I don’t really know Lt. Dan Choi, the Arabic linguist discharged under "don't ask, don't tell" and modern gay civil rights hero. I just know my friend Dan.
I first met my friend Dan in the spring of 2010, when I called to thank him for a favor he’d done for me. A gay Iraq war veteran myself, I had just begun to get some attention for my writing and I’d been courted to lecture at colleges and universities about my own serving and coming out as gay.
When Dan found out we’d possibly be working with the same people, he responded with exuberance that there would be more stories being told and welcomed me into the fold. After listening to roughly 30 seconds of my awkward thanks, he decided that he wasn’t much of a phone person and wanted to meet me in midtown Manhattan for sushi. What followed was a thrilling conversation that ran the gamut of politics, race, and sexuality in this new age of gay rights.
I’d made a new friend, one who began pushing me further into the world of LGBT politics and activism beyond my role as a writer, where I was most comfortable. I was somewhat aware of who he was in the community before, but it wasn’t until becoming his friend I became aware of the pressures he was under, of the constant travel he undertook, and the eyes that would always be on him when we walked the streets of New York City.
I became aware of his struggles with PTSD and his mental health, struggles that I’m also familiar with. Dan’s texts, Twitter messages, emails, and late-night phone conversations while we were both holed up in hotel rooms from coast to coast while we were advocating for gay rights helped change my voice from one that was once timid and unsure to one that is commanding and powerful.
In 2010 many things had happened with DADT and with Dan’s place in the world in general. There seemed to be a never-ending slew of magazine covers, articles, news stories, and appearances. That summer he’d also hinted at a major betrayal by people who were close to him. It seemed like every positive remark made by anonymous Internet commenters was outweighed by 10 negative ones. The pressure was mounting for DADT to be dealt with decisively.
As his profile rose, so, seemingly, did the target on his back. On November 15, 2010, I chained myself to the White House fence in protest of the DADT law with 11 other protesters and, of course, my friend Dan. We were arrested, and our activism was met with mixed reactions from the community, but our protest was one of many pieces of the puzzle that led to Congress voting to repeal "don't ask, don't tell" that December and officially ending it in September 2011.
I recently traveled to Washington, D.C., to support Dan at the closing day of his trial and to stand in protest of the charges at a rally at the White House and a march to the courthouse. You see, the 13 people who were arrested at the White House on November 15, 2010, were brought up on federal charges. Twelve people took a plea bargain. Dan didn’t.
Like every human being on earth, my friend Dan has problems. I wonder sometimes if those problems are multiplied and heightened by the pressure that he’s put under at all times, of trying to be everything to everyone. The evening before the rally, a group of friends, advocates, and supporters gathered at the home of an ally to plan the next day’s events. I found myself talking with a young lesbian active duty soldier who will be the first to tell you that Dan’s sacrifice made it safer for her to serve openly. As he stepped up to say a few words to the crowd, I found myself looking not at Dan but at her. Her big brown eyes were brimming with tears and pride and all the hero worship that one could possibly have for another human being. I wondered what it would be like to exist in that space in the minds of others. To live life not as a living, breathing human being but as a true symbol of the modern day gay rights movement and a hero to others. It seemed kind of dangerous to me, to live in that world. A world that demanded perfection at all times, a world that couldn’t wait to tear you down once it decided you’d had one too many magazine covers or appearances on MSNBC.
But I know that my friend Dan isn’t perfect. He’s flawed. He doesn’t get enough sleep. He tells jokes offensive enough to make this black man blush. He doesn’t know when to step back and appreciate what has been accomplished, because in his mind there is so much left to do. I know that Dan is not the same man I met that spring night in 2010. He’s lost weight, and the lines in his face have deepened with his experiences since. Along with his thousands of Twitter followers, I know that he still struggles with his mental health. But my friend Dan has done a great deal for me. He helped me to find my voice. He taught me the value of my uniform and my service after I’d devalued it for far too long due to my sexual orientation.
Though the verdict was not what any of us wanted, what I want the most for my friend Dan is to find peace and rest, to know that no matter what happens in the future, he’s already inspired a generation of fighters. I just hope all those fighters know there’s a human being behind the symbol.
ROB SMITH is a gay Iraq war veteran, writer, lecturer, and LGBT activist. His memoir Closets, Combat, and Coming Out: Coming of Age as a Gay Man in the "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" Army will be released in February 2014. He can be reached at RobSmithOnline.com and on Twitter @robsmithonline.