The Soldier: Dan Choi
If you haven’t heard of New York Army National Guard lieutenant Dan Choi by now, you probably haven’t watched The Rachel Maddow Show, gone to a rally, or signed a “don’t ask, don’t tell” repeal petition over the past year.
Choi first made headlines in March when Knights Out, a group of rogue U.S. Military Academy alumni—yes, that’s West Point—decided to break their stoic silence and come out of the closet. But when Choi appeared on The Rachel Maddow Show later in the month to talk about Knights Out, the Pentagon decided he was breaking rule number 2 of its ban on openly gay personnel—he told. And he kept telling.
A month later, when Choi was handed a notification that he would be investigated for breaching DADT policy, the Iraq war veteran and Arabic linguist got louder. He spoke everywhere. Choi penned an open letter to Congress and President Barack Obama, two major players in repealing the Pentagon’s ban, pleading to keep his job. “As an infantry officer, I am not accustomed to begging,” he wrote. “But I beg you today: Do not fire me.”
More than 162,000 people signed a petition circulated by the Courage Campaign in support of Choi. Nonetheless, after a hearing in front of four military officials in Syracuse, N.Y., he was discharged.
But this hasn’t deterred Choi, who has become the face of the movement to end DADT.
“Many of us have been discharged from the service because we told the truth,” he said at the National Equality March in October. “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.”
The Producer: Alan Ball
Water coolers have seen more chatter than they had in ages since True Blood debuted on HBO in September 2008. By the airing of the show’s second season this summer, Alan Ball’s take on novelist Charlaine Harris’s vampire books was a bona fide hit. Ball, as the out writer-producer and sometime director of the series he has called “popcorn TV for smart people,” injected tales of vampires assimilating into society with analogies to the gay rights struggle. “I wanted to find a fun, irreverent way to show how easy it is to disenfranchise a group,” he says.
The Six Feet Under creator says the gay themes on his latest show—which include a subplot about a Westboro Baptist–like church—are simply topical. “If it was 50 years ago, the analogies would have been about African-Americans.”
Ball made a point to depict Lafayette, True Blood’s stereotype-busting gay black character, differently from Harris’s victim-like description. “I was not interested in him being effeminate and vulnerable,” he says, adding that Lafayette will partner up next season. Considering that Ball shepherded TV’s most unflinching portrayal of a gay relationship with Six Feet Under’s David and Keith, we don’t doubt for a second that Lafayette’s relationship will be riveting.
The Reluctant Icon: Chaz Bono
Few stories caused as much tabloid frenzy in 2009 as Chaz Bono’s gender transition. On June 11, a few months after Bono’s 40th birthday, TMZ broke the news that the only child of Sonny Bono and Cher, once known as Chastity, is “becoming a man.”
“Chaz is really at peace with his decision,” Hollywood publicist Howard Bragman, who represents Bono, tells The Advocate. “Something he’s dreamed about is finally happening.”
Other than a few public appearances and a photo shoot with Out magazine, Bono has yet to grant a major interview with the press to talk about his life as an openly transgender man—Bragman says don’t expect to hear anything from his client until 2011, when Bono’s memoir, tentatively titled Coming Clean, is slated for release by Dutton publishing. A documentary about the transition is also “in the works.” Bono, in the meantime, is taking hormones, undergoing surgery, and finishing up his bachelor’s degree at a college in Los Angeles, where he lives.
Cher, who had known about Chaz’s decision for more than a year, told People magazine in June that her son “is embarking on a difficult journey, but one that I will support. I respect the courage it takes to go through this transition in the glare of public scrutiny, and although I may not understand, I will strive to be understanding... The one thing that will never change is my abiding love for my child.”
The Public Servant: Kirsten Gillibrand
The current tally of U.S. senators who publicly support nationwide marriage equality is small but growing. Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand became the 11th member of the group when New York governor David Paterson tapped her in January to fill the junior seat vacated by now-secretary of State Hillary Clinton. When she heard she had earned the post, Gillibrand made phone calls to a select number of colleagues and supporters—New York’s Empire State Pride Agenda among them. “It was by no means an introduction,” Gillibrand says. “I was proud to work with them and other LGBT advocacy organizations during my time in the House of Representatives.”
Soon Gillibrand also became an outspoken proponent of repealing “don’t ask, don’t tell”—even as more seasoned colleagues awaited direction from President Obama on a legislative timetable to expunge the policy. She first considered an amendment to a defense authorization bill calling for an 18-month moratorium on discharges. “While we didn’t have the 60 votes necessary to defeat an expected filibuster, it became clear that there was far more support for repeal than what was previously thought,” Gillibrand says. “I felt it was critical that we begin a debate, so I asked [Michigan] senator [Carl] Levin, chairman of the Armed Services Committee, if he would hold a hearing, and he agreed.” The DADT hearing had yet to be scheduled, though it would be the first such Senate committee review since 1993.
As for marriage rights, Gillibrand says she sees a generational shift well under way in the halls of Congress. “Many people my age understand that gay men and women have the same families, relationships, and inalienable human rights as straight people do.”
The Coalitionist: Robin McGehee
When you hear Robin McGehee speak, you may come away thinking she’s the next Harvey Milk. Sassy, straight-talking, and passionate, McGehee, a 36-year-old professor of human communications at the College of the Sequoias in central California and mother of a young son and daughter, became a rising star in the gay rights movement in 2009. She did so by insisting that grassroots activists have a seat at the table next to established power brokers like the Human Rights Campaign and the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force.
“There’s been a knitting together of grassroots organizations through the [National Equality March] that will create lifelong friends and will build a solid base for the larger gay rights movement,” says McGehee, who codirected the October march in Washington, D.C. After McGehee first made her name as lead organizer of a pro–gay marriage, post–Proposition 8 event in Fresno, Calif., dubbed Meet in the Middle, longtime gay rights activist Cleve Jones asked her to help put together the march in the nation’s capital. Even though she was still paying off the debt incurred for the Fresno event, McGehee accepted the duty. Her modus operandi: “Some people still say you can’t push too hard for full equality, but we have to do something to protect our people.”
McGehee’s strong beliefs have at times made her a polarizing figure within activist circles. Just before the National Equality March, HRC announced that President Obama would speak at a Washington dinner during the weekend of the march. Some applauded Obama’s gesture. McGehee wasn’t one of them, and she wanted more than another inspiring speech. “If it were me [in charge of the dinner],” McGehee says, “I wouldn’t bring Obama to the dinner unless he had some new policy to announce.... We have ourselves to blame for not being further along in the movement.”