Lt. Dan Choi has been referred to as a cadet, a soldier, an activist, a political figure, a pothead, a heavy drinker, a terrorist, a grand marshal, a saint, and a sinner. Now, Lt. Choi is a student and a candidate for the board of trustees at the City College of San Francisco, where he is pursuing a degree in vocal music.
It’s hard to imagine graduating from West Point with degrees in both Arabic and environmental engineering only to pursue singing at an “urban community college,” as the City College of San Francisco’s website comments. However, Lt. Choi’s transition from combat to chorus lines, warfare to waltzes, and battles to ballads wasn’t a career switch, but a self-guided remedy to the post-traumatic stress disorder he experienced after being on the front lines in Iraq.
Before our interview, Lt. Choi and I discussed the Islamic concept of lesser and greater jihads. Americans are most familiar with the lesser jihads, religious battles he fought in The Triangle of Death, also considered the most dangerous region in Baghdad, Iraq. The greater jihads are the internal struggles we experience to improve ourselves, or in Lt. Choi’s case, to heal.
“After the DADT fight, I decided that I, just like any other veteran, have the right to start life anew. To refresh,” he said.
Music isn’t Lt. Choi’s only weapon in his greater jihad. He’s also a renowned gay rights activist in the 2011 appeal of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” (DADT), a policy that prohibited gay soldiers from serving if they openly acknowledged their sexuality.
Lt. Choi publicly announced his homosexuality on The Rachel Maddow Show in March of 2009.
“By even saying that I’m gay, I’m already violating Title 10 of the U.S Code. It’s a code that is being polluted by the people who want us to lie about our identity. It’s an immoral code that goes against everything we were ever taught at West point; the honor code says a cadet will not lie, cheat, steal…” and suddenly the audio was cut.
It’s hard to believe the technical difficulties were mere coincidence. Lt. Choi did return to The Rachel Maddow Show to finish his piece, but the blatant public violation of DADT seemed to be the trigger that cut his interview short. For a moment, Lt. Choi may have been silenced, but he was only just finding his voice.
Lt. Choi became a founding member of Knights Out, a group of West Point cadets, alumni, and professors that supported openly gay soldiers’ right to serve in the military. He spoke at rallies and was the 2009 grand marshal of the San Francisco Pride Parade.
As a soldier, Lt. Choi never anticipated a career as an activist. Once he began speaking out publicly against DADT, the contrast between the two roles culminated in his final battalion strategy meeting, before being formally discharged in June 2010.
“The leaders’ officers came together, they did an intel briefing…every intel briefing there’s a known ‘enemy,’ and …they point out activists and advocates as the enemy!” he laughed.
“I was sitting in the room…having done an entire year of activism, and had just gotten arrested at the White House in my uniform having chained myself up…where I’m being told that I am the enemy!”
After the meeting, Lt. Choi approached the briefer and told him, “You know, I could be a great asset to you. Because I have been on the inside of prison bars. And I understand what it means to plan activism that targets the military and a military base, because that’s what we did.”
He describes it as “the one point of disagreement between the activist and the soldier.”
While Lt. Choi could’ve been the “great asset” as a soldier who turned into an activist, that didn’t stop him from being formally discharged in June 2010, following two separate protests in which he handcuffed himself to the White House and a week-long hunger strike.
It’s hard to pinpoint the moment when activism began taking over Lt. Choi’s life, but an article by Gabriel Arana in American Prospect, a liberal political/cultural magazine, provides evidence of its effect.
He appeared on major television news networks whenever DADT’s repeal made headlines. One of the Knights Out members (see timeline) told the group in a conference call that their organization was “becoming the Dan Choi show.” William Cannon, a friend from Fort
Drum, referred to him as a “diva,” when he demanded a barber before an appearance on MSNBC. He even dumped his boyfriend to focus entirely on the gay-rights movement.
Sarah Haag-Fisk, a West Point classmate and fellow member of Knights Out, said that he was so used to being interviewed, that “had no identity anymore,” as if he was always “giving [her] lines.”
During our interview and his presentation at SUNY New Paltz, I saw the evidence for myself. He often dominated conversation, answering my questions with soliloquies that redirected the question away from himself and towards global politics. He began his talk with the same anecdote that he used in his presentation “Made to be Broken” at The Moth in 2010, a nonprofit organization “dedicated to the art of storytelling,” according to their website. He appeared to be the ideal public speaker: compelling, invigorating, motivating, but ultimately, rehearsed.
His character aside, Lt. Choi’s message is an important one: that despite what the law says, everyone deserves a voice.
School by school, rally by rally, institution by institution, Lt. Choi the student, the activist, the soldier, the singer, the sinner, and the saint, has been rallying the cry that despite your sexuality you are somebody. He speaks not only for gay rights, but for those who feel discriminated against because of their identity, including those stigmatized for suffering from depression. You are somebody.
“You are somebody,” he had us chant at the conclusion of his talk.
“There’s always somebody outside here that says ‘I didn’t have the courage to come in because I didn’t want to be seen as supporting gay rights because I’m not gay’…so I want you to demonstrate something for me, if you truly believe in my message, that your ‘I am somebody’ could prevent suicide…say it as loud as you can so somebody else can hear it, so somebody else can have it reverberate in their soul,” he said.
Louder and louder we chanted, until there wasn’t an ear in the Lecture Center that didn’t hear our cry.
So that’s what Lt. Choi is doing. He’s singing louder and louder, making sure not an ear goes by that doesn’t hear his message via national news, personal campaigns, or presentations at universities like SUNY New Paltz. He’s fighting the greater jihad, and the man is well-armed.