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From the streets of New York City to the townships of South Africa, the LGBT rights movement and its opposition are engaged in an unprecedented international battle. GlobalPost presents an ongoing series of reports from key locations at this pivotal time in history, telling highly personal, often overlooked stories from the fight.
As the U.S. military ends its failed policy prohibiting openly gay service members, former Lt. Dan Choi doubles down on his fight for gay equality.
NEW YORK — The American gay rights movement marks a milestone Tuesday — the official end of the U.S. military’s “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy.
But one of the leaders in this battle for equal rights, Army National Guard Lt. Dan Choi, won’t be joining in any celebrations.
Discharged from the Army in July 2010 for violating the policy, the decorated gay soldier who galvanized the repeal movement is still busy fighting on two fronts against the federal government — one political and one legal.
“I’m not going to party. I have to get ready for court,” said Choi, an Iraq war veteran and Arabic-speaking linguist, sitting comfortably in his bright midtown Manhattan apartment, ringed with public service awards for activism and military service.
His case, the United States of America v. Daniel Choi, stems from a protest he led in front of the White House in November 2010. He and 12 other LGBT activists handcuffed themselves to the fence at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue to bring attention to the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” (DADT) repeal effort. Now Choi faces a possible six months in jail for disobeying an order to get off the fence.
“Tuesday is part of the dismantling of a nationwide system of apartheid against gays and lesbians.”~Harvard Law Professor Laurence Tribe
“To have something that is your country versus you is not something you expect when you’re coming back from war,” Choi says, part of a government legacy he terms “federal homophobia.”
Uncompromising and focused on the larger political front in the struggle for gay rights, Choi says he is highly skeptical of the Democratic leadership, particularly President Obama, and of many established gay rights organizations. Lt. Choi, age 30, is still in battle mode.
“The government treats us just like terrorists,” Choi says. “It’s the same thing in countries where revolutions are happening. The president wants to stay in power and doesn’t want any embarrassment.”
The cost of dissent
The West Point graduate still suffers from post traumatic stress disorder. He sustained damage to his ears, lungs and bones after repeated exposure to mortar explosions during 18 months in Iraq, where he served as an expert translator. He says his treatments are expensive and increasingly difficult to afford on partial disability benefits — reduced by 50 percent after he was discharged. Choi is also going head to head with the Department of Justice, refusing to return $2700 of a bonus he was awarded for joining the New York Army National Guard.
Choi’s last two and a half years serving as an unofficial spokesman the anti-DADT movement helped him build a serious track record as an activist. He’s also met numerous times with military generals from around the world, and has spoken at rallies with LGBT activists from Amsterdam to Moscow. He rode on The Netherlands’ first officially sanctioned military gay pride float and enduring a rough arrest in Russia’s capital earlier this year. He is booked solid for appearances at churches and international gatherings and makes time for lobbying sessions with members of Congress. He says he has done 300 school appearances and as many as 1000 live interviews. And, again and again, he pressured Obama to push Congress to act. But the effort has taken its toll: two nervous breakdowns; six trips to jail.
(Read the full story of Choi's journey from closeted officer to the face of the movement to repeal "Don't Ask, Don't Tell.")
“It happened because we got in Obama’s face," Choi said, always ready to launch a barrage of criticism against his former commander in chief.
Perhaps of greatest concern to Choi is that the repeal will appease the gay community enough that it will settle for less than full social and legal equality. “DADT has become something of a manipulation,” Choi says. “It’s clear that Obama has not fulfilled his promises to our community. DADT means for me that I can go back [and serve]. And it means that I can die for my country. But I still can’t get married in my country.”
Although the Defense of Marriage Act continues to block federal recognition of same-sex marriages, its repeal could be next, said Harvard Law Professor Laurence Tribe.
“Tuesday is a very historic day,” said Tribe, who hired Obama as a research assistant in his first year of law school. "It’s part of the dismantling of a nationwide system of apartheid against gays and lesbians.