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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.
And it’s coming apart faster than anyone thought was possible.”
Tuesday marks the conclusion of what is widely viewed as a failed policy that led to the discharge of more than 13,000 service members because of their sexuality. For decades, the U.S. has trailed behind all of the European Union member states and all original NATO signatories in permitting gays to serve openly. Though President Truman signed Executive Order 9981 desegregating the U.S. armed forces in 1948, America has waited 60 more years for out gay soldiers to serve side by side with straight ones.
On his left index finger, Choi wears his 2003 West Point class ring. It’s the ring he gave to Sen. Harry Reid three weeks after the New York Army National Guard discharged Choi for violating Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell. Reid promised to return the ring upon repeal of the policy, Choi stood and saluted him from the audience and the two men embraced. Five months later, after two key failures in the Senate, Reid made good on his guarantee.
But Choi says the repeal alone is not enough, and holds a great deal of bitterness against the commander in chief, Obama, whom he said has betrayed the LGBT community.
“Tuesday is nothing like the 1948 order to integrate,” he said. “With a swash of his pen, Obama could say [to gays], ‘You are a legitimate minority.’ That’s what the 1948 order recognized: equal opportunity. But as it stands, people are still going to be kicked out, chased out, discriminated and harassed. There’s still going to be that.”
And as for Obama?
“This guy that I thought was so amazing, he can hurt me more than anybody because there’s nobody who can hurt you more than the one you once loved, and continue to love. He knows that,” Choi said, revealing the level of emotion he is grappling with.
Choi admires countries like The Netherlands and Sweden, where full LGBT equality is on the verge of reality. In the U.S., full equality is still far down the road. But Harvard’s Tribe says milestones like the repeal of the Defense of Marriage Act are likely in the next five to ten years.
“People are all catching up to the recognition that the skies doesn’t fall when we recognize gay rights,” he said. “It’s about time.”
The path to victory
Although military leaders had evidence in front of them for years that the presence of openly gay service members would have basically zero effect on military readiness, and that it could actually reduce on-the-job harassment and violence, many of them denied or mischaracterized it for years.
Coming in October: A GlobalPost Special Report on the international LGBT rights battle.
Aaron Belkin, director of the Palm Center and a political science professor at San Francisco State University, said former Gen. John Shalikashvili’s op-ed in the New York Times in January 2007 began to correct the record.
Shalikashvili, who had been the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff from 1993 to 1997, wrote: “I now believe that if gay men and lesbians served openly in the United States military, they would not undermine the efficacy of the armed forces.”
Then in 2010, current Joint Chiefs chairman Adm. Mike Mullen told Congress, "We have in place a policy that forces young men and women to lie about who they are in order to defend their fellow citizens. For me, personally, it comes down to integrity: Theirs as an individual, ours as an institution."
Belkin had been working tirelessly to educate military brass about the true effects of repealing DADT, which he and his team argued would be a “non-event.”
“I believe this policy was about homophobia and paranoia,” Belkin said, adding that the Palm Center would be winding down post-repeal. “I believe this represents a triumph over paranoia.”
But Choi is still extremely wound up.
“The only thing you can control is that you don’t give up, “ he said. “And that is what is missing in the entire field of activism.”
He has his sights on the repeal of Defense of Marriage Act, but also passing the DREAM Act, repealing the Bush tax cuts, and environment issues like stopping the Keystone XL oil pipeline that would connect Canada’s Tar Sands with refineries in Texas.
Choi is also seriously considered reenlisting in the Army, to “finish up in Iraq.”
“It’s been hard as an activist to claim this as a complete victory,” he said. “If you’d asked me two or three years ago, I’d have said, ‘Hip hip hurray, we did it! We won!’ But for some reason I feel that throughout the journey something’s been taken away from me.”