Midway between the White House and the Capitol on Pennsylvania Avenue in Washington, D.C., the Newseum Residences is one of those glass-and-steel high-rises that feels more like a hotel than an apartment building. The floor in the lobby always looks as if it’s just been polished, the frosted glass wiped down. The building’s ten inhabited floors are near identical. Each has a long, windowless hallway with 13 or 14 doors, their numbers etched on brushed-steel plates. In the elevators, a printed sheet in a display announces the day’s schedule of events—breakfast in the lounge at seven, yoga on the roof deck in the evening. Most of the time, though, it seems no one lives there.
On the 12th floor, Dan Choi’s apartment is the one with the lantern at the foot of the door—“for weary travelers,” he likes to say. A studio with a galley kitchen, it costs him $1,700 a month. He sleeps on the two L-shaped couches that fill the living area. An electric keyboard, two bongo drums, and a microphone stand take up a corner. Tibetan prayer flags hang from a wall. Just out of view is the District Court for the District of Columbia, where he had his latest breakdown.
Inside the entrance, on a stretch of wall about six feet wide, Dan has sketched, in black marker and colored pastels, a tableau of his life. Along the bottom, a figure plays the trumpet. This is Dan back in high school in Tustin, California, where he was the star of the Model United Nations team and senior class president. To the right is a soldier in uniform silhouetted against an American flag, which symbolizes Dan’s years in the Army. In the left-hand corner, three Islamic arches frame a marketplace, evoking Dan’s 15-month deployment in Iraq at the height of the surge. Across the top, he has depicted his proudest moment: when he and 12 others chained themselves to the fence outside the White House in November 2010 to protest “don’t ask, don’t tell,” the law that barred gays and lesbians from serving openly in the military.
On a Wednesday in August, Dan is setting up for Hungry Hungry Hippos night. On the white coffee table, he’s laid out a platter with sliced boiled eggs dusted with paprika; mini carrots and tomatoes; Sour Patch Kids; and a dozen pot cupcakes that have collapsed into themselves. “I can make brownies, but the cupcakes I can’t get right,” he says. He’s got backup: a six-foot glass bong. The table’s centerpiece is Hungry Hungry Hippos, a children’s game in which players operate four plastic mechanical hippos and try to gobble up as many marbles on the board as possible.
Don't ask, don't tell: The policy of the United States military between 1994 and 2011 forbidding openly gay, lesbian, or bisexual soldiers from serving in the Armed Forces.
By the time an artist friend walks through the door, Dan is stoned, a fact he broadcasts loudly. “I’m high!” he tells her before bursting into high-pitched laughter. Dan offers her a hit, bringing a flame to the bowl. She takes one, exhaling with a grimace.
“What is that?” she says.
“Isn’t it great?” Dan asks. “I used whiskey instead of water for the filter.”
“It’s harsh, man,” she says.
Within an hour, the other two guests show up: a young lawyer and Dan’s drug dealer. They nibble on the snacks while watching a video of comedian Margaret Cho. “I think she’s sick of me for calling too much,” Dan says. He met Cho at Occupy Atlanta in 2012. The video ends, and the group begins the night’s first and only round of Hungry Hungry Hippos. Someone says “go” and the players pump their levers, making the hippos extend and open their mouths into the center as the marbles rattle. Before the game can finish, Dan removes his hippo from the board and places it on his head. “I’m taking my ball and going home!” he says. Everyone chuckles.
With the plastic animal balanced on his head, Dan grabs the microphone from the corner and holds it close. He pulls back his shoulders and raises his chin, his square jaw protruding over the mic, gaze locked in as if he’s standing at attention. Thirty-two years old, he’s not as built as he was during his Army days, but he’s still fit—muscular shoulders and a broad chest that tapers into a narrow waist. In the lambent glow of the blank television screen, he’s striking. His hair is shaved on the sides military--style, his expression grim. It’s easy to see why, four years ago, Dan Choi may have been the most famous gay person in America. But then the spell breaks. “Welcome to the Delilah show!” Dan exclaims as the plastic hippo falls to the ground, and he breaks out into a parody of Billy Joel’s “Piano Man.”
For 21 months—between his debut on The Rachel Maddow Show in March 2009 and the passage of the National Defense Authorization Act in December 2010—Dan Choi was not just the best-known spokesperson for the movement to repeal “don’t ask, don’t tell.” He was its emblem. A West Point graduate, a combat veteran, a fluent Arabic speaker, he was the kind of soldier the military should have been promoting instead of kicking out. In interviews and at press conferences, he was articulate and passionate, charming and funny.
“The issue needed a voice and a face to get the attention of the media, the military, and Washington,” says Nathaniel Frank, a historian at New York University and author of Unfriendly Fire, the pre-eminent account of gays serving under “don’t ask, don’t tell.” “Dan Choi had a good understanding of political theater, a passionate attachment to his role as an activist, and a strong sense of righteous anger that he was unwilling to let go of.”
By the time “don’t ask, don’t tell” was abolished, Dan had been interviewed scores of times, appearing in all the major newspapers and news networks (save Fox); spoken at dozens of gay-rights rallies from Wichita to Moscow; lectured at universities from Texas A&M to Harvard; and been named a “brave thinker” by The Atlantic.
Courtesy of The Atlantic/Ben Baker
Now, Dan wakes up most days with nothing to do. After the sun rouses him from his spot on the couch, where he sleeps under his “affirmation quilt”—fan letters are printed on each square—he takes two capsules of Hydroxycut, a diet pill loaded with caffeine, and Wellbutrin, an antidepressant used to treat bipolar disorder. Sometimes he goes for a long bike ride or works out at the gym in his building. He attends fundraisers and art openings, occasionally in uniform. Now and then, he drives to Fire Island, a gay vacation destination off Long Island. He earns a living by giving speeches at $10,000 a pop, which the Gotham Artists agency arranges for him. He smokes pot—a lot of it, he admits. “I can’t tell the difference,” he says, “between being high and not.”
Dan says he has no friends, which isn’t quite true. From time to time, someone from his past will show up—an Army buddy, a high-school pal. He’s gotten acquainted with the other gay guys in the building and invites them over for grilling parties. He knows a bunch of activists in D.C., though they are better at changing history than keeping in touch. He still talks to his younger sister, Grace, and to his cousin Sandra. But he no longer speaks to his dad or mom, Southern Baptists who don’t approve of his sexual identity. After his breakdown in March, he had a falling out with his older brother Isaac, who accused Dan of embarrassing the family. He has drifted from most of his fellow cadets at West Point and keeps his distance from Knights Out, a group of openly gay and lesbian West Pointers.
Each time I see Dan, he seems to have rearranged the furniture in his living room or adopted a new lifestyle trend. One day, he had gotten rid of his garbage can to be more cognizant of the waste he produces, which required him to walk to the trash chute each time he ordered takeout or had groceries delivered. Another day, he had downloaded a meditation app from iTunes and wanted me to listen to it with him. He likes to watch TED talks (“Your Body Language Shapes Who You Are” and “How to Start a Movement” are among his favorites).
In late August, I was on my way to interview Dan at his apartment when he messaged me that a big protest was shaping up at the White House. President Barack Obama had just announced that he would ask Congress for authorization to use force in Syria. I raced to meet him at the north entrance, but all I found were tourists snapping photos and Dan circling around on his bike. He hung out for a while, texting a friend to ask for an update. She didn’t respond. After 20 minutes of scouring his contacts for people who might have more information, he looked up from his phone and gave me a sideways grin. He was being a good sport, but he looked crestfallen. I sensed—or maybe I just imagined it—he was asking himself the same question I had been: Who is Dan Choi without “don’t ask, don’t tell”?
Dan’s parents emigrated from South Korea in the 1970s. His father was a Southern Baptist minister, his mother a nurse. They settled in the Orange County city of Tustin, 34 miles south of Los Angeles. He and his two siblings were latchkey kids. Although Dan’s father had his own church, Gospel First Korean Baptist, he often traveled overseas to preach. His mother worked the night shift at Garden Grove Hospital. “He was that kid who was always talking,” says his cousin Sandra, who baby-sat for the family. “Daniel was so intent on telling stories.” He wore her out; she’d sit him down in front of the TV to get a break.
Dan and his siblings attended church every Sunday and were expected to get A’s at school. A popular student with a gift for public speaking, Dan graduated at the top of his high-school class. He led the marching band as a drum major and played the trumpet in the church ensemble. But he also had a rebellious streak, a flair for the outrageous gesture. During the Monica Lewinsky scandal, he took to the school’s PA system and declared that the country was in a moral crisis, quoting the Gospel of Matthew and encouraging his classmates to turn to Christ. The stunt got him suspended for a day.
Dan had been determined to join the military since watching Saving Private Ryan early his senior year. He admired soldiers’ willingness to give up their autonomy and life for a greater cause. But the images of strong, fit men had their own allure. Dan had suspected he was gay since fourth grade, when he’d fantasized about Judge Harry Stone on Night Court. He knew his parents, for whom “gay” connoted AIDS and men in high heels, would be horrified. He never told anyone or acted on his attractions. When Dan secured a recommendation from his congressman to attend West Point, he didn’t think of what life would be like as a gay soldier; all he could imagine was himself in uniform, just like Tom Hanks. One could say he went there to hide, but in his mind, he went to become a man.
Dan loved the rigor of West Point life, in which every moment was scheduled and everyone placed in a hierarchy. He had a knack for Arabic, which he double-majored in on top of environmental engineering. Peers recall Dan being energetic, funny, and kindhearted. As an upperclassman, he’d cover for “plebes”—first-year students—delivering laundry when someone had cross-country practice or fell ill. If the rigid structure of the military kept him on track, singing in the Protestant Chapel Choir provided a creative outlet. One of his proudest moments was performing a solo of “Amazing Grace” at Sing Sing prison.
Dan tried not to think about his sexuality; whenever someone got kicked out for being gay, he didn’t want to hear the details. “I just pushed it out of my mind,” he says. While he didn’t try to act straight, being gay was not something people saw. His race was. He remembers an officer telling a group of cadets at rifle training that the target was “a chinky-eyed, flat-faced gook in North Korea on the DMZ.”
For service members like Dan who were not ready to face their sexuality, “don’t ask, don’t tell” provided the relief of a deadline extended. While the “don’t ask” portion was not enforced (no one was ever ejected for inquiring about someone’s sexuality), it did make the subject taboo. Which meant fewer questions.
Most gays and lesbians in the armed forces feared being found out, and hiding a key part of themselves was a constant stressor. In many ways, the Clinton administration’s compromise—allowing them to serve only if they made no statements indicating they were homosexual or engaging in homosexual sex—made matters worse. Before “don’t ask, don’t tell,” military policy forbade gays and lesbians from serving—you were asked when you signed up. With the law in effect, enlistees were no longer asked, but it became mandatory to fire gay and lesbian soldiers. “Don’t ask, don’t tell” didn’t just affect gays and lesbians, though. It was also used to harass women. Men would accuse those who rebuffed their sexual advances of being lesbians, which would lead to a suspension while an investigation ensued. There were types of dismissals referred to as “hugging cases,” in which a service member—whatever his or her orientation—would be accused of being gay because he or she had given a hug to someone of the same sex or had a photo with his or her arm around someone of the same sex.
It’s impossible to know how many suicides, nervous breakdowns, or even outbursts “don’t ask, don’t tell” was responsible for—the policy itself precluded the answer from being known. But it was a lot. According to the Palm Center, a think tank formed to study sexual minorities in the military, at any given time 65,000 service members were hiding their identity in the 15 years the policy held sway. Then there were those who were expelled: 14,346 members of the armed forces. In the end, the law was clear. You lied or you left.
“‘Don’t ask, don’t tell’ injured troops performing every imaginable job, regardless of their rank, occupational specialty, or service branch,” says Aaron Belkin, a professor of political science at San Francisco State University and founding director of the Palm Center. “It was a policy with high costs and no benefits.”
As Dan ascended the stage at West Point to collect his diploma in May 2003, his parents beamed with Isaac, Grace, Sandra, and his grandmother beside them. “I had become an officer,” Dan says, “something my dad had once dreamed of.” After graduation, Dan was assigned a tour of duty in Iraq. Based at Fort Drum, New York, before his deployment, he was sure of one thing: He didn’t want to die a virgin. “Fuck it,” he thought. “Might as well.”
Months before Dan shipped off to war in 2006, he was involved in an incident that would hang over him for the rest of his time in the Army. According to Dan, he was working at his desk at Fort Drum when an officer came up to him and said, “Do you know your fucking monitor is pink? That’s pretty gay.” The two exchanged words. It was only after the officer dared him, Dan says, that he threw a punch. An investigation immediately ensued.
Assaulting another officer prevented him from advancing to captain, but it didn’t keep him from serving in Iraq. Stationed in south Baghdad, Dan oversaw building projects as a member of the Commander’s Emergency Response Team. The assignment was dangerous, the combat harrowing. He saw members of his unit wounded beyond recognition, and others burned to death. After an extended tour of duty—15 months all told—Dan returned to the States with occasional ringing in his ear and what would later be diagnosed as post-traumatic stress disorder.
Back at Fort Drum, still under threat of being kicked out for the altercation, Dan began to take liberties. He grew his hair too long. He skipped work. He told William Cannon, a chemical officer who was his closest friend there, that he was going to leave the service as soon as he fulfilled his eight-year obligation. On weekends, he drove his jeep to New York City to visit the bathhouses, which is where he met Matthew Kinsey, an executive at Gucci 20 years his senior.
Dan was careful at first, telling his friends on the base he was dating an older woman named Martha. But as his feelings for Matthew grew, Dan stopped caring about the consequences. By Valentine’s Day 2008, the pair had been dating for two months, and Dan was in love. “I wanted to be his geisha,” he says. He told a couple of his Army buddies the truth. To spend more time with Matthew, Dan transferred from full-time active duty to the Army National Guard in June. As a citizen-soldier based in Manhattan, all he had to dedicate to his platoon was one weekend a month. He wanted to move into his boyfriend’s New York City apartment, but Matthew wasn’t out to his parents. With no place else to go, Dan went to live with his parents in California.
Being surrounded by his awards from high school reminded Dan of how much he’d changed over the past eight years. He’d left a closeted plebe and returned a lieutenant who had faced combat and fallen in love. He came out to Grace on Skype and to Isaac on Facebook. He told Sandra. He joined a gay men’s chorus and took courses in Persian at the local community college. He also changed his Facebook profile to say he was “interested in men” and joined the underground social group Service Academy Gay & Lesbian Alumni Association. Left were his parents. “Will you still love me?” he asked his mother, breaking the news. “I love you,” she responded, “but you need to marry a Korean girl.” His father said Dan needed to go to church and pray.
Around this time, Dan received an invitation to join an organization composed of gay and lesbian West Pointers so new it didn’t have a name. A 1980 graduate named L. Paul Morris had co-founded the group. His model was The Blue Alliance, an organization of LGBT Air Force Academy graduates. After he and Daniel Manning, a 2004 graduate who had been discharged under “don’t ask, don’t tell,” settled on Knights Out as the group’s name and established nonprofit status, they scheduled the first meeting for March 16, 2009 in Washington, D.C. It would coincide with the annual benefit dinner of the Servicemembers Legal Defense Network (SLDN), formed shortly after President Clinton signed “don’t ask, don’t tell” into law.
The day before the dinner, Dan and a handful of West Pointers met in a large conference room at the Hotel Palomar to select leaders. Becky Kanis, class of 1991, would serve as chair. Dan offered to be the group’s spokesperson. Morris was initially hesitant—he was uneasy because Dan should have been a captain by now. Morris, though, was desperate and accepted. At the SLDN dinner, Dan confirmed Morris’s worries. He got drunk, jumping on the furniture in the hotel lobby. “Unfortunately,” Morris says, “we were stuck with Dan Choi at this point.”
Dan was on his way to California two days later when The Rachel Maddow Show called. Wanting to get back for choir rehearsal, Dan proposed Kanis in his place. But the producers wanted Dan, the only one of the group’s leaders who was actively serving. He agreed to appear via satellite from Orange County. That evening, Kanis, Dan, and Sue Fulton, a Knights Out board member who worked in brand management, spent an hour on the phone settling on talking points. The message they came up with drew from Dan’s biography. At West Point, he and other cadets lived by the honor code: “A cadet will not lie, cheat, steal, or tolerate those who do.” By forcing him to lie about his sexual orientation, “don’t ask, don’t tell” dishonored the military values he swore to uphold. Knights Out had come to fulfill the law, not to abolish it.
Through his earpiece, Dan could hear Maddow start the segment. He didn’t know how many people watched the show—Fulton didn’t find it necessary to tell him—but his fellow Knights Out members would be. No doubt some of the soldiers in his National Guard unit would also catch the program. He tried to keep his hands still as Maddow introduced him: “Joining us now is Dan Choi. He’s a founding member of the Knights Out organization, a graduate of West Point, and he is an Iraq combat veteran.”
“Wonderful to be here. I love your show, Rachel,” Dan said. In his newly pressed gray suit, he looked boyish and wholesome. “By saying three words to you today, ‘I am gay’—those three words are a violation of title 10 of the U.S. code.” The talking points came back to him. “It’s an immoral code, and it goes against every single thing that we were taught at West Point with our honor code,” he said, picking up steam. “The honor code says that a cadet will not lie, cheat, steal—”
Suddenly, the sound cut out, leaving Dan miming his words. Maddow announced a commercial break while the producers tried to restore the audio, but they were unable to. She promised to have Dan on the next day. When Dan called Fulton from outside the studio, he was crushed. She, on the other hand, was ecstatic. “You don’t understand,” she said. “We get two hits—two nights!”
The next evening, Dan was more self-assured, joking with Maddow: “I think we all understand your agenda was just to make this appearance tonight the second time in my life that I actually wore some makeup.” In two minutes, he covered everything he had practiced with Fulton and Kanis, breaking into Arabic as photos of him in Iraq glided across the screen. At the beginning of the segment, Maddow had asked if he realized that he was putting everything on the line by appearing on her show. “Is there a possibility … you could be at risk of getting kicked out of the service because you are doing this?”
The major gay-rights organizations, which had done little to publicize the formation of Knights Out, were eager to work with Dan after his television appearance. When the Army instituted discharge proceedings against him, Dan turned to the Servicemembers Legal Defense Network. During the Clinton and Bush years, the group had served primarily as a support organization, but with President Obama now in the White House, it had begun to take a more visible role in the repeal effort. In addition to providing Dan with legal counsel, the group prepped him with talking points and helped secure bookings. Dan was thankful. With only one communications person, Knights Out didn’t have sufficient staff.
The relationship with SLDN didn’t last long. Dan refused to wear the group’s lapel pin on the air. He also had an ideological disagreement. The defense network advised some gay and lesbian soldiers to remain in the closet. Dan had concluded that coming out was a moral obligation. Three months after Maddow, he told SLDN that Sue Fulton would be handling his press.
For a while, it seemed anytime the repeal effort made the news, Dan was asked to come on TV. He appeared on ABC News, NBC Nightly News, CBS, and Al-Jazeera. Anderson Cooper 360 filmed a special, following Dan around his parents’ house. Being driven from one interview to another, waiting in greenrooms before doing a “hit”—TV lingo for a stint on the air—was heady. So was receiving letters from closeted members of the military and getting stopped on the street by strangers and being thanked for his courage and serving as grand marshal of the San Francisco Pride Parade. Dan quit the gay men’s chorus and withdrew from his community-college courses. With tension building at home—his father had a heart attack in the spring, which his mother blamed on Dan—he moved out of his parents’ house and started couch surfing in Los Angeles, Boston, New York, and Washington, D.C.
Most of Knights Out’s leadership was supportive of Dan’s increasing notoriety, but not all. “This is becoming the Dan Choi show,” L. Paul Morris told the group on a conference call. “Dan had always been a diva,” says William Cannon, his friend from Fort Drum, “but was less obvious about it until the activism.” Dan signed with Gotham Artists to book speaking gigs for him. He once demanded that MSNBC send in a barber to give him a haircut before an appearance, which the network did, and would ask drivers sent by the studio to help him run errands. He broke up with Matthew, saying he had to dedicate himself entirely to the movement. In an e-mail, he told a friend that he was “exhausted emotionally, spiritually and even physically. Any resources you could recommend would be most helpful.”
Dan’s behavior began to worry his family and friends. On one occasion when he received an e-mail death threat, he called the person up and screamed, “I’ll kill you first! I’ll give you AIDS first!” Dan started telling people that, like Martin Luther King Jr. or Malcolm X, he would have to die for his cause. Drinking emboldened him, and the drinking was getting worse. “The Salvation Army hates gays!” he yelled at a volunteer in Harvard Square after a night of throwing back Jäger shots.
“He was so used to being interviewed that he had no identity anymore,” says Sarah Haag-Fisk, a classmate at West Point and a member of Knights Out. When she and Dan spent time together, “it almost seemed like he was giving me lines,” she says. “This was not the Dan I had known. He was becoming untethered. It was very difficult to tell him that he should slow down a little bit.” For Dan, this was the equivalent of saying gays and lesbians should wait for their rights.
Laura Cannon, who was a year ahead of him at West Point, reconnected with Dan after the Maddow show. At first, she thought his involvement in the repeal effort was “a healthy amount of participation.” But the toll of being a public figure—of always being on—soon became apparent. “I saw it completely deplete him,” she says. In August 2009, five months after the Maddow interview, Dan went on Facebook and changed his profession. He was no longer a soldier. He was an activist.
But many of the qualities that worried Dan’s old friends—his tendency toward melodrama, his equating himself with the movement—also made him brilliant at attracting attention to the cause. After the Army finally discharged him for violating “don’t ask, don’t tell,” he burned his notice during a talk at Harvard. At Netroots Nation, a yearly gathering of progressives, he arranged for organizers to give his West Point ring to Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid. Dan pledged to hold Reid accountable in an open letter: “My promise is not merely written on a piece of paper or words alone, but in the hearts of every lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender American fired from their jobs.”
It was exactly those qualities, though, that inspired a new set of friends: radical activists who believed that the only way to persuade the country to repeal “don’t ask, don’t tell” was with sit-ins, hunger strikes, and other direct action. They, along with Dan, took aim at the big gay-rights organizations, most of all the Human Rights Campaign (HRC), the largest and the best funded. The bulk of HRC’s work occurred behind the scenes, where leaders met with the president, White House officials, and lawmakers. In the spring of 2010, with Congress seriously considering repeal for the first time—the Senate was scheduled to hold hearings, and the National Defense Authorization Act was coming up for renewal—Dan accused the HRC of being too cautious and deferential. “Within the gay community, so many leaders want acceptance from polite society,” Dan told Newsweek. “Gandhi did not need three-course dinners and a cocktail party to get his message out.”
On March 18, the HRC brought comedian Kathy Griffin, star of the reality television series My Life on the D-List, to speak with legislators about “don’t ask, don’t tell” on Capitol Hill and headline a rally on Freedom Plaza. Dan asked HRC president Joe Solmonese if he could speak, but was told it was Griffin’s rally. To the surprise of organizers, she welcomed Dan to the podium.
For the second time, Dan had dressed in his uniform at a political event, which is prohibited by military code. “Our fight isn’t actually just here at Freedom Plaza,” he told the crowd. “Our fight is at the White House. Will you join me?” He called out Griffin and Solmonese, asking if they would march with him. Dan and a dozen participants strode up Pennsylvania Avenue chanting, “Hey hey, ho ho, ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’ has got to go.” Griffin and Solmonese stayed behind to talk with reporters. At the White House, Dan and James Pietrangelo, an Army captain who had been kicked out under “don’t ask, don’t tell,” handcuffed themselves to the northern gate. They spent the night in jail.
The protest, which Dan would reprise twice in the coming months, laid bare the fault lines in the gay-rights movement. The major gay blogs—AmericaBlog, Pam’s House Blend, Queerty, Towleroad, Joe. My. God.—cheered him on. So did the grassroots activists, who blasted the HRC. The organization posted a note on its blog saying that Solmonese “felt it was important to stay and engage those at the rally in ways they can continue building the pressure needed for repeal” but that “this [did] nothing to diminish the actions taken by Lt. Choi and others.” Knights Out said that while it shared in the spirit of the protest, it did not condone Dan’s actions.
In response, Dan quit Knights Out, further shrinking his circle to diehard activists. “We were part of the gay civil-rights movement,” says Pietrangelo. “He did what the freedom marchers did: Gave a face to the suffering and showed how society was harming gay people.” The West Pointers thought he had lost his sense of proportion. “He was surrounded by those he considered friends—folks in the movement, people who can’t self-evaluate,” Haag-Fisk says.
The House of Representatives passed the Murphy Amendment to the National Defense Authorization Act on May 27. The amendment provided for a repeal of “don’t ask, don’t tell” after the Pentagon conducted a study and certified that lifting the ban on gays and lesbians would not harm the military. The deadline for the study was December 1. This wasn’t good enough for Dan. Calling for Congress to repeal the policy immediately, he and Pietrangelo went on a hunger strike. After seven days, the pair gave in to supporters expressing concern for their health. Dan released a statement pledging to resume the strike “using the proper safeguards to ensure [his] health” but never did.
Over the summer and fall, Dan took on a relentless round of public appearances, but he was increasingly depressed. Some days, he was convinced that repeal would never pass. Others, he was convinced he would have to die for it to happen. By November, couch surfing had landed him at the Boston apartment of Laura Cannon, his old friend from West Point. She was shocked by how burned out he was.
The Senate took up the National Defense Authorization Act, with a repeal of “don’t ask, don’t tell” attached, on December 9. Dan was in Cannon’s apartment, watching on TV. Harry Reid called for cloture, which would allow the bill to come to a vote, but it failed to overcome a Republican filibuster. Dan felt all his work had been for nothing. He got drunk and stoned while Cannon and her husband slept. When she saw him in the morning, Dan was still on the couch in front of the TV, speaking in fragments, muttering to himself, screaming obscenities, bursting into sobs. Now and then, he was mute, retreating to his bedroom with a bottle of scotch. He agreed to let her drive him to a VA hospital.
From there, Dan released a statement: “My breakdown was a result of a cumulative array of stressors but there is no doubt that the composite betrayals felt on Thursday, by elected leaders and gay organizations as well as many who have exploited my name for their marketing purposes have added to the result.”
Eight days later, on December 18, the Senate repealed “don’t ask, don’t tell” and sent the bill to President Obama.
United States v. Dan Choi. He liked the sound of it.
At a little past 1 P.M. on November 15, one month before the repeal, Dan and 12 activists handcuffed themselves to the White House fence. They were charged with violating a minor U.S. Park Police regulation, “failure to obey a lawful order.” Civil-disobedience infractions are almost always tried in municipal court and typically dismissed, but the U.S. attorney general’s office pursued the allegation at the federal level. The 13 were offered a plea. If they admitted guilt, they’d face no consequences after four months without an arrest. Conviction, on the other hand, carried a maximum penalty of six months in jail and a $5,000 fine. Everyone but Dan took the deal.
For two and a half years, the trial became his cause. He moved to the Newseum Residences because the building was around the corner from the courthouse.
Dan’s self-narrative is under constant revision, which is a way of saying I’m never sure whether to believe him, if the version of events he’s presented is the final. When we first met, he told me he pursued the case because if the First Amendment doesn’t apply at the foot of the White House, it doesn’t apply anywhere. Another time, he told me that he wanted to lose so the proceedings could make it into case law; once a suit is appealed, it is woven into the legal record, becoming part of the constellation of rulings that guides lawyers and judges. Dan wanted to be among the stars.
The hundreds of pages of briefs and transcripts from the court proceedings contain the law’s usual mix of minutiae and grandiloquence. There is the question of whether Dan was standing on the sidewalk or on the base of the White House fence. Much discussion was devoted to the cost of the handcuffs, how many there were, who bought them, what happened after Park Police took them away, and who had the keys. Lawyers quibbled over Dan’s title—“mister,” since he was no longer in the military, or “lieutenant”? (The prosecutor was asked to address him by his rank.) In almost three hours of testimony on the second day of the trial, on August 30, 2011, Dan recounted his life story and declared that although he and the 12 others might have blocked the view of the White House, they had replaced it “with a better view—a view of freedom because this is what equality looks like.”
He invoked the ghosts of civil disobedience: “Even if you have a quiver in your voice, you should speak up as loud as you can if you really believe that your cause is a righteous one. And so, I told everybody with the full righteousness of the winds behind your back of civil rights and human progress and Jesus and Gandhi and Alice Paul, and all of those people who fought for their dignity, you should yell as loud as possible.”
Dan’s supporters sat enraptured. “It was as if, by speaking those magnificent, majestic truths,” says Pietrangelo, one of the 12 arrested, “he was vanquishing all the discrimination, bigotry, and pain that gay people had been suffering.” On Twitter, 20,000 followers spurred him on. The trial didn’t catch the attention of the mainstream media, but it was covered in the blogosphere. Firedoglake compiled an archive of documents, and Towleroad provided reports up to the minute.
Over the next 15 months, with motions being filed, Dan posted on his site and sent out his newsletter, Frontlines. He gave talks to make ends meet. But he was also skipping appointments with his psychiatrist and drinking heavily. He talked about taking a break, getting away. He told friends that a black van parked across from his building belonged to the Secret Service.
A month before the trial resumed, Dan fired his lawyers. He’d been reading about the law for more than a year—to understand what was going on—and decided he knew enough to hold his own. “There’s no greater empowering moment than to stand before the judge and let them hear your own voice,” he told the Washington Blade.
Dan made sure the turnout for the final phase, in March 2013, was big. He flew in his brother, sister, and cousin Sandra. Leaders from major gay-rights organizations were there. So was his old Army friend William Cannon. He didn’t get to talk to Dan much. They shared a cigarette before marching with a group of about 50 people to the courthouse. Dan kept drifting away, mumbling incoherently. “My friend Dan that I knew in Iraq and New York was gone,” Cannon says. “He had this cause he was so dedicated to.”
Dan called four witnesses to testify, then showed a video of his Rachel Maddow interview. While it played, he wept. “The defense rests!” he announced, putting his head down on the table and throwing up his arm. The judge called for a recess; Dan lay on the floor and shouted obscenities. In the afternoon, the prosecution delivered a brief closing argument. Dan gave a 40-minute speech. Raving and disjointed, it was a broken mirror of the life story he had told six months earlier. When the judge found him guilty and fined him $100, Dan cried out, “I refuse to pay it. Send me to jail!” Instead, friends took him to the emergency room of Washington, D.C.’s VA Medical Center, where he was admitted to the psychiatric ward.
The trial laid Dan bare. His passion. His penchant for inflamed rhetoric. His ability to attract followers. His solipsism. His vulnerability. On a few occasions, Dan has told me the trial was a plea for help. “I didn’t know what to do with myself after ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’ was repealed,” he says. Other times, he finds his nerve. “I just want them to apologize to me in open court—that’s all.”
When he’s being introspective, he wonders aloud about what’s next. Maybe he’ll become a teacher, he says. Or he could study vocal music. He took the LSAT a while back, so he could go to law school. Sometimes he says he wants to quit activism, but then he’ll accept an invitation to speak at another rally.
A few things I am certain of. Washington can make people, even those who fight for human rights, lose their humanity. It gets covered up with talking points, strategy, branding. At the height of Dan’s celebrity, few in the repeal movement pulled him aside and said, “All this doesn’t matter more than you do. Let’s go home.” Maybe that’s because he’d cut himself loose from the people who cared enough to tell him he was losing himself—people like Grace, Isaac, Sandra, William Cannon, Sarah Haag-Fisk, and Laura Cannon.
None of this is to say Dan would have listened. He had fallen in love with his own martyrdom. He had conflated activism with celebrity.
Dan’s story runs in my head like an episode of E! True Hollywood Story. He starts out naïve and precocious. He rises. He succumbs to the pressure—all those interviews, rallies, fan letters, expectations. But instead of playing out on Bravo or in the pages of Us Weekly, it played out on MSNBC and in The Advocate. What I have to keep reminding myself is that by speaking when no one else would, Dan Choi did a good and courageous thing, and in part because of it, gays and lesbians can now serve openly in the military.
Once controversial, Metropolitan Opera broadcasts for movie-theater audiences have become a gateway for new (and returning) fans.
Criminalized and discarded, falling at the bottom of every statistic, they want something better.