July 18, 2011 | by Chris Johnson
Choi slams DOMA hearing witnesses as ‘exclusively white and privileged’

Dan Choi (Blade file photo by Michael Key)

The gay activist known for chaining himself to the White House in protest over “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” isn’t happy with the witness selection for an upcoming Senate hearing on the Defense of Marriage Act.

Dan Choi, an Iraq war veteran who was discharged under the military’s gay ban, said in a statement to the Washington Blade on Sunday that the scheduled witnesses for the Senate Judiciary Committee are “exclusively white and privileged.”

“Marriage equality is a matter of civil rights, steeped in the language and moral lessons of the historic American struggle for inclusion and equality,” Choi said. “That the panel of gay witnesses is exclusively white and privileged brings shameful discredit to the true character of our broad community and inclusive civil rights movement.”

Each of the three witnesses slated to testify on Wednesday who are in or were in same-sex marriages are white. Additionally, the two prominent LGBT advocates who are set to testify — Human Rights Campaign President Joe Solmonese and Freedom to Marry President Evan Wolfson — are white. No person of color is scheduled to testify at the hearing.

Neither the Senate Judiciary Committee nor Freedom to Marry replied to a request to comment on Choi’s remarks. HRC declined to comment.

While each of the scheduled witnesses are white, at least one is enduring significant hardship, according to a committee notice published last week.

Among the witnesses is Ron Wallen, an Indio, Calif. resident, who married Tom Carrollo in 2008 after being together for 55 years. After Carrollo died in March of cancer, Wallen’s income was compromised because DOMA prohibits him from receiving his spouse’s Social Security payment. According to the hearing notice, Wallen is unable to make payments on his family home and is faced with selling the residence after recently losing his spouse.

Choi is also pushing on online petition on Change.org targeting HRC for the selection of the witnesses. In addition to criticizing the witness selection for being all white, the petition, organized by Oregon-based activist Ian Finkenbinder, also decries the lack of representation of bi-national same-sex couples at the hearing. As of Sunday, at least 100 people signed the online petition.

“Neglecting people of color and binational couples in the discussion on marriage equality is an outrage,” the petition states. “Their powerful stories need to be heard, and I have signed this petition in order to demand the HRC include ALL LGBT Americans in this debate.”

HRC isn’t responsible the selection of witnesses for the DOMA hearing. Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), chair of the committee, decides in consultation with outside groups which witnesses will present testimony.

Still, DOMA’s impact on bi-national same-sex couples has been one of the most high-profile ways in which the law discriminates against LGBT people. Under DOMA, U.S. citizens in same-sex marriages with foreign nationals cannot sponsor the spouses for residency in the United States. In the some cases, gay foreign nationals wed to Americans could be deported.

But one group focused on immigration issues isn’t expressing concern about the lack of representation of bi-national same-sex couples at the hearing.

Christopher Edwards, spokesperson for Immigration Equality, said Leahy is a “huge champion” of UAFA and bi-national families and maintained Immigration Equality has “a very positive relationship with him and his office.”

“There are a large number of issues related to DOMA that not all of them could be or should be represented,” Edwards said. “We at Immigration Equality are fully supportive of the witness list for the hearing, and we know our couples and families will benefit from the hearing and the testimony of the witnesses chosen.”

In 2009, Leahy held a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing specifically dedicated to the hardships faced by bi-national same-sex couples and the Uniting American Families Act, which would allow gay Americans to sponsor their foreign partners for residency in the United States.

At the time, Shirley Tan, a Philippines native and lesbian Pacifica, Calif., resident, testified on how she was arrested in January 2009 by Immigrations and Customs Enforcement and threatened with deportation from her partner for nearly 25 years.

Moreover, the Courage Campaign, a grassroots organization that works on progressive issues, has scheduled a bi-national same-sex couple to appear on Tuesday at a news conference promoting DOMA repeal.

Robert Koehl, a 60-year-old U.S citizen, will be present with his partner of 15 years, Stylianos Manolakakis, a Greek national. Manolakakis’ request to renew his visitor’s visa was denied shortly after the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks.

“Our lawyer advised us not to marry because she said it might raise red flags,” Koehl said a written statement. “So, we’re waiting. As long as DOMA is in the books, there is no way our marriage would be recognized. But if DOMA got repealed, we would get married the following day.”

Chris Johnson is Chief Political & White House Reporter for the Washington Blade. Johnson attends the daily White House press briefings and is a member of the White House Correspondents' Association. Follow Chris

18 Comments
  • We are so over Choi.

    • ————————————————————–
      I think the correct word should be “over-choied” in that we have had a man with the stature of Lt. Choi. Not a lazy bone in his body… he’s been too busy doing OUR jobs for us. Quit complaining and GET TO WORK!

  • Jill Johnson-Young

    Dan,
    Maybe you should read the full witness list and written statement list. There you will find me, with my three adopted children, who are of various backgrounds, and none of us are “privileged.” We are on the list, as is Ron, becasue we lost my spouse and my children’s other mom last year to pulmonary fibrosis. She was a Navy vet. How about supporting those who have stood up and gone public and made an impact in our local communities rather than staging big splashy demonstrations? Ron lives in very conservative Indio, and I live in Riverside, and both couples fought Prop 8 on the home front while facing illness and then death. This is a time to stand together, not to pick a fight. If DOMA goes down, then we all win our civil rights. Go support Ron tomorrow- he is aged and grieving and stressed. Be a community there tomorrow.

  • If Choi became a supporter of HRC, he would have received Solmonese’s email asking people to share their story so he can tell Congress. Solmonese understands it’s not all about him, something Choi needs to learn. Until then, stop being a tool or just go away.

  • hey Dan there are black folks out there who are gay.They absolutely despise your gut at the level of disrespect you have shown President Obama.YOU lie about Obama and YOU insult him on a daily basis.
    If you think gay black folks aren’t watching YOU;you got another thing coming!
    They are reading YOUR lies;watching YOU making $ bashing President Obama and believe Me;they are mad as hell.
    Black folks are not on the news and they don’t worry about that either but they get out and vote and that’s all that matters.
    You Dan Choi are a racist lying Republican PLANT and a media whore!

  • While I don’t think everything Dan does is right or good, he most certainly is not a racist, nor a Republican, nor a distraction, nor a media whore. He has brought more attention to LGBT issues than any of us commenting here, and Fred, I think it’s really rude of you to say such disparaging things about him. If only we had more “media whores” to give us the spotlight to keep pushing for our full rights. His protesting with GetEQUAL and others was instrumental to keep the pressure on for DADT repeal that nobody thought would happen. Did you see the cover of the HuffPo? It was the GetEQUAL protest. That image probably did more to repeal DADT than anything else. Talking heads blathering on in a room is boring – this was sensational and a great piece of activism.

    He also has every right to hold Obama accountable – we were promised so much more, and lest you forget, Obama still will not support marriage, even after polling tipped in our favor and he has hinted at it in every which way. That’s super frustrating. I’m sure as hell not going to vote for an anti-gay Republican, but that doesn’t mean I’m going to blindly and happily support Obama – he should learn a lesson from Gov. Cuomo to see what a real Fierce Advocate looks like and #EvolveAlready.

    In this instance, I think Dan’s anger might be misplaced. It’s true that much of HRC’s work is largely behind the scenes, doesn’t represent our entire community, and often leaves people behind (ENDA 2007 debacle), though in this case it doesn’t seem like they have all the blame here for showing no POC/binational couples. I am surprised however that Immigration Equality is totally fine with his exclusion. I’m really glad the Courage Campaign included binational couples in the Feinstein press conference this morning. I think the deportation and severing of families is a very powerful argument for the repeal DOMA, and so we ALL lose out when part of our community’s stories is not told. So again, I think Dan’s heart is in the right place, but I’m not sure HRC is entirely to blame on this one.

  • I second what Jill Johnson-Young and HRC Supporter have already said here.
    This is a time to be standing together and not be trying to cause trouble and division within our community.
    Dan Choi – you need to have the chip on your shoulder removed before the weight of it destroys you. I feel sorry that you feel the need to criticize even those whose actions would make this country a better place for you to live and be accepted.

  • Dan Choi is becoming the gay rights version of Cindy Shaheen. Take a break buddy, we got this, really.

  • I think it’s important to remember that this is a governing body that does things such as considering it credible to hold hearings on transgender rights without including even a single actual transgender witness. It’s hardly surprising and in fact is just yet more evidence that the DC bubble these people operate in, from Obama on down, is just as impenetrable and as out of touch with what’s really going on in this country as ever. They don’t understand us or our issues, nor do they have any real desire to. This is nothing more than political posturing by Democrats to win the favor and solidify the support of wealthy (read: white) gays and lesbians with an election approaching. As is just about always the case with these people, they’re focusing on where the money is: With the wealthy, and that means with those who are white.

    Even Barney Frank has said openly (in this very paper, I believe) that DOMA is going nowhere in Congress until ENDA is dealt with, and that means it’s going to be on the shelf for a long time to come, if current indications are any guide. When you’re dealing with people who can’t even bring themselves to hold hearings with witnesses who actually represent the people and issues they’re discussing, much less actually take on those issues legislatively as they promise us so profusely that they will when they need our support at election time, this is what we’re going to get. Get used to it.

  • But there should be somebody there from out4imigration or loveexiles groups that are deeply involved in binationational relationships other wise no matter what happens we will still be the bottom of the pile for equaility. Many of our own community forget about those relationships till fedral regconition is given these couples will be living apart or living in exile

  • The worst thing about Dan Choi’s histrionics and refusal to give due credit is the amount of media attention he gets for it. His public advocacy is entirely too much about himself. How is a perpetual pose of indignation either smart or useful? Some of the comments above went a bit overboard, but I can understand how people feel. His attitude toward President Obama seems to be that anything short of perfection requires blanket condemnation. But Obama has done a number of good things; would the world end if Dan admitted that fact, even if only in passing? Also, Obama election as the first African American President is one of the great milestones of this country’s history. That does not immunize him from criticism, of course; but showing him some respect–especially since he is an ally, however imperfect–would make Dan’s criticisms of him a lot easier for some people to swallow. As for HRC, the attacks on it from the gay left are so relentless that they’ve lost their impact.

    An historic hearing is being held tomorrow on a pro-gay bill that the President has just endorsed. Can’t we all applaud that much at least? Incidentally, I am part of a binational and biracial couple with a big personal stake in this bill. As one who helped map the successful strategy for marriage equality in D.C., I am proud of how good a job our broad-based coalition did in showing the racial diversity of our families, a task whose importance I stressed. If some marriage equality activists need to do a better job on that score, Dan’s relentless negativity is not the best way to get the message across. Also, he only came out a couple of years ago; couldn’t he show a little more respect for those of us who have been fighting in the trenches for years or decades? Sing it to him, Aretha.

  • Jill Johnson-Young

    We will be watching from Coast to Coast tomorrow. I hope we see a full house of supporters for those who are testifying. It’s not perfect- but we have come a long, long way. Let’s support our community as a unified front, and not give the other side any divisiveness to pounce upon. We have the President and the Senate Judiciary Committee- that’s more than ever in history. We are out of the closets, out of the street, and in the Senate. That is indeed progress. If we stand together we will eventually have support enough to end discrimination, including every group with an interest here. It all comes under civil rights as full citizens under our Constitution.

  • Choi just needs to STFU. Nothing is good enough for this guy. His 15 minutes of fame are over.

  • Choi really needs to get a life or something. There was nothing ‘privileged’ about the widower who lost his husband after 55 years together and must sell their home because of DOMA. Choi’s lack of respect has lost for him mine.

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