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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.
A personal journey from the closet to gay rights history.
NEW YORK — When The Rachel Maddow Show came calling to discuss his public defiance of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” Lt. Dan Choi answered the call of duty for what would become an all-consuming public role as the face of change within the U.S. military.
On MSNBC's Maddow Show, the fresh-faced Choi made his debut on national television with three powerful words which he spoke while staring directly into the camera: “I am gay.”
That sentence, stated publicly, broke Army regulations and immediately put the decorated Iraq war veteran’s job on the line. They were just three words, but they sparked an international media firestorm, leading Choi — living with his parents at the time — to perform 18-hour days filled with interviews, appearances and lobbying. They also galvanized a movement that Tuesday ended with the repeal of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” which like so many army regulations has its own acronym, DADT.
“I didn’t know if I could say no to anybody so I just did every interview,” Choi said of his first months as an activist.
He was using his father’s phone, who asked the newly minted superstar, “Are you turning my house into gay headquarters?”
“I want the government to force me to go to jail.”~Former Army Lt. Dan Choi
Choi’s mission to find himself in California after returning from 18 months serving in Iraq had yielded an answer: activism.
“Everything came together,” he said. “Being a veteran, an Asian minority, an Arab linguist, gay, Christian. I always thought I needed to compartmentalize my life. When I became an activist, there was finally this coalescence of all of these identities. It was like a symphony.”
The Maddow Show was where he first played the first few notes of that symphony for an audience.
It was March 2009 and West Point’s LGBT support organization, Knights Out, had just been founded. Sue Fulton, a former Army captain, a West Point graduate and an openly gay woman, helped prepare him for the interview.
“Dan became a young man in the eye of the storm of ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,’" recalls Fulton. “From the get-go, he was charming and quick, exceptionally good at getting his message across.”
Knights Out’s very first press release was a declaration by more than 35 members, including Choi, outing themselves. He was booked on Maddow three days later.
A first love
But the journey to this point in fact began many months earlier when he first returned from Iraq and fell in love. He began to realize the could no longer live in the closet. He’d been lying to friends and family for years, constructing elaborate profiles of women he was supposedly dating. His Army buddies had no idea about his sexuality, and he liked that just fine.
“I was closeted the entire time. I never wanted to come out. In fact, I thought the military’s ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’ policy was a good thing for me because I could hide behind that.”
His new boyfriend introduced him to politics and LGBT activism. In 2008 Choi celebrated his first Valentine’s Day with a partner.
“I didn’t even know about Obama and ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,’” Choi recalls. “I voted for him because he was black. I wasn’t even that liberal in the military. I didn’t really have political views.”
But his time in Iraq began to turn Choi’s mind against the American war effort there. Corruption and mismanagement of the rebuilding process was rampant, and as a member of the Commanders Emergency Response Team (CERP), Choi himself had the authority to vet and authorize contracts with almost no oversight. He often paid cash.
“Every week I would fly from Green Zone to the ‘Triangle of Death’ area and then pass out money,” Choi explained, his ready smile on display. “I’d have a million dollars in hundred-dollar bills in my backpack. I was like, ‘Wow, I have more than my life is worth.’”
By May, two major forces in Choi’s life were waging war on his psyche. On one hand, he had a military career he was fully dedicated to. On the other hand, he had met the love of his life but most of his inner circle still didn’t know he was gay. So he started telling them.
“That was probably the hardest time,” Choi said. “Being in the military with a boyfriend that I wanted to