me: I am somebody! I deserve full equality! Right here! Right now!” Choi said.
Choi was one of 59 Arabic linguists to have faced discharge from the army during the span of the Iraq War.
Hestood trial in June 2009 under “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” a policy cemented during the Clinton administration in the tradition of centuries of discrimination against homosexuals in the United States military.
He gave his testimony only in Arabic, to highlight his value as a translator, and delivered over 260,000 articles of support from fellow soldiers and citizens, elected officials, Iraqi friends and his boyfriend.
As his case was appealed to the Secretary of Defense, Choi served openly in his infantry unit for over a year, even as he publicly challenged the policy that would force him out of the military with a “final” discharge in June 2010.
Choi spoke at length about the decision he made to come out, first to his sister, and then, significantly, to his Korean-American immigrant parents.
“I fell in love for the first time in my life at twenty-seven,” he said.
If he were to be killed in combat, he wondered, who would be handed the flag draping his coffin?
“Why should I have to hide what I know is true in my heart?” Choi asked.
His sister urged him not to come out to his parents, immigrants to the United States from South Korea.
His father, a Southern Baptist minister, and his mother were unlikely to be pleased at the revelation that their son was gay.
When he finally did come out, he spent six months arguing and wrangling over the issue with his parents.
They wanted him to pray; they wanted to perform a demonic exorcism. Ridding their son of his homosexuality was the only option; accepting him for what he was never on the table.
“Parents are the people who judge you most,” Choi said, “and they have the right to.”
He no longer speaks to his parents.
Choi did mention in passing the same-sex marriage referendum, known as Question 6, on the ballot in Maryland this November.
The referendum is aimed at overturning the same-sex marriage law enacted by the state legislature and signed by Gov. Martin O’Malley in March.
“You can’t wait for somebody else to do the job for you,” he said, talking about his work as an activist to repeal “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” and his work promoting marriage equality for the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgendered (LGBT) community.
After being discharged from the army, Choi worked tirelessly to undo the military’s ban on openly gay members.
He has handcuffed himself to the White House fence as a form of protest on several occasions, acts for which he continues to serve as a defendant in trials in Washington, D.C.
Even so, he was invited back to the White House for the signing of the bill by President Obama repealing the discriminatory policy in December 2010.
“I thought it was a really great event,” sophomore Jackson Berger said. “He was serious yet funny, which is difficult to pull off. I’m glad I came.”
“He knew how to command the stage and undercut the issues with humor,” freshman Nikita Singh said.
It was Choi’s first visit to Hopkins.
“I thought you guys were all medical students, but you actually asked good questions!” he joked, referring to the question-and-answer session following his remarks.