Dan Choi

Fed up with waiting for Congress and the president to repeal Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell, Lieutenant Dan Choi marched in uniform to the White House and handcuffed himself to the fence. In July, he was discharged from the military for publicly acknowledging that he is gay.

I knew about Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell, but it wasn’t until Iraq that I pondered whether I should come out. I thought, You know, I could die at any moment here. One of my friends did die, and I was sitting at the memorial service, thinking, Here I am in this very dangerous area. When am I going to start living my life?

I fell in love January of ’08. For a closeted military person, it’s a very arduous journey to meet somebody. So then I thought my contribution for gay rights was going to be coming out to my parents, two people who are anti-gay, who voted against gay marriage. You have training and body armor when you go to Iraq, but how do you defend yourself against Bible verses from your reverend dad? I just told my dad, I said, “You know how much I’ve prayed about this? I’ve said, ‘Jesus, please make me straight.’” We haven’t been talking since.

Video: In an interview with Atlantic Deputy Editor Scott Stossel, Choi explains why he decided to come out and how he realized the insidious effects of the Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell policy.

I was so politically naive, but I was getting angry. And then it was like, “Well, what are you going to do to me now, ’cause Reverend Choi knows!” So after I came out to my folks, a group of us started a West Point group, Knights Out. I was chosen as a spokesperson. That was difficult, because Asian people are not very visible people, and they don’t break rules, and the same thing goes for Christian and military people. But I felt that this was the next step of what I needed to do. I was on The Rachel Maddow Show, and she was asking, Should the president repeal Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell? I said, Look, I just want to serve my country. The fact is, I was scared to death to jump into that. I don’t have a degree in politics.

But we knew that to be effective, we needed to demonstrate our willingness to sacrifice, relay the impact of DADT as not just a lobbying issue, but a disruption in lives that warrants willingness to conduct civil disobedience. We studied the works of Thomas Paine, tried to understand the passion of the American Revolution, and Martin Luther King Jr. We even studied the Tea Party movement.

The Human Rights Campaign, the biggest, richest gay lobby, kept saying, There is a plan from the president; the president has a plan. The HRC warning us not to criticize Obama was ridiculous. There was no plan. Left to their own devices, the politicians and lobbyists would never lead on issues like equal rights. Eighty percent of people want to get rid of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell, but HRC didn’t even include it at the top of their list of priorities they wanted to accomplish. The HRC rally in March of this year turned out to be really about Kathy Griffin’s show. I love her, but we felt we were getting exploited for her show. We thought we should be in front of Congress, or protesting at the White House. You need to have a proper target and not just be speaking to yourselves.

At the rally I told the crowd, “We are going to the White House.” I was with Captain Jim Pietrangelo, we were in uniform. I said, “I’m not going to stay silent anymore.” At the White House, we brought the handcuffs out. People gasped. But I didn’t want to say I didn’t try everything I could to make the president do what he promised. That was my personal obligation.

They kept us in jail overnight. Then we did it again in April, and got a stay-away order from the judge. Then we did it a third time, in May.

I can finally say I am not ashamed anymore. To hear the message that “God created you gay and there is a reason you are gay and you have a duty to others”—tears roll down your eyes. I joined the military to protect the Constitution. People say it is inappropriate for me to get arrested in uniform, but to me it is the validation of all that I signed up to do. I say what I had to go through is what tarnishes the uniform more than anything.

—As told to Maria Streshinsky, managing editor, The Atlantic