Is There a “Right Way” to be a Gay Activist? On Dan Choi, Obama’s Alliance & Civil Disobedience

Yesterday Lt. Dan Choi and five other veterans, including his previous co-civil disobeyer Lt. Jim Pietrangelo and blogger and Transgender Chair of DOD Fed Globe’s Board of Directors Autumn Sandeen, chained themselves to the White House fence and were subsequently arrested. Their actions were in connection with the group of protesters from GetEqual who heckled President Obama during his speech at a fundraiser for Senator Barbara Boxer, criticizing him for a lack of action towards repealing “Don’t Ask Don’t Tell.”

There are so many issues at stake here! Are Obama and his administration allies of the queer community? What’s the best way to pressure them to effect change? And what changes should we be working for – what are our priorities? What if we have different priorities? What if we have different ideas about how to make them realities? What if everyone has a lot of really strong feelings? Luckily, Autostraddle has never been one to shy away from feelings just because they were numerous or complicated. Let the processing begin!


Dan Choi & Gay Activists Scream So Loud

The White House Called the Police On Them

To a certain extent, this is an escalation of the debate that began when Choi and Pietrangelo first chained themselves to government property almost exactly a month ago. At that point, it was a radical act of civil disobedience that contrasted wildly with the relatively more sedate HRC rally that was happening simultaneously. Depending on how you looked at it, it was an unapologetic demonstration of the difference between rhetoric and action or a childish upstaging of a legitimate political organization. This week’s incidents have pushed many to pick a side in that debate, to take a position on the “right” way to effect change. Was heckling the President a step too far? Or a step that was inevitable if we’re ever actually going to make serious gains towards equality?

getequal protest

Obama’s reaction to the GetEqual protesters in the crowd – which was necessarily unstudied and unprepared – was to call himself an ally, and ask “why you have to holler, because we already hear you.” The Obama administration has been criticized for evasive and suspiciously vague language surrounding the DADT repeal, but this seems pretty unequivocal. It’s no small thing to have a president who announces himself as an ally; it’s no small thing to be heard. He was frustrated, and understandably so – the protest had an unmistakable Joe Wilson feel, and he’s got to be wondering who’s next in line to shout at him like he’s a subpar minor league hockey player while he’s trying to run the country. Because even if no one actually yelled “You lie!”, isn’t that more or less what was being said? Obama really has committed himself to ending DADT and extended himself to our community more than any other president in American history. At this point, isn’t calling his stance into question tantamount to calling him a liar?


Are all Obama’s promises out the window once we’re gone?

At the same time, though, Obama’s not the only one who’s frustrated. And the frustration of watching powerful people who don’t care about you as a person quibble over your rights as a citizen might trump the irritation of demanding constituents. Immediately after the GetEqual protest (and apparently while chained to a fence? I know, we’re impressed too) Choi tweeted: “Why holler?” WHY? Your SILENCE and refusal to repeal DADT… is outrageous moral [dereliction.] Now, we are lesbians on the internet, and we know a thing or two about decoding an enraged tweet. Choi’s incredulity is clear: how could anyone not get why this is a big deal? How could anyone be asking “What’s all the fuss about?”


Dan Choi: Living His Activist Life as an Army of One


Choi doesn’t have a background in organizing, in agitating, in negotiation or campaigns for visibility. Choi was trained by the US military to use the tools at hand to get a job done as quickly and efficiently as possible.

I think, when we consider what kinds of political action are “appropriate,” it’s important to consider the actual real people involved. In this case, remember that Choi is not an activist in the traditional sense. Choi doesn’t have a background in organizing, in agitating, in negotiation or campaigns for visibility. Choi was trained by the US military to use the tools at hand to get a job done as quickly and efficiently as possible. And maybe more importantly than that, Choi is a victim of a grossly unfair policy that deprived him of a job he loves and a chance to help a country he’s devoted to. He and the five other veterans who chained themselves to the White House fence are hurt and angry at a government that denies their full humanity when all they wanted to do was serve it to the best of their ability. Of course he’s going to feel like he needs to “holler” at someone. Nothing else he or anyone else has done has worked, and I suspect he’s beginning to feel like he’s at the end of his rope.

Lt. Dan Choi probably isn’t trying to bring all of gay America into a new era of equality and peace by firing off angry tweets while getting arrested in our nation’s capital; he’s trying to get someone to pay attention so he can finally be treated like an actual f*cking military serviceman. It’s true that he was un-discharged a few months ago, but hundreds of others haven’t been, and it’s hard to be satisfied with what feels at best like placation and at worst an attempt to shut him up. Choi wants more than to be handed his job back with an “Oops, sorry bro, our bad”; he wants to be apologized to, he wants the indignities he’s suffered to be addressed. Really, is that an unreasonable thing to ask?


We Said Silence to Everyone; Dan Choi Said, “I’m Still Talking”

When I think about DADT as an actual issue, it only affects me in the most theoretical of ways – to me, it means another modicum of dignity and respect granted to me and people like me, it means one small step for gaykind towards somewhere over the rainbow. To Dan Choi and other servicemen and women discharged under DADT, it means their livelihood, it means their community, it means validation of what they do.

Comparisons to the Tea Partiers or to Joe Wilson are understandable, but perhaps ultimately unfair — their attention-grabbing campaigns aren’t based around concrete issues so much as a general resentment of the administration and of Obama personally, as well as a healthy dose of tacit racism. It’s worth asking ourselves what the difference is between just yelling at Obama and yelling about a very specific issue that’s emblematic of systematic discrimination — one that’s deeply personal for the hundreds of queers discharged every year.  Even if I personally would rather Lt. Choi had comported himself differently, I’d feel like kind of a dick lecturing him about it under the circumstances.


Are We Fifty Years Ago?

I really, truly don’t want to be one of those people who presents the LGBT movement for equality as “the new civil rights movement,” but I’m going to talk about this for one second because I think the lessons we can learn from the heroes of that movement are virtually infinite.

Most of the people we now understand to be the best and brightest stars of American history were vilified as violent criminals.

It’s much easier for us now to use that word, heroes, and to talk excitedly about the Black Panthers and for Shepard Fairey to make a wall mural of Angela Davis that’s bigger than my house. But at the time, most of the people we now understand to be the best and brightest stars of American history were vilified as violent criminals whose risky agitation was a liability to the movement, and even people within the movement were sometimes in great conflict on the right way to go about things. The followers of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. were diametrically opposed on the issue of nonviolent resistance to the Black Panthers, who despised James Baldwin, who disapproved of the Nation of Islam, whose one-time spokesman Malcolm X was talked about in the press as basically no better than a violent felon at large. But you know, even with wildly different ideas about the basic concepts of social change, those people managed to accomplish an incredible amount.


Everyone We Love, We Need You Now

I’d argue that without any one of them, we’d see a radically different (and worse) America than we have today. Cohesive movements are a beautiful thing, but they’re not always realistic. I don’t think any of us can prove the “right” way to go about making our future, because there is no one right way. There’s only the way you know, the way that calls to you.

There’s no need to panic that if we’re not all on board with the same plan, the big gay Ship of Change is going to sink. There’s never been a social movement where everyone was with the same program in the history of human society. That’s okay. Maybe it’s even good.

This means we can all relax a little and focus on our own personal acts of saving the world – whether it’s organizing a Day of Silence, spray-painting a rainbow onto your local homophobe’s car, giving money to the HRC, chaining yourself outside your ex’s house until she gives you your plaid shirt back – you know, whatever you feel is necessary to make the world safer for the gays. And we can trust that others are doing their work too, that we’re lurching forward one day at a time, that the future is bright.


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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." You can follow her on twitter and instagram.

Rachel has written 1142 articles for us.


  1. 1. Great article. I’m impressed by your ability to turn abstract thought into structured sentences (which I thoroughly suck at).

    2. I think civil rights movements need to be loud, obnoxious and hard hitting, but I also think it’s important to remember that we’re a part of a bigger picture. There is a reason why we have people representing us in a (democratic) government, why we’re not all voting on everything. Politics is a puzzle, it’s a game, it’s compromising and balancing. Hasty actions can make you crash and burn. Why is it so hard? Because a large portion of the population and (it’s representatives) disagrees.

    3. That’s where the change needs to happen. In a democracy, the government isn’t ruling it’s people, it’s representing it, given its power by it. To make real change, lasting change, we need to change the mentality of every individual. Make them see us, know us, appreciate us, respect us, and the laws will come. I think that’s the most important fight.

  2. I really, really love reading this guy’s viewpoints on this very subject:

    Here’s a good excerpt from his post today:

    “In an attempt to quell the outburst during his speech, Obama said, “When you’ve got an ally like Barbara Boxer and you’ve got an ally like me who are standing for the same thing, then you don’t know exactly why you have to holler because we already hear you. It would make more sense to holler at the people who oppose it.”

    I thought he said HE was going to work to repeal DADT in his State of the Union address. That last statement sounds to me like this is our problem to solve and we should wait patiently with checkbooks open to support him and his party while they get around to a repeal. Too many people are willing to be patient no matter how many times the promises are repeated and never realized.

    Patience doesn’t work. It never has. Read a fucking book about the suffragist movement. Women would never have been granted the vote if they just sat back and waited for their paternalistic leaders to decide when it should happen. In fact, suffrage almost didn’t happen even though it was raised in Congress dozens of times over the course of decades…multiple decades.

    Patience didn’t help women obtain the right to vote. Impatience did.

    Patrick Connors is an uppity fag that thinks it’s time to get arrested. Again.”

    • From Pam’s House Blend:
      Obama will not be fulfilling his promise to repeal DADT this year.

      I totally agree with you. African Americans did not gain full equality because they sat around waiting for politicians to take charge. It wasn’t until more than 100 years after the Civil War did they even gain full equality (not just legally but in the implementation and enforcement of the law). It was only after fears of a march on Washington that Truman did anything on the issue of civil rights (appointed a committee to study it).

      Yet, like I said yesterday: one must understand that, like Truman and civil rights, Obama wishes gay rights would just go away because they are controversial and divisive due to political extremes and ideologies. When a president is faced with a controversial issue usually he appoints a committee to study it (like Truman did with Civil Rights). Therefore, the president remains moderate and appears as if he has taken significant actions. Most controversial issues have been decided by the Supreme Court NOT congress (ie: Roe v. Wade, Love v. Virginia, Brown v. Board of Education, etc). However, I hope it will not be left up to SCOTUS because the court has a 5 to 4 conservative majority.

      Also OBAMA can take action by issuing an Executive Order to stop the implementation of DADT until congress fixes it. source:

      ALSO you DO NOT have to have a background in organizing. I don’t think Jeanette Rankin and Martin Luther King had backgrounds in organizing before they fought for their rights.

      If we don’t put some pressure on Obama and our representatives nothing will happen. Do you really want to leave it up to others to get the ball rolling?

    • Great link I like!

      Is there a right way? honestly probably not. So right again Autostraddle…either that or you’ve managed with the aid of sublimanal messaging to convince me everything ye say is at least 99.98% logical/typing error/wordpress did it. :-)
      Personally i like this person’s method… fight hate with humour/men in giant hotdogs.

    • Thanks for the excerpt! Especially in light of the announcement that DADT won’t be repealed in 2010, I feel you w/r/t impatience.

      The mention of the suffrage movement reminded me of something, though, and I think it might be an interesting story to consider in light of what’s happened over the last few days. Most of what we hear about in terms of the fight for the vote is about Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony and badass take-no-prisoners protesters, which is completely appropriate because they were total rock stars. But it turns out that a really key part of getting the vote for women was actually the municipal housekeeping movement, which was based on the idea that women totally belonged in the home and their primary goal should be caring for children and family, but that voting was a way to accomplish that better – that mothers should be able to vote to make the world better for their kids, not because of any newfangled feminist notions. This was a really effective campaign that did a lot to get us the votet, because it won a lot of hearts and minds of people that were appalled by the idea of gender equality.

      I guess my point is that this author is right, and impatience and demanding your rights is 110% necessary to see change, but it might be a little idealistic to rely on that as your only strategy and ignore those working inside the system. Working with The Man is less sexy than getting arrested, but that doesn’t mean it’s never worthwhile.

      • BTW Rachel your article is amazing. :) I agree with your sentiments. I think that my point earlier was mostly my frustration haha.

        I was reading Howard Zinn earlier and was reminded of what he said:
        “…And that history is very important for people to not get discouraged. Because if you look at history you see the way the labor movement was able to achieve things when it stuck to its guns, when it organized, when it resisted. Black people were able to change their condition when they fought back and when they organized. Same thing with the movement against the war in Vietnam, and the women’s movement. History is instructive. And what it suggests to people is that even if they do little things, if they walk on the picket line, if they join a vigil, if they write a letter to their local newspaper. Anything they do, however small, becomes part of a much, much larger sort of flow of energy. And when enough people do enough things, however small they are, then change takes place.”

  3. Well written article, fair play. For what it’s worth I am of the opinion that in order to get things done activists need to be a little militant and aggressive of course…but at the same time there is definitely a line. The thing is, we need the general voting public on our side and being constantly obnoxious and in people’s faces wont achieve that. Ive done a bit of protesting here in Ireland as we literally have no rights whatsoever so it’s entirely necessary for us to do so. We have had massive protests through the city and various rallies and I think that’s essential as otherwise no one would even know that we have no rights.

    This march-> was hugely important to actually get the cause into people’s minds but it was entirely peaceful and no on chained themselves to anything and I think that’s the way to go to get people on side, we showed that we can be organised and that we have numbers behind us but we also showed we needed to get no one arrested to get our point across. Being too militant and aggressive will get none of us anywhere because it alienates the people who actually vote if ever there was a referendum on the matter. Anyway, im rambling, as you were!

    • Yes, they are appreciated. There are more nods to T&S outside the subtitles as well. Gotta love it.

  4. ahhh! so my comment didn’t post until like 10 minutes after i posted it. therefore, i thought my internet fucked up and now i have 2 comments posted. i wish there was a delete option on these.

  5. Yay for the hockey comment! :)

    It’s hard figuring out the right way to go about getting you message across to people. I understand the frustration of those fighting to repeal DADT and that it’s something (like many other things) that needs to be taken care of as soon as possible.

    You need to be annoying enough so people stop and look or listen to you. You don’t want to be so annoying that people stop disliking you and move on to disliking everyone you are representing and disliking the cause. But, being really persistent can make those in charge finally give up and say “fine, here, it’s repealed, will you shut up now?” which would be cool!

  6. I just love the headings in this post so much I want to bake a cake filled with rainbows and smiles and we’d all eat it and be happy.

    • “You don’t even go here!”
      But in this case you do, because we ALL have alot of feelings.

  7. “We Said Silence to Everyone; Dan Choi Said, “I’m Still Talking”

    WELL who else will? It is AGAINST THE LAW for Gay soldiers or their families and loved ones to speak about their loss of CIVIL RIGHTS… under our constitution!

    I for one have SHUT MY GAYTM, until DADT is repealed, but my own policy is to follow the DALLAS Principles and go for FULL CIVIL RIGHTS.

  8. Also LT DAN CHOI, just tweeted. He has been release from jail (again.)
    and has been ‘ordered’ to stay away from the Whitehouse.
    He will be going into training again next weekend.

    If you support him and an active cause, please join GET EQUAL.

    Here is their mission statement:
    “I join with others who are ready to take bold action to demand equality for LGBTQ people. I will not accept excuses, delays, compromises, or empty promises, and I will hold accountable any person or organization who stands in the way. I will push back, rise up, and speak out against all forms of discrimination that plague our community.”

    Otherwise get out of the way, and we straights who are fighting your fight will continue to do so.

  9. Thanks for this really comprehensive discussion on Get Equal, Civil Disobedience and the actions of this last week. My favorite activist is Alice Paul who learned the principles of CD from Emmeline Pankhurst, who was also Gandhi’s inspiration.
    It is the obligation of the people who can, to demonstrate the truth and aggravate the person who could change things. I think we are doing a great job and I am really proud to be a part of it.

    • “It is the obligation of the people who can to demonstrate the truth and aggravate the person who could change things.”

      well said!

  10. I really, really like the balanced approach here. The truth is that there isn’t a right answer. Excellent point, Rachel, that no civil rights movement in history has been unified and “on the same page.” Good luck getting a room of 10 activists to agree on anything, let alone a nation- or worldwide movement.

    In my opinion, I think we need both types of activists. We need all types of people to fight in whatever way they think is best. And really, that’s the most honest way to do it. We aren’t all the same person, why should we fight all the same? There’s definitely something to be said for strategizing and fully utilizing our collective power. But I don’t think anyone should be telling other people how to fight their battles. As long as we’re all trying to move forward, that’s what counts in my book.

  11. The “Right Way” is the way that finally gets us our full and equal rights under the law in all 50 states (and the world). I am quite a bit older than most here, I think, and I have watched my whole life as politician after politician has promised and reneged on those promises to “help” us gain our rights. I am so pleased to see that the fighting spirit in the LGBT community has once again been ignited. Now is not the time for in-fighting about the best way to do this, now is just the time to DO IT. Whatever form it takes (other than violent)is the “right way”. So do whatever you can..agitate, petition, call representatives in government, register to vote and then vote! donate if you can, time and/or money, be visible and let friends, neighbors and co-workers know that equality is important to you and not just to a group of protesters on the evening news. I hope to see these changes in my lifetime..don’t you?

  12. I really like your take on this issue, Rachel. I’d only argue that I see this administration a bit differently from past ones. I think President Obama should be trusted to get the job done his way, which looks like it will be a painstakingly slow process through Congress. I’ll give him the benefit of the doubt until I’m given a reason not to. That said, I do understand the frustration with politicians’ inaction and false promises in the past. I do have a question though: What if McCain, God forbid, was in the White House instead? Do you believe that, given the same circumstances, Lt. Choi would be out protesting in the same manner? I’m not so sure he would be. I personally think he sees an opportunity (incorrectly so in my humble opinion) with a President that, intellectually, is with us but can’t make the final leap that would repeal DADT with the stroke of a pen. Instead, he has to go through all this political theater to enact change.

    • i have a lot of feelings on this issue in general (obviously) and on activism. i agree with you that Obama is someone we can trust in general; i’m always afraid that i’m being naive in this, but he really is one of the best political allies we’ve ever had and probably our best bet for getting shit done. at the same time, though, i don’t think that having a president who’s generally with us means that activism, even extreme activism, isn’t called for. history teaches us that politicians and institutions aren’t capable of making radical change on their own, no matter how sympathetic they are to oppressed groups in general; it takes actual radicals to push them into it. this doesn’t mean they’re bad leaders or bad people, it’s just how social change works. basically, i believe Obama will end DADT and probably do other things for us before he leaves office, but that at least part of the credit for that goes to activists like Choi, and like the approximately ten million other activists of every ilk. i guess basically i think everyone is right? maybe this is really about my issues with confrontation! jk!

      • I agree and don’t want to be splitting hairs here but I guess I just don’t see pressure being put on local communities (or emphasis of it) as with other movements. It seems like the fight for equal rights for LGBTs is being waged more on a national level, with the notable exceptions of state referendums/propositions on marriage equality of course. Maybe that’s more feasible/likely for success? Maybe I just don’t know what I’m talking about – from a mainly mainstream media type perspective no less. But it does seem like opposition to gays has gotten traction as more of a door-to-door operation, you know? So yeah…I agree that all activism has it’s role and purpose but I’d like to see more support of efforts on a local level.

  13. I would say that yelling at people is ineffective, but as for handcuffing yourself to a fence in an act of civil disobedience, well, I’m on the fence about that. I think protests should reflect the issue they’re protesting whenever possible. But it’s not like we can refuse to move to the back of the bus, or do sit-ins at lunch counters…

    It would be a great act of civil disobedience if queer soldiers came out of the closet in greater numbers, but it’s not going to happen on the scale that we need it to.

    • Being discriminated against because of who you love/sleep with makes it a bit more difficult to stage relevant acts of civil disobedience. You have a point there.

  14. OMG! I love this! Rachel, this is no doubt the best article I’ve read on DADT and the points you made in “Are We Fifty Years Ago” are nothing shy of absolutely poignant!

    I must say that I wholeheartedly agree with some of the comments before me. There is no clear divide on the proper way to approach any civil rights movement. Conversely, I will say that as things such as race and women’s rights and the like have evolved and become regular and mainstream conversations, the LGBTQ Movement must deal with some very crucial and difficult dialogs that were not at the forefront of other movements.

    DADT gets tricky for multiple reasons and why I am eager to have it repealed, I must say that I’m disappointed that no one has handcuffed themselves to the White House to stop the ongoing rape and sexual assault of the female-identitifed soldiers that fight beside them. And repealing DADT won’t stop that.

    Man, I really liked this article! Yay!

    • “I must say that I’m disappointed that no one has handcuffed themselves to the White House to stop the ongoing rape and sexual assault of the female-identitifed soldiers that fight beside them. And repealing DADT won’t stop that.”

      YES. this. thank you, yantezia!

  15. Good article, but I have a different take.

    Gay activists aren’t like Joe Wilson because Joe Wilson is a Congressman. He has power and he’s representative of the people. The problem with him yelling “You Lie” was the context in which he did it.

    Gay activists aren’t like the Tea Party folks because of privilege. The Tea Party skews older, above the median income, male and predominantly white. IOW they are the patriarchy and our oppressors. And they’re mainly griping about their loss of supremacy and control over the government to…us, the queers, the feminists and the people of color.

    There’s no right way to be a gay activists ’cause they’re no right way to be gay. Besides we work in concert. The gays get restless, rant and agitate. And the President goes to the HRC and the large organizations to try and figure out what he can do to appease us. Rinse and repeat.

    The Gay Rights Movement is an extension of the Women’s Rights Movement and feminism. Whether gay men want to admit it or not, the root of homophobia is sexism and misogyny.

    • I think you make an incredibly good point, that the same actions have wildly different meanings depending on whether they come from someone in a position of power&privilege or not. And I agree with you that the things the Tea Partiers (are we supposed to call them that or teabaggers? i don’t even know) are upset about are so ridiculous that they’re incomparable to an actual real issue like DADT.

    • I think the HRC is taking advantage of some effects of US illegal wars to further the cause; this doesn’t imply support of said wars.
      Regarding support for the military as such – if I thought there was any chance of actually dismantling the armed forces, even in a far less militarized country like Finland (and yes I’ve actually heard people suggest this), you bet I would be doing that right now instead of procrastinating on this stupid Nietzsche-essay. In the absence of such a possibility we have make due with lesser evils, like ending the national service here or repealing DADT in the US.

  16. rachel, this is a really great article. i was trying to figure out how i feel about the whole thing and i think you did a great job of “turn abstract thought into structured sentences (which I thoroughly suck at)” like paper said. did i just cite a commenter? guess who’s been writing too many research papers.

  17. Rachel,

    this is a very well written article, with excellent structure and flow of thought. And there may not be a right way to be a gay activist, but there is a wrong way to be a military activist. He does have real obligations as an officer, and chief among them is obeying the law. An all-volunteer military entails the sacrifice of some rights, and every servicemember knows this when they join.
    For example, the right to civil disobedience is directly contrary to his oath of commissioning, which binds him to obeying the orders of the President. When he publicly disobeys, he may be painting a picture to other soldiers that the laws of the military service are subject to one’s willingness to follow them. This seems to me a dangerous path to tread.

    I know Dan personally, and I wish him well…but I wonder if he might be doing more harm for his cause than good? I see the articles calling him “Hanoi Choi.” That seems like a childish sort of insult, but is there some truth to it?

  18. i don’t feel educated enough in anything ever to make good points here, but i just want to tell you this is a really good article, rachel! i particularly like that you said that no civil rights movement has ever agreed on the best way to get it done because i think that’s how i feel. i think we need the radicals and we need the more passive people.

Comments are closed.