A gay Army officer facing trial next week after chaining himself to the White House fence in protest of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” said his court appearance offers a fresh opportunity to call attention to the military’s gay ban.
On July 14, the D.C. Superior Court will try Lt. Dan Choi and Capt. Jim Pietrangelo II, two gay Army officers who were arrested March 18 and April 20 after they handcuffed themselves to the White House gates.
Choi and Pietrangelo face a non-jury trial for the misdemeanor charge of two counts of failure to obey a lawful order stemming from their protest actions. If convicted, they could face a $1,000 fine, but jail time is unlikely.
In an interview with the Blade, Choi said he hopes the trial will draw attention to “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” and the fact that openly LGBT service members continue to face discharge under the law.
“With regard to ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’ and the military, obviously, we’ve made it very clear that people are still going to get discharged — and that’s the bottom line for anybody who is involved in the fight,” Choi said.
Congress took action on “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” on May 27 when the House and the Senate Armed Services Committee independently attached language to each chamber’s version of major defense budget legislation that would repeal the law.
But Choi said many “who are not in the know” erroneously believe the ban on open service ended as a result of the May votes, and that his trial can help educate people about the situation and “continue to build pressure.”
Besides highlighting the military’s gay ban, Choi said he hopes his trial will call attention to what he called a kind of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” within the LGBT community that prevents people from taking action.
“To me, they’re one and the same,” he said. “The ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’ in the military enforces shame and hiding and an inability to even discuss certain topics or bring up certain methods of how we’re going to be full and equal dignified people — and the ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’ in our movement is enforced by people upon themselves, upon ourselves.”
Choi said his activities and words may come across as “self-aggrandizement or arrogance,” but he believes he’s working toward a greater good, calling his actions “a matter of service” and “a matter of speaking out for other people.”
He said he isn’t concerned about the criminal penalties he faces if found guilty and that his lawyers informed him he most likely wouldn’t face any jail time.
“To be able to stand up and get punished and to continue to sacrifice in a visible way is a badge of honor on behalf of those people who have not yet been able to do the bare minimum of their steps toward gaining dignity — and that is coming out,” he said.
If activists get their way, the upcoming trial could feature a star witness, although it’s highly unlikely he would appear in court. Lawyers with GetEqual, an activist group responsible for organizing protests keyed to certain LGBT issues, served President Obama a subpoena last week at the White House.
They contend that Choi and Pietrangelo were following orders from their commander-in-chief, who has repeatedly said LGBT people should keep the pressure on him to follow through with his campaign promises for LGBT rights.
One such example of Obama asking LGBT people to keep the pressure on him came last year during a keynote speech at the Human Rights Campaign national dinner.
“And that’s why it’s so important that you continue to speak out, that you continue to set an example, that you continue to pressure leaders — including me — and to make the case all across America,” Obama said at the time.
A White House spokesperson declined to comment on Obama’s receipt of the subpoena or whether the president would appear at the trial.
Choi said protests outside the White House were “truly in keeping with what the president [said] needed to happen.”
“Obviously, it wasn’t a direct order,” Choi said. “But it was an indirect order. I was in uniform at the HRC dinner. I was serving on active duty many times when he said those things.”
Choi said service members like he and Pietrangelo have an “instinct to make sure you do everything you can” when the president or a military commander “even hints that this is the direction that needs to happen.”
While acknowledging Obama’s appearance during the trial would be highly unlikely, Choi said Obama has already been subpoenaed under the “penalty of morality” to live up to the promises he’s made — particularly regarding the LGBT community.
“He has to be able to stand up and be accountable to all of the things that he did — or didn’t — do as a commander particularly,” Choi said.
Robin McGehee, co-founder of GetEqual, the organization that helped organize Choi and Pietrangelo’s protest at the White House, said GetEqual plans to stand “shoulder-to-shoulder” with Choi and Pietrangelo during their trial next week.
“We take our obligation of protecting the activists that work with us very seriously,” she said. “We have been in constant communication with their defense team and offered our support, but ultimately they are in control of the case’s legal strategy and we certainly respect and support their expertise.”
McGehee said the trial will not only draw attention to “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” but “serve as a beacon of hope for many in our community that we can be in charge of our own equality.”
“We don’t have to sit idly by and let someone else decide for us,” she said. “Dan and Jim have exemplified what it means to stand up and find your own voice.”
Choi noted he hasn’t received help from national LGBT groups regarding his actions.
“I’ve been in contact, of course, with GetEqual and the leaders of the grassroots groups, but the national groups — that are lobby groups now — I have not [heard from] and [have had] no offers of help or support,” Choi said.
Alex Nicholson, executive director of Servicemembers United, said his organization isn’t involved with the case. He noted, however, that Choi’s trial would help bring attention to “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.”
“This case helps continue the pressure on the White House by spotlighting the fact that many are still looking to the president for active, not passive, leadership on this issue,” Nicholson said.
Among the national legal groups that Choi cited as offering no support is the American Civil Liberties Union. Choi said he received a response from the National Center for Lesbian Rights, but that it “was on a personal platform and not representing the group.”
“I am certainly waiting for those very smart people and adept people in those national groups to come around and show their support. I would love to see them at the trial,” Choi said.
The ACLU didn’t immediately respond to the Blade’s request for comment on the matter.
Choi’s trial will occur close to the one-year anniversary of when discharge proceedings against him for violating “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” began. On June 30, 2009, a panel of New York National Guard officers recommended Choi be expelled from the U.S. military for publicly saying he’s gay.
Although his discharge proceedings have started, Choi said he remains in service and last week returned from drill duty. He noted that his fellow service members have supported his efforts and talk about topics ranging from same-sex marriage to transgender people to gay sex.
“[One] soldier asked me am I a top or a bottom,” Choi said. “And you know? That is when you know you made it as far as unit cohesion goes because people can joke [about] these things. I said, ‘Well, I don’t believe in those titles. In fact, I believe in full equality.’”