Dan Choi is People

The Village Voice published a feature on Dan Choi called “Bad Lieutenant.” Have you read it. I suggest perhaps doing so.

I’ll wait.

It has things like this in it (this follows a paragraph about grindr):

Choi is unapologetic. He says he resents it when anyone, especially those in the gay-rights movement, discourages him from exploring—well, sexually—his newly revealed homosexuality.

“I think our movement hits on so many nerves,” he says, “not just for reasons of anti-discrimination and all the platitudes of the civil rights movement. I believe that it’s also because it has elements of sexual liberation. And it shows people that through what we’re trying to do, they can be fully respectful of themselves, without accepting the shame society wants to throw upon them.”

Okay. Did you read it? Did it give you feelings? Were they conflicted and confused? Here were my top three feelings immediately after finishing it.

1. Why did they call it “bad lieutenant,” what are they trying to say

2. Why are they obsessed with Grindr, they seem more into it than Dan Choi is

3. I want to hug Dan Choi and possibly give him some Xanax. I don’t know.

The point of this article was, ostensibly, to show the “real” side of Dan Choi that isn’t just about chaining himself to the White House gate and marching in parades. I am not ultimately sure whether that goal was achieved. Not because The Village Voice wrote a shoddy profile, although I stand by my earlier point w/r/t Grindr, but because I think that’s becoming an increasingly difficult thing to do – separate Dan Choi from Dan Choi’s politics, from “the movement.” In other words, this piece actually placed a strong emphasis on the link between the ‘real’ Dan Choi and the Dan Choi who chains himself to the White House gate and marches in parades. I am not sure whether Choi himself can separate the two for sure anymore.

And that says something about us, I think, about the rest of us.

Like it or not, Choi has always been something of a canary in a coal mine for the gay community; when he was first out, optimistic and full of ideas, so were we. Having just launched this website and still optimistic about ambiguously scheduled counter-protests, we met Choi at one of his first post-discharge appearances, only a few days after he came out on The Rachel Maddow Show.

Obama was in the White House and for the first time in a long time, things felt possible. When he started getting angry, frustrated with the slow pace of progress, so did we – we felt like we had the puzzle pieces, a Democratic House and Senate and a president who was willing to say “gay, lesbian and bisexual” on national television, but they weren’t falling into place. We were unemployed and tired of reading about hate crimes in the newspaper and starting to feel very done with waiting. Now, if this article is any indication, Dan Choi’s frustration and anger has turned into an obsession with change, an obsession with the movement – and I think this is worth our attention, because it may well be our future too.

Choi does come across as human, and flawed, in this piece. He swears a lot, doesn’t speak with his parents, potentially charges too much for speaking appearances, and Jesus God yes he does use Grindr. He also comes across as wedded to his cause in a kind of worrying way. Maybe, it is intimated, this is why he’s gone so much farther recently – why his increasingly harsh criticism of the White House and things like his hunger strike a few months ago have been driving other activists away, with people like Jake Goodman of Queer Rising and Nonnie Ouch of the Texas Tech GSA saying that they’ve “lost respect” for him.

Regardless, there is a tangible sense of the pressure rising, of something coming to a head in “the movement” which is never defined but constantly referenced. I felt, honestly, a kind of fear reading it, but also sadness – both for Choi himself. I’m not sure which was worse, the extent to which his life has been given over to this struggle or the extent to which he doesn’t even seem to be fully aware of it. For instance, the fact that he’s homeless and living off the couches of activist friends seems to barely occasion a shrug.

Choi says he lives out of a couple of bags and, being used to “falling asleep wherever you have to” in the military, he doesn’t seem to mind the nomadic life. “I’m in a relationship with the movement,” he says. “And in any relationship, sometimes you have to sleep on the couch. And sometimes, even with the movement, the couch is literally a couch.”

I lost count of the number of times “the movement” was mentioned. It’s a flawed comparison in a lot of ways, but what I thought of most was the feminist movement of the 60s and 70s – that will always be what “the movement” evokes for me, that and the civil rights movement. I thought a lot about both of those things reading this. About how much people in those movements had to give up before they saw any kind of change. How people gave their whole lives over to this, like nuns entering a convent of justice and rage. I thought of the height of both those movements, the point at which they reached a kind of fever pitch where people decided that anything was better than the way things were, and were willing to give up anything for change. And how much change we’re still waiting on, even after those sacrifices.

I don’t know anything, really. It’s hard to discern anything really about Choi, let alone the gay rights movement in America, from a six-page article.

But I am increasingly getting the sense that Choi has reached that point where he’s willing to give up a lot, maybe everything, for change.

And that the rest of us might not be far behind: Obama’s ratings in the gay community are at the lowest they’ve ever been, and many are saying they’d rather not vote than vote Democrat. I’m wondering how far we are as a group from that fever pitch of anger and refusal to wait any longer that brings things to a boil – that point that is the most painful but also the most powerful in terms of changing the world.

I’m not saying Choi’s brand of activism is “the right one,” but I will say that it doesn’t seem to be coming out of nowhere. I think there’s an increasing sense that asking nicely just isn’t working, and that no one seems to be giving us what we want so it’s time we demand what we need. There’s a reason Choi is the poster boy of “the movement,” and a reason the Village Voice wanted to talk to him – he loved America wholeheartedly enough to offer his life for her defense, and as the Voice wisely observes, “when Choi first came out, he could ‘never have imagined criticizing the commander in chief.’ Now he does it routinely.”

“Don’t do ANYTHING, Obama!” he railed. “Just keep on doing what you’re doing, which is JACK SHIT. Don’t appeal the decision. Don’t add one more thing to your plate—your heavy-ass plate.”

If you’ve been following Dan Choi’s career as an activist like we have, your takeaway from this piece is probably something like “What happened to him? How did he get so angry that he’s yelling at people in parking lots? What made him so obsessed that this is all he can think about?” At least, that would be your first takeaway. After that would come more difficult questions.

Like, “What would it take to make me that angry? What would make me yell about Jesus in a parking lot or chain myself to government property?” Because really, what would it take? Six kids killing themselves in the space of a few weeks? A dozen kids? The government fighting in court to keep DADT alive while tweeting that they oppose it? Prop 8 winning in the Supreme Court? More highly publicized bashings and murders of gay and trans people? Or worse, completely unpublicized bashings and murders of gay and trans people?

I’m just saying, it might be worth thinking about. Dan Choi certainly is.

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Rachel is Autostraddle's Senior Editor and the editor who presides over books and news & politics coverage. Originally from Boston, MA, Rachel now lives in the Midwest. Topics dear to her heart include bisexuality, The X-Files and tacos. Her favorite Ciara video is probably "Ride," but if you're only going to watch one, she recommends "Like A Boy."

Rachel has written 744 articles for us.

28 Comments

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    The chasm between the right and the left in this country is so wide that I no longer believe there is any way that it can be bridged. What does that mean? Will progressives move to Canada? Will there be another civil war? I wonder how much we’ll take before we break and I’m not just talking about GLBT rights. I’m talking about all of our systems that are failing – the economy, health care, education, etc. What happens next?

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    before i broke up with my girlfriend, i told her that i thought that the politics in this country were reaching a breaking point. this of course was laughed at, but i felt so right at that point i didn’t care, and now? i don’t know whats going to happen but i think it will be a bang. i’m actually scared of dan choi. i felt bad for him and then i realized that he’s basically living and acting on my emotions.

    thank you rachel for making me think in such an eloquent, smart manner. i have a crush on you and your brain, i thought you should know that.

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    You’re right. His anger isn’t sudden. It isn’t unjustified. That doesn’t make it right or wrong. But it’s real. That has to account for something.

    I have all sorts of feelings about this.

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    I didn’t get angry until I had something to lose. I didn’t get angry until I was curled up under four quilts with the love of my life planning the future and trying to figure out how we were gonna get through school. And we were thinking, once I’m graduated and employed I’ll put her through. I’d had a little to drink, so I was happy and idealistic. “We’ll just get married!” I said, “And you can live off of my benefits!”

    And she looks at me and is like “We can’t do that. We’re gay, baby.”

    And that’s when I got angry. That’s when I stopped debating my right to exist and my right to love. And that’s when I started fighting.

    I love this man so much because he got angry and it started something. I wish I’d been angry a lot sooner.

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    I can’t help but thinking about what we would have ended up with if obama HADN’T won, though. think about it you guys. Trust i’m frustrated as hell with all of this, but i still feel like he’s the best hope we’ve got (well besides HILLARY of course!)

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      i agree. frustration cannot lead to just giving up.

      “and many are saying they’d rather not vote than vote Democrat.”

      I really hope that won’t be true on election day. surely people can see that not voting for dems in the midterms, even the dems we’re disappointed in, is essentially voting FOR conservatives who are aggressively against gay rights. i hope there will be progress soon, but we need to keep the majority if that has a chance in hell of happening.

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        Exactly. If you are not going to vote at all you might as well just say you are voting Republican/Tea Party because that’s what you are doing. Who do you think is going to be in office if the Dems loose? And if you think Obama is slow, it will be a cold day in hell before the conservatives do anything positive in regards to DADT, gay marriage, etc. Shit, they will probably make things worse for us. If you are one of those people going on and on about how awful Obama and the Dems are and don’t vote because of it then keep your mouth shut when the Republicans start screwing us over again because you are part of the problem.

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          I should preface this by mentioning that I’m not from the US, I’m from a multi-party proportionate representation nation that is significantly more liberal on this issue than the bulk of the US.

          SO obviously I think not voting is a pretty serious/scary/big step to take. BUT

          “Who do you think is going to be in office if the Dems loose? And if you think Obama is slow, it will be a cold day in hell before the conservatives do anything positive in regards to DADT, gay marriage, etc.”

          So it seems like this is definitely true. On the other hand, it also seems like Democrats aren’t moving on the issue at all, it seems like there are a LOT of Democrats who agree with the Republicans on gay issues or at least say they do for expediency, and it seems like the political football nature of LGBTI issues is such that our votes (& financial contributions and activism) are significant & relied upon but movement on the issue is slow, slow, slow. I’ve participated in party activism here and, at least on the left (specially the centre left), the vast VAST bulk of men in the movement were gay. One year we had a membership of 50, I would say about 30 of those were men, and *one* of them was a straight guy. (Most of the women were straight, to be fair.) My super circuitous point here is that although there aren’t that many queer people relative to the general population, relative to people interested in activism we’re huge and hardworking and committed. For a lot of very good reasons. And that kind of volunteering is what wins elections, IMO. But if that hard work and committment isn’t acknowledged or responded to by the party, by the legislature – how long should queer people continue giving of their time and energy before saying, hang on, we need a similar committment? How long before we demonstrate that by saying, four years of a Republican gvt is worth it to us so we can see our partners in hospital?

          Again, I probably shouldn’t stick my nose in because this is all pretty academic to me. But, you know, the gvt isn’t going to stay Democrat forever. *shrug/hands* At the end of the day, I do think people who are not adequately represented politically usually need to plump for something realistically close to what they can get. But what effect does decades of doing that have on a country’s political climate?

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    This is an excerpt from MLK Jr’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail”. I think it fits with Lt Choi’s actions quite nicely.

    “You may well ask: “Why direct action? Why sit ins, marches and so forth? Isn’t negotiation a better path?” You are quite right in calling for negotiation. Indeed, this is the very purpose of direct action. Nonviolent direct action seeks to create such a crisis and foster such a tension that a community which has constantly refused to negotiate is forced to confront the issue. It seeks so to dramatize the issue that it can no longer be ignored. My citing the creation of tension as part of the work of the nonviolent resister may sound rather shocking. But I must confess that I am not afraid of the word “tension.” I have earnestly opposed violent tension, but there is a type of constructive, nonviolent tension which is necessary for growth. Just as Socrates felt that it was necessary to create a tension in the mind so that individuals could rise from the bondage of myths and half truths to the unfettered realm of creative analysis and objective appraisal, so must we see the need for nonviolent gadflies to create the kind of tension in society that will help men rise from the dark depths of prejudice and racism to the majestic heights of understanding and brotherhood. The purpose of our direct action program is to create a situation so crisis packed that it will inevitably open the door to negotiation. I therefore concur with you in your call for negotiation. Too long has our beloved Southland been bogged down in a tragic effort to live in monologue rather than dialogue.”

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    “I think there’s an increasing sense that asking nicely just isn’t working, and that no one seems to be giving us what we want so it’s time we demand what we need.” Preach it, sister! When Jake Goodman said, “hunger strike has to be about life and death. It shouldn’t be done lightly as something just to raise the stakes.” I asked myself… what makes you think this isn’t about life and death?

    My brain is overloaded right now so I’m going to go brew some tea and brood.

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    The Village Voice has an interest in constructing as dramatic a story as they can from this. That’s fine, go ahead.

    What was most disturbing was that, as I read the article, I began to hear a Church Lady voice with a perfect West Village gay boy accent saying,”Why oh why are those gays so angry? We only ask that they would simply negate and deny the most fundamental part of themselves forever or, alternatively, disappear!”

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    i still respect dan because he’s standing up for what he believes in — i have no idea if his methods are flawed or not, but he’s doing something because what else can he do? this is his life. i’d rather have him chain himself to the white house than sit at home (or someone else’s couch) and feel sorry for himself.

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    After that would come more difficult questions.

    Like, “What would it take to make me that angry? What would make me yell about Jesus in a parking lot or chain myself to government property?” Because really, what would it take? Six kids killing themselves in the space of a few weeks? A dozen kids? The government fighting in court to keep DADT alive while tweeting that they oppose it? Prop 8 winning in the Supreme Court? More highly publicized bashings and murders of gay and trans people? Or worse, completely unpublicized bashings and murders of gay and trans people?

    That’s a pretty incredible paragraph. Thanks/ouch. This is a really really good piece, I’ll be thinking about it for awhile.

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    “many are saying they’d rather not vote than vote Democrat.”

    NO NO NO I WANT TO CRY VOTE YOU ARE AN AMERICAN CITIZEN WITH THE POWER OF REPRESENTATION, SO MANY PEOPLE DO NOT HAVE THIS

    p.s. fantastic article, you are so great

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    I admire what Dan has done — he’s put a bright spotlight on DADT in a way that no one has been able to do before.

    That said, I’m a little upset that this presumably feminist-leaning blog didn’t call him out on his sexist/unacceptable comments included in this interview. No one is perfect, but this is pretty bad:

    “‘Harry Reid is a pussy,’ Choi angrily said after the failed vote in the Senate last month, vowing to speak out about the Democratic leader, ‘and he’ll be bleeding once a month.’”

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    Don’t not vote. Vote. At least then, you could try to have an impact on legislation. I’m just worried that enough people who supported Obama and the Democrats are angry and let down so much that they won’t bother voting, and that will just mean the Republicans and Tea Party folks will have a greater chance of taking over congress and the senate, and then any hope of pushing change for equality and diversity will be quashed. You know, things are better now than when Bush left office, with the health care bill, student loans, the economy is recovering (slowly but surely, enough that it is higher than it was when Obama came into office), it all just takes time, patience and perseverance. The woman’s suffrage and civil rights movements didn’t happen overnight either, let alone in two years.

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