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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.
marry. I thought, ‘How am I going to be able to keep being in the military this way?”
Choi’s life started to unravel. The twenty-something war veteran took to sleeping in his Jeep because his boyfriend — not out to his own parents — didn’t want to live together.
“I gave up my career, I gave up my Arabic use,” Choi said in his gentle, rapid tone, punctuated by hearty laughter. “I’m going through this horrible roller coaster of PTSD, I’m eating bananas and tuna fish every day. My hair is falling out, I’m pissing in a bottle, I’m going poop at the Starbucks.”
Seeking help, Choi scoured YouTube for insight from prominent gay authors like Dan Savage. He educated himself about anti-gay evangelicals like Pastor Rick Warren, who delivered the invocation at President Obama’s inauguration and had inflamed the gay community with condescending remarks about homosexuality. Choi entertained but ultimately declined lucrative offers from the private sector in Iraq. And finally, he broke it off with his boyfriend.
By the end of 2008, Choi was ready to take his biggest leap yet. He would go home to California and come out to his parents.
The early years
Daniel Choi was born in Anaheim, California to traditional, doting Korean parents, his father a Southern Baptist minister and mother a postpartum obstetric nurse.
His mother let him know at an early age that he was expected to marry “a nice Korean girl.” The family moved frequently to accommodate Mr. Choi’s missionary work and Dan dreamed of becoming a leader.
Coming in October: A GlobalPost Special Report on the international LGBT rights battle.
“I thought from an early age that I wanted to be an engaged citizen and show very publicly that I was willing to be a part of society, a sort of patriotic assimilation through the military, but still holding on to my Asian-ness,” Choi said. He ran the gamut of extracurricular activities: community service, Kiwanis, Rotary Club, Key Club.
He was inspired by Steven Spielberg’s World War II film “Saving Private Ryan” and decided he would enlist in the military.
“I was growing up and not having any Asian men on TV or role models in the community,” Choi says, riffing joke after joke about the way his mother tried to push him toward a life oriented around having children. An orphan of the Korean War, she didn’t support his enlistment.
“She didn’t want any of her sons dying in battle,” Choi recalls.
Choi moped around his family home during the last weeks of 2008, unsure about how to come out to his parents. In January, he did it.
“I finally just told my mom one morning. I said, ‘Will you love me? I have something I really want to tell you.’ And she said, ‘Of course I’ll love you,‘” Choi recalls, his voice growing soft. “And I just said, ‘I’m gay.’ She said, ‘That’s not real but I love you anyway.’”
But that was not the final word. Choi lived at home for six months, trying to give them time to embrace his identity, to do some soul searching and to reassure them that he was alright.
“I wanted to start all over,” he said. “I was like, ‘Fuck this Army stuff that I had done. I just want to see what my purpose is.’”
Still, he says, his parents couldn’t bring themselves to truly accept that their son was gay.
A personal battle
But Choi’s work — and his strict ideology — has carried steep costs. He has not spoken to his parents for months.
“I told my mom: ‘If you won’t come to my gay wedding then I won’t come to your straight funeral. I’m doing this so you don’t die a homophobe.’” He elaborates: “That’s how you love someone. I can’t forgive someone when I’m not in a position to forgive. They have not acknowledged that they are wrong.”
Choi’s friends and confidants have often challenged him on his hard-line approach to activism, but he is not one to budge. He has also irritated a number of people within the LGBT rights movement with a combination of stubbornness and self-promotion. As a combat veteran considering reenlistment, Choi doesn’t have many friends in the anti-war community either. And both he and his critics agree that he has played the role of “attention whore” to further his cause.
“When people complain about Dan, I have to remind them, for good or for ill, there is no compromise in him,” says Fulton, adding that whatever ideological disagreements she may have with Choi, there is no question in her mind that DADT would not have been repealed without his work.
Given his approach, it is not too surprising when Choi says he plans to cancel his Social Security and remaining disability benefits, leaving himself without a good way to pay for treatment of his battlefield disabilities, which he says may include mild traumatic brain injury. He’s also declined to set up a legal defense fund.
“I want the government to force me to go to jail,” Choi insists. “I’m not going to let them take the easy way.”