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Does Opposing “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” Bolster US Militarism? A Debate with Lt. Dan Choi and Queer Activist Mattilda Bernstein Sycamore

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We host a debate on whether the queer rights movement should be focused on repealing the Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell law between Lt. Dan Choi and queer antiwar activist and writer Mattilda Bernstein Sycamore. Celebrating the repeal of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell, Sycamore says, only makes progressive movements in the US complicit with American wars in Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan. [includes rush transcript]

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

AMY GOODMAN: We’re also joined in San Francisco by the lesbian antiwar activist and writer Mattilda Bernstein Sycamore. She has argued celebrating the repeal of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell only makes progressive movements in this country complicit with the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and Pakistan. Mattilda Bernstein Sycamore is the author, most recently, of a novel called So Many Ways to Sleep Badly and editor of That’s Revolting! Queer Strategies for Resisting Assimilation.

Welcome to Democracy Now!, Mattilda. Can you talk about your response to the controversy around Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell right now?

MATTILDA BERNSTEIN SYCAMORE: Sure. First of all, thank you so much for hosting this debate on the show. Dan Choi talks about all of America being a victim of the policy of excluding openly gay soldiers in the military, but all of the world is a victim of the US military. So if we have to look at one culprit for all of the problems that are going on in the entire world, that would have to be the US military. And as a queer movement, what we need is a movement for gender, sexual, social, political and cultural self-determination for queers in this country, for everyone in this country, and for everyone all over the world. We do not need to support the US war machine, which is busy plundering indigenous resources and fighting at least three wars right now, you know, for corporate profiteers.

And Dan Choi might know that, you know, in the news lately there’s been a lot of coverage about an epidemic of queer teen suicides. And this, of course, is an epidemic that’s been going on for generations. But what the fight for Don’t Ask — against Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell is telling our queer youth, they’re saying, “Well, don’t kill yourselves now. Wait, and you can enlist in the military and go abroad and kill and terrorize people of color all over the world.” So that is not a social justice struggle.

And if we need to support any soldiers, the soldiers we need to support are the soldiers Daniel Ellsberg was talking about before, the soldiers who are releasing classified documents to bring down the US war machine. You know, we need to support people like Camilo Mejía, who you have on the show all the time, you know, who talk about why they chose, you know, to leave the US military and fight against all these unjust wars.

JUAN GONZALEZ: Dan Choi, your response? But I’d also like to add that this is not — this debate we’ve had in another context before with the DREAM Act, as immigrant students have attempted to get the DREAM Act passed, and others saying, well, but the DREAM Act would also facilitate more immigrant youth going into the military. Your response to this critique?

LT. DAN CHOI: Well, I think Mattilda points — brought up — I appreciate the passion, and I appreciate the directions and the opinions that are voiced. I want people to understand, though, when queer people join the military, it’s not as if it’s a decision between a full ride at Harvard or a modeling career or a book deal or the killing fields. I think it’s a little bit too easy to say that. I travel around the country, and particularly in the South and in very conservative areas. I grew up in a very homophobic environment. Some of these kids, they have no other option. They can’t just go and have a wonderful life. Some of them feel hopeless. And they have not been educated about all of the many options available to them. And when we realize that, then we do find that some of us are quite privileged to be able to show up on TV and to espouse our particular politics. These kids that committed suicide, they certainly didn’t know that there were other people that have been through that particular road. And when they hear messages that they cannot do a certain kind of job and that, as a stigmatized minority, just like the undocumented immigrants or Muslim Americans, or those people who look like Muslim Americans, are stigmatized and scapegoated in our country, we all know that the military is sometimes the only option for some people.

And we all do not think that when we join the military we’re just going to kill people of color. I certainly did not think that as a person of color. And as my mom is an orphan of the war, she certainly told me that your job in the military is not to create havoc, but it is to do everything that you can, possibly, at least theoretically, to create peace, to some extent. And that is — I know this is going to sound like fingernails on the chalkboard to some of your viewers, but war is a force that gives us meaning. War is a force that teaches us lessons of humanity and allows us to realize something about our society and teaches us the lessons that we probably should have learned before we went to war.

AMY GOODMAN: Mattilda Bernstein Sycamore, your response?

MATTILDA BERNSTEIN SYCAMORE: Well, when Dan Choi says that war is a force that gives us meaning, I want to know what is the meaning of the US obliterating Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan? What is the meaning of soldiers pressing buttons in Nevada in order to destroy entire villages? You know, the meaning is that the US is involved in wars for corporate profit and oil resources.

And I’ve heard, you know, Dan Choi’s coming out story, and it’s a harrowing tale. And as queers, you know, most of us grow up in a world that wants us to die or disappear. And I think we see that with the coverage of the epidemic of teen suicides. So we shouldn’t be telling queer teens, “Oh, when you grow up, you can become part of the same system that’s destroying not only your life, but the lives of everyone in the world.”

We need to be fighting for universal access to basic needs, things like housing and healthcare and the right to stay in this country or leave if you want to. We need to be fighting for comprehensive sex education, for AIDS healthcare, for senior care, for safe houses for queer youth to escape abusive families. And the problem with all this attention on the war machine, all this support for, you know, soldiers to serve openly in unjust wars, the problem is that the military is what’s taking away the ability to fund everything in this country that would actually benefit, you know, the people who need the most. You know, the war budget — if we could just, you know, take half the US war budget, we’d be able to have everything that we want in this country, whether it’s renewable energy, whether it’s, you know, housing for everyone, whether it’s healthcare, whether it’s food on the table. I mean, we need to get back to a struggle for basic needs.

And the struggle to join the military is a struggle for killing. It doesn’t matter whether you join the military thinking, “I’m going to kill someone.” When you’re part of the US military, you are participating in hideous violence, you know, in a colonial struggle and in the obliteration of the entire world. And I think Juan made a great point about the DREAM Act. I saw that debate, and it was great. And I think it’s a similar issue in the fact we should not be propping up unjust systems in order to supposedly be providing access for more people. It doesn’t work that way. When we’re obliterating the entire world, that’s not helping anyone. It doesn’t help —

AMY GOODMAN: Dan Choi, let’s get your response.

LT. DAN CHOI: It’s certainly a moral argument here. There is a passion behind Mattilda’s voice that I think we do need to acknowledge comes from a level of morality, that we don’t want to be a part of this war machine for its ethical implications. Right now, the fact of the matter is, Mattilda cannot join the military purely on moral grounds. Mattilda and others, we are not allowed to serve honestly in the military because of legal grounds. And if we are to make a strong moral argument, an absolutely strong moral argument on its face, after Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell is repealed, and you’re allowed to serve, then your argument becomes that much stronger. Then you can say, I have these skills, and I’m not going to be a part of the military. But right now, you understand, the argument, it doesn’t quite make sense to a lot of people, because your inability to serve honestly and with integrity is just a legal default.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re going to have to leave it there. We’d love people to join in the discussion at facebook.com/democracynow. Dan Choi, discharged under Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell, is trying to re-enlist. And Mattilda Bernstein Sycamore is an antiwar queer activist and writer, among her books, So Many Ways to Sleep Badly. And her latest collection that she edits, That’s Revolting! Queer Strategies for Resisting Assimilation.

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