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.”