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2009-10-13

"Love Is Worth It": Iraq War Vet Facing Discharge for Violating "Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell" Helps Lead Massive Rally for Gay Rights

Guests

Dan Choi, a West Point graduate and Iraq war veteran. He is facing discharge under the military’s "don’t ask, don’t tell" policy for revealing in March that he is gay. He is the founder of Knights Out, a group of LGBT graduates of West Point.

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President Obama has once again pledged to repeal "don’t ask, don’t tell," which bars openly gay men and lesbians from serving in the military. But many queer activists are frustrated with Obama for neither following through on previous vows nor offering a new timetable. We speak with West Point graduate and Iraq war veteran Lieutenant Dan Choi, who’s facing discharge from the military for revealing he is gay. He was among tens of thousands that marched in Washington, DC on Sunday for gay rights. [includes rush transcript]

Transcript

This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

SHARIF ABDEL KOUDDOUS: We begin today with a look at what the Obama administration has done to promote equal rights for gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people in this country. On the eve of Sunday’s National Equality March for Gay Rights in Washington, DC, President Obama once again pledged to repeal “don’t ask, don’t tell,” which bars openly gay men and lesbians from serving in the military. Obama reiterated his promise Saturday in a speech before the Human Rights Campaign, the nation’s largest gay political organization.

    PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: We are moving ahead on "don’t ask, don’t tell." We should not — we should not be punishing patriotic Americans who have stepped forward to serve this country. We should be celebrating their willingness to show such courage and selflessness on behalf of their fellow citizens, especially when we’re fighting two wars.

    We cannot afford — we cannot afford to cut from our ranks people with the critical skills we need to fight, any more than we can afford for our military’s integrity to force those willing to do so into careers encumbered and compromised by having to live a lie. So I’m working with the Pentagon, its leadership, and the members of the House and Senate on ending this policy. Legislation has been introduced in the House to make this happen. I will end “don’t ask, don’t tell.” That’s my commitment to you.

SHARIF ABDEL KOUDDOUS: But many queer activists were frustrated with Obama for not following through on previous vows to end “don’t ask, don’t tell.” In his latest comments, he did not offer any new timetable for its repeal. A crowd of some seventy-five protesters outside the dinner accused the President of, quote, "all talk and no action." They urged him to repeal both "don’t ask, don’t tell" as well as the Defense of Marriage Act, or DOMA.

Well, tens of thousands took to the streets the following day to continue the nationwide fight for equal protection for LGBT people in all matters governed by civil law. It’s been described as the largest demonstration for gay rights in the nation’s capital in over a decade.

Among those who spoke was Lieutenant Dan Choi, a West Point graduate and Iraq war veteran. He is facing discharge under the military’s "don’t ask, don’t tell" policy for revealing in March that he’s gay.

    LT. DAN CHOI: Now, I know that there are many things that are worth fighting for, and I’ve fought for many of them, and I will tell you that some of those are very, very expensive. But of all those things that are worth fighting for, love is worth fighting for. Love is worth it. Love is worth it.

    Some of us have come from very far places to be here today. You’ve sacrificed a lot. But love is worth it. Some of us have just come out of the closet this year. Some of us are still in the closet. But I want to tell you that love is worth it. We’ve sacrificed so much. Some of us have been rejected by our families and our communities and our churches and our workplaces, but I will tell you that love is worth it. And many of us have been discharged from the service because we told the truth. But I know that love is worth it. We love our country, even when our country refuses to acknowledge our love. But we continue to defend it, and we continue to protect it, because love is worth it. Love is worth it!

    If you believe it, say it with me. Love is worth it! Love is worth it! Love is worth it! Love is worth it!

    Like so many others, I joined the military because my country beckoned me. “Ask not what your country can do for you, but ask what you can do for your country.” But when we’re telling the truth about our love, our country slaps us in the face and orders us, “Don’t ask,” and orders us, “Don’t tell.” Well, I am telling you that the era and the time for asking is over. I am not asking anymore! I am telling! I am telling! I am telling! Will you tell with me?

    Asking is over. We will tell, because in the face of injustice and the face of discrimination, patience is not a plan. In the face of discrimination, silence is not a strategy. My plan today and my plan tomorrow and my plan forever is to tell, is to tell. And we will tell! We will tell! We will tell!

AMY GOODMAN: Lieutenant Dan Choi, speaking Sunday. He joins us now from Washington, DC, founder of Knights Out, a group of LGBT graduates of West Point.

And joining us here in our firehouse studio is attorney and longtime gay rights activist Urvashi Vaid. She also spoke at the gay rights march. She is currently executive director of the Arcus Foundation, formerly executive director of the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force, author of Virtual Equality: The Mainstreaming of Gay and Lesbian Liberation. In April of this year, she was named one of Out magazine’s fifty most influential men and women in America.

We welcome you both to Democracy Now! Lieutenant Dan Choi, why don’t you start off by telling us your story? Yes, we see you addressing thousands of people in Washington, but talk about where you grew up and how you came to the point you are today.

LT. DAN CHOI: Amy, I think it’s so important, and thank you so much for having me on. People see some of those things that we say in front of large crowds, but they don’t realize some of the personal sacrifices that get us to where we are.

I’m originally from Orange County, California. My parents are immigrants from Korea. They’ve only been here about forty years. My dad is a Southern Baptist minister, and my mom is a nurse in the maternity ward at our local hospital. That means she loves babies. That means she would love more than anything that I have a dozen Korean grandbabies for her.

But, you know, when I came out of the closet to them just earlier on this year, a lot of people told me that I shouldn’t do that. A lot of people told me, “Why don’t you just — why don’t you just stay silent? Why don’t you just be quiet and lie about it?” Well, when I came back from Iraq, I finally understood what love was when I started a relationship, my very first one. And I didn’t want to lie about that anymore. I didn’t feel that if I respected my parents — and I respect and love them — that that kind of a relationship should be based on anything other than integrity and full disclosure. They should be a part of it.

So I told my mom. She said, “You know I love you, but gay doesn’t exist.” And my dad was, you know, also very skeptical. He didn’t understand it. So then I realized I had only told them and they’ve only known about twenty-eight seconds, while I’ve known about twenty-eight years. So I thought that it was going to take decades or maybe even multiple decades for them to understand, much less accept anything. But about three days ago — about four days ago, right as I was landing here in DC in preparation for this march, I had a phone call with my dad. And he said that he loves me and that he accepts me as his gay son. That’s something I never would have expected.

And it’s been a crazy journey ever since we started this group of West Point graduates who are LGBT, as well as our supporters. We’ve been on TV telling the message that "don’t ask, don’t tell" erodes this nation, as far as our values, as far as integrity. I’ve been on Korean Christian conservative radio stations and TV broadcasts, and my dad has seen all of that. And it’s just absolutely amazing.

And I look back on those people that say, “You know, you should have just waited until maybe a more convenient time to tell him, or maybe you should just waited ’til he died, in order to live your life truthfully.” And I look at them now, and I say, “I wonder what you’re saying?” If I would have waited for that long, for a right time, would my parents — would they be accepting at this moment?

I will tell everybody else: Now is not the time to wait. If you really respect these things in our country in your lives, if you respect your parents, if you respect the people you work with, don’t wait. Push. Tell them. Be truthful, because you love them.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, Lieutenant Dan Choi, when we come back from break, we’ll find out how the military has dealt with you, and we’ll also speak with Urvashi Vaid about the movement today, where it’s going, about President Obama and his stance.

This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. We’ll be back in a minute.

[break]

AMY GOODMAN: Our guests are Lieutenant Dan Choi — he’s speaking to us from Washington, DC — West Point graduate, Iraq war vet, facing discharge under the military’s "don’t ask, don’t tell" policy, founder of Knights Out, a group of LGBT graduates of West Point; and Urvashi Vaid, attorney and longtime gay rights activist, she’s executive director of the Arcus Foundation and the former executive of the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force. Sharif?

SHARIF ABDEL KOUDDOUS: Lieutenant Dan Choi, you first came out publicly on The Rachel Maddow Show earlier this year in March. You then wrote a letter to President Obama and members of Congress asking that you not be fired. Can you describe what you wrote about in that letter? And what’s happened since then?

LT. DAN CHOI: My letter was based on the very first lessons that I learned at the Military Academy at West Point about ten years ago. Before we learned anything about the military, before we learned how to stand at attention or salute or march in step, we learned the Honor Code, the Honor Code that says a cadet will not lie or tolerate those who lie. It’s simple. It doesn’t say that that’s just relevant to straight cadets or straight soldiers, whereas under "don’t ask, don’t tell" gay soldiers are forced to lie. It’s an order to them that they deceive based on who they love or those things that support them going on. So I wanted to send a message to President Obama that our military, and not only our military, but our society’s values, are based on integrity first.

There are a lot of things on everybody’s priority lists and their agendas and their plates, as people might call it, but I think when you look at what our nation is founded on, when you look at what our communities and our fabric is made out of, you have to look at our values. Do you believe in lying? And when are you going to restore integrity to all of our soldiers? And when are you going to support them in doing that? So that was essentially what I said.

Now you look at a couple of the things that are going on since then. There’s been a debate on whether we should send more troops to Afghanistan. I was just marching out here two days ago with thousands upon thousands of college-age Americans. They would gladly join their ROTC programs; in a heartbeat, they would join. And they’re educated. They have skills for reconstruction or engineering or the medical professions or translating. Myself, I am an Arabic linguist. That was my degree from West Point. I also have a degree in environmental engineering. When I was in Iraq, I was helping with the reconstruction. And I think that’s critical in any kind of a counterinsurgency effort.

But here you have a ban on honesty in the military, at least for our gay and lesbian service members. And you’ve kicked out 13,000 — 13,000 service members, because they were truthful about who they are. The problem is not just that we 13,000 are the victims. There’s 13,000 units out there. There’s 13,000 teams that are now without the skills that those soldiers, those service members can provide. So when you’re talking about sending troops to Afghanistan, you’re now discounting these groups of people that are willing, capable, strong and wanting to serve, but they just don’t want to sacrifice their integrity in order to do it.

And I think the lesson here is, whatever you do, whether you send troops or not, whatever number you send, the most important thing is that you send a message to the rest of the world that if we’re over there in other countries telling anybody about democracy or equality or a pluralistic society or respecting all different groups and tribes and political affiliations, we should do the same at home, and we shouldn’t sacrifice our values and pit groups against each other and strip rights away from other people and force soldiers and service members to lie, while we’re doing something of preaching to other countries.

SHARIF ABDEL KOUDDOUS: And so, the military did send you a letter. You’re facing discharge. Where does that stand right now?

LT. DAN CHOI: Technically, I am still in the military, so I am a serving officer. I am a lieutenant in the Army National Guard. I’m an infantry officer. And right now, the recommendation, as of June 28th, was to discharge me, regardless of my skill as an Arabic interpreter or as a West Point graduate or a combat veteran.

I even gave a good portion of my testimony before the board of officers in Arabic. And the officers asked me afterwards, “Lieutenant, can you translate that?” because there was nobody in the entire building that could translate that Arabic into English so that they could understand it. And that’s part of the devastation of what "don’t ask, don’t tell" is, not only to the service member, but to the entire military. We’re being stripped of these capabilities.

So, I will gladly stay in the military. I will gladly serve. And if this law gets repealed and I happen to be discharged by then, I will be the first person in that recruiting station, because whether we’re going to war or whether we are helping with humanitarian reconstruction and rehabilitation or helping out with the operations in Katrina or putting out fires all throughout our nation, there are people that are willing to step up and be part of the team, and you’re stripping away that ability and that responsibility from those people because they refuse to sacrifice their integrity, and you’re forcing them to lie.

AMY GOODMAN: And Lieutenant Dan Choi, how will the discharge affect retirement benefits, affect your West Point scholarship?

LT. DAN CHOI: At this point, they have said that I can get an honorable discharge, a general discharge, or an other than honorable discharge. I know some people don’t understand all the differences and nuances. But many people have gotten other than honorable discharges, and that simply means that you get no benefits that you’ve earned. You will be stripped of your VA — that’s Veterans Affairs — home loan benefits; your Montgomery GI, that’s your education scholarship benefits; and even your medical benefits. If I get an other than honorable discharge — and I’m 50 percent disabled, I have respiratory illnesses and fractures and all these things that have been incurred through my service — I would lose the very benefit of going into a hospital, a VA hospital. I wouldn’t be able to get medical treatment. So a lot of things are on the line.

And it’s even worse for a lot of people you hear about, people like my classmate Anthony Woods, who graduated from Harvard after his two tours in Iraq, and he had to pay back over $30,000 in his tuition. A West Point education is now estimated to be worth about half-a-million dollars. And so, I would have to pay back a portion of that. It depends on the kind of discharge that you get.

But I want to tell you that I have continued to stay in contact with my Iraqi friends, and I got a message from an Iraqi doctor. We helped to rebuild his hospital while I was there. And he’s in South Baghdad right now. And he’s seen some of the internet, YouTube, and CNN interviews and other appearances, and he said, “Brother, I know that you’re gay, but you’re still my brother, and you’re my friend. And if your country, that sent you to my country, if America, that sent you to Iraq, will discharge you such that you can’t get medical benefits, you can come to my hospital any day. You can come in, and I will give you treatment. In South Baghdad, you can come, because it’s my duty to pay you back somehow for the sacrifices that you’ve made. It would be my honor.” So I hope that our country can learn from that Iraqi doctor.

SHARIF ABDEL KOUDDOUS: Lieutenant Dan Choi is an Iraq war veteran. He’s facing military — he’s facing discharge from the military under the "don’t ask, don’t tell" policy. He’s also founder of Knights Out, a group of LGBT graduates of West Point.

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