LT. Dan Choi Takes "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" Directly to Obama
Last week, in an act of daring befitting a West Point graduate and veteran of Iraq, recently discharged New York National Guard Lieutenant Daniel Choi defied the orders of dozens of crowd control police and stepped into the 'no protest zone' street to ceremoniously salute his Commander in Chief, Barack Obama, out of site at a star-studded fundraiser at the posh Beverly Hilton Hotel.
While the Lieutenant's respectful salute was extemporaneous, the effort that generated the Lieutenant's appearance at last night's pro-gay rights/pro-equality rally outside the Beverly Hilton Hotel, was anything but impromptu. It was a meticulous plan spearheaded by Rick Jacobs, one of the progressive movement's most effective organizers. Jacobs, Founder and Chair of the Courage Campaign, which boasts a membership of 700,000, is a co-founder of Brave New Films and a director of Liberty Hill Foundation. When I asked Jacobs what the tie-in was with Daniel Choi playing such a prominent role at last night's event, he offered the following:
The Courage campaign seeks to make California more progressive and more governable. The state cannot possibly be progressive if we can use the Constitution to take rights away from people. So nearly two weeks ago we saw Daniel Choi on Rachel Maddow, when he "came out." He's an Orange County California native… So we got in touch with him and said, 'Hey we'd like to run a campaign to help support you, to prevent the president from kicking you and others out of the military. So we put up a letter on line. It's very simple. It says:Dear Mr. President,
The time has come to end discrimination in our armed forces. We the undersigned ask you to stop the discharge of Dan Choi and any other soldier as a result of Don't Ask Don't Tell policy. We ask that you uphold your pledge and push Congress to quickly put a bill on your desk to repeal Don't Ask Don't Tell.Sincerely, the undersigned 140,860 people. And you can see this at Courage Campaign if you scroll down to "Don't Fire Dan." A friend of ours is going to present this letter to the President inside tonight and we also are here. We're hoping the President will send a representative outside to see what we have to say. We have four big boxes - that's a lot of people - 140,000 people in a week. So the tie-in is very simple, this is all about equal rights. It's all about equality. We can win our equal rights in California but they mean nothing if we don't get them federally, so when we look at a young man like Daniel Choi who is willing to sacrifice his life for the country and gets thrown out of the military for saying I love a man, there's a problem. We elected President Obama based on a spirit of hope, bringing the country together and we expect him to do that.
Later at the rally, Jacobs proudly holds up the letter being delivered to Obama:
President Obama has been adamant about ending Don't Ask Don't Tell, but the longer he languishes, more seasoned, talented specialists like Arabic speaker Choi will be sacrificed by this discriminatory policy. It was this calculus that led Rick Jacobs and Equal Roots Coalition co-founder Matt Palazzolo, a co-organizer of last night's rally, to believe it would be helpful to have Lieutenant Choi close enough to the President to confront the issue directly, albeit not face to face. Thus, last night's rally, in addition to pursuing the right to gay marriage in California, was also to demand an end to Don't Ask Don't Tell.
Outside the hotel on Wilshire Boulevard across from the Beverly Hilton, Lieutenant Dan Choi was surrounded by several hundred gay rights/equal rights supporters who hung on his every word.
(Video by Linda Milazzo)
His message was one of power and resolve:
We can't wait for somebody else to give us rights. We have to stand up. If we want our rights. We gotta fight for them… Let me tell you a little bit about Don't Ask Don't Tell. It is a deadly poison. It is the most toxic. That's military talk. Civilians try to call it the closet but it's toxic poison. Do not force that toxic poison. Do not inject that toxic poison in them anymore. Let them out of the closet! (wild applause)It's not about my career. It's not about my pay grade. It's not about money. It's not about elections. It's about telling them [gay service members], you are not alone. So I gave a message to President Obama. Repeal Don't Ask Don't Tell. Stop forcing them to lie. Stop forcing our soldiers to lie. Stop forcing our soldiers to hide. Stop forcing our soldiers to be injected with the closet. And let them be free to serve! (more applause)
While Lieutenant Choi was still addressing the crowd, guests from the Obama event began exiting to their waiting cars from the front of the building. Notice the contrast in crowds, though there is little doubt that amongst the glitterati who attended last night's affair, particularly those in entertainment, many support the identical equality and civil rights the rally attendees were blaring in their ears. Indeed, one attendee charges across Wilshire Boulevard through traffic to join up with the rally:
(Video by Linda Milazzo)
Among the crowd on the rally side of the street, was actor and human rights activist, Hal Sparks, who made a lasting impact on the gay community as the character, Michael, in the five year Showtime series, Queer As Folk, a serialized fictional dramatization of the lives of a group of gay men.
Hal has been an activist for gay rights and the fight against AIDS since the early days of AIDS Project Los Angeles - one of the pioneering organizations to assist AIDS victims soon after the epidemic first hit Los Angeles. Hal spoke openly with me last night about his many passions, including why Lieutenant Dan's appearance at the rally was so critical in the struggle for human rights:
I'm here because I believe it's a civil rights issue. We cannot argue that this country is the freest country in the world and then limit the freedoms of people we don't agree with and are not like us or make us uncomfortable. That seems absurd to me so I think that's one of the reasons when Proposition 8 passed I think that people in California actually thought I can't believe anyone would actually argue this here. But it [Proposition 8] did pass and I think there's some work that needs to be done and you can't argue with that fact. The other reason, of course, is the fact that I was on Queer As Folk and it gives me a bit of a voice. I can actually add some attention to it and if I can do that then that's terrific. In a lot of ways it's similar to my involvement with Marijuana Policy Project. You know, the legalization movement. I don't do drugs of any sort. Never have and I'm not gay. But I believe in liberty and freedom and I believe that if we're going to live up to the challenge and the promise of this country we have to respect the rights of everyone.
Regarding Dan Choi, Hal goes on to say:
First of all, how many great soldiers, translators, officers have we lost simply because people are uncomfortable with the idea of gay. How un-macho does that seem that I don't want gays around me 'cause it's icky. Here's the ironic part. One of the reasons that they used to make being gay in the service and in the DOD [Department of Defense] and the government illegal was because it was so shunned in the public circles that you could be blackmailed easily. The cure to that is not to make it more illegal or more shunned. The cure is open it up. Nobody can blackmail a state official for being gay if nobody cares. That seems to be the logical thing. We'd take their weapon away. But we've been too afraid to do that up until now. Obviously the repeal of Don't Ask Don't Tell is a necessary moment and I do believe Obama's moving toward that. He formed an actual commission to do it and he's actively moving in that direction and I just think that it takes time and I respect the fact that it takes time so I'm here because we have to be.
One contrast worth noting on Wednesday night was the obvious separation between those who rallied earlier in the day against the wars and occupations in Iraq and Afghanistan, and those who rallied later in the day on the issues of gay rights and equality. The organizers of the gay rights and equality rally scheduled their event for 6PM, so as not to conflate issues with the peace activists and keep each group's messages separate and distinct.
The rationale for clarity of message is understandable. Certainly all groups want their message understood. And sadly, both groups, the peace movement and the pro-gay marriage/anti-Prop 8 movement, have at times fallen short in their messaging.
As for the failure to stop Prop 8 in 2008, Matt Palazzolo of Equal Roots Coalition, frames it this way:
I think what propelled Prop 8 to be supported and pass were two things. The first was a series of some lies and then just some heavily shrouded information from the YES on "8" side. And you know every side of a campaign has propaganda but they got [YES on Prop 8 side] really dirty and played tricks. And the other part is the blame on the NO on "8" campaign that they did a very poor job in the community… with people of color and the center of the state and because of that we failed to move enough of these people.
Why Proposition 8 passed in 2008 in California will be the subject of much discussion and strategizing as the 2010 and 2012 elections approach - just as the question of why the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have not yet ended will similarly be hotly discussed. Still there is strength in numbers.
One can be certain that amongst the thousands who marched Tuesday night through California and across the nation in opposition to the Supreme Court ruling to uphold Proposition 8, that there were many who've been active in the anti-war movement. After all, the suppression of the weak by the strong, sorrow and injustice are hallmarks of LGBT inequality, and of war. Perhaps as the LGBT struggle for humanity and civil rights moves forward, and the common struggle for humanity and civil rights to end war also moves forward, a greater harmony will develop between these two groups - with clarified goals and a universal message that unity wields more power than division.