When Lt. Dan Choi was approached by a producer for MSNBC's The Rachel Maddow Show in March, he wasn't exactly keen on becoming the newest face of "don't ask, don't tell," the U.S. military's long-standing ban on openly gay service members. The 28-year-old Iraq War veteran and Arabic language specialist had just cofounded Knights Out, an organization of gay students and alumni from the U.S. Military Academy at West Point dedicated to ending the Pentagon's antigay policy, and Maddow wanted to do a segment on the group. "I was like, 'No, I don't really want to, I think somebody else should do it,'" he recalls, and suggested retired vets instead.
His reluctance was understandable: Going on air would make his role in Knights Out widely known and likely result in his discharge from the Army, which had been his life since age 18. But the producer was incredibly persuasive, and, as Choi jokes, "Military folks are used to doing what they're told."
The outcome was at once predictable and unexpected. The Army notified Choi of his discharge proceedings nearly two months after the segment aired in March, and his nervy on-air plea to hold onto his job helped make him one of the newest and most powerful voices in the LGBT rights movement. He's since spoken out in television appearances and rallies on a range of issues, from gays in the military to marriage equality, during a season of major victories in Iowa, Vermont, New Hampshire, and Maine -- and a painful setback in California. He's also campaigning for Anthony Woods, a West Point classmate who was similarly discharged under the ban. Woods is running for the California congressional seat to be vacated by Rep. Ellen Tauscher, now an appointee for a State Department post.
Choi's oratorical gifts and undeniable stage presence endear him to anyone starving for a modern-day Harvey Milk. Stumping at Proposition 8 demonstrations throughout California, he exuded a downright Clintonian electricity. As hot-button LGBT issues converged to become a media zeitgeist this spring, "The timing was such that [Choi] could go out and say, 'I'm for equality across the board,'" says Nathaniel Frank, author of the book Unfriendly Fire: How the Gay Ban Undermines the Military and Weakens America. And that gave him a bully pulpit, something most discharged gay soldiers haven't had, Frank adds.
Perhaps it's no surprise that Choi's now being lobbied to run for office himself, just one of many opportunities this newly unemployed civilian is now pondering. "Politics, I don't know. I'm going through a lot of stuff right now, and that's really torturous of you to plant those ideas in my head!" he says with a laugh. "Speaking out publicly is basically the same thing as holding office, so I'm doing it anyway."
Not that politics is Choi's only option. He's long considered pursuing a State Department position, perhaps as an analyst in a Middle East bureau. "I still have passion for the region," he says. Veterans affairs are also close to his heart; Choi says he'd like to get involved with a related organization.
And, of course, there's Knights Out, which has grown from 38 members in March to more than 400 members and allies as of press time. Although it's become a support group of sorts, the organization's primary mission remains ending the military ban. Don't forget, these are West Point grads, elite soldier-scholars trained to succeed at anything.
"It's become a very powerful voice," Choi says of Knights Out, "but when we get e-mails [from gay soldiers] that say, 'I was going to commit suicide,' or, 'I didn't eat for a week,' we have to be even louder. We're not going to wait for someone else to act."