Profile of Lt. Dan Choi

March 26, 2012

At 30, Daniel Choi is still new to many things.

For one thing, there’s life away from the military. There’s the newfound fame surrounding his high-profile activism. And then of course, there’s the undeniable fact of his being gay. dan_choi-square_small

You may already be familiar with the story of how Choi helped to bring about the repeal of “Don’t ask, don’t tell” (DADT), the U.S. policy that banned openly homosexual individuals from serving in the military. The former lieutenant first rocked the nation on March 20, 2009, when he came out on The Rachel Maddow Show; soon after, he was discharged from the New York Army National Guard under the very policy he was protesting. Later on March 18, 2010, he and fellow gay veteran Captain James Petrangelo II handcuffed themselves to the White House fence demanding that DADT be repealed. And finally in late 2010, Choi attended the signing of the bill that would remove homosexuality as a cause for dismissal from the army.

For someone so exposed to the limelight when it comes to activism for gay rights, Choi still seems somewhat unadjusted to his new lifestyle as a reputed gay rights activist. Beneath his easy charm and endearing candor lie the subtle signs of unease, like the constant fidgeting at the collar of his shirt and a restless leg. After all, how to be a public figure isn’t the only thing Choi has had to learn.

“I’m still kind of finding out what does it mean to be gay,” confesses Choi, who didn’t come out until he was 27. “It’s one thing to come out on TV and say, ‘I’m gay.’ That doesn’t mean that you’re an expert in gay.”

“I’m a new gay, I’m a freshman gay,” he then jokes.


Even his new Midtown high-rise one-bedroom is still being broken in. Punctuating the meticulousness of the apartment are sporadic tokens of Choi’s personality, whether it’s the set of Jesus Christ Superstar novelty magnets exploding across the steel door, or the quirky mug with the brass knuckle handle.

That Choi would become a gay rights activist seems to be a far cry from his origins. Born the second son of a pastor in Orange County, Calif., Choi’s childhood had many elements of what you could call the typical Korean-American experience: working hard, striving for the proverbial Ivy League school acceptance, and being expected someday to marry a Korean woman.

Or maybe it’s not as far as you’d think.

“I made a lot of trouble when I was in high school, too,” Choi reminisces. “I was very, very Christian back then. One time, I got on the PA system, and I said, ‘I believe in Jesus Christ as my lord and savior. We are in a very difficult time because President Clinton had an affair with Monica Lewinsky… and we need to repent.’ And I was like, ‘Let’s pray.’”

“He’s definitely the son of a preacher man,” says Julianne Sohn, a former public affairs officer for the Marine Corps who was discharged under DADT in 2008 and a friend of Choi’s. She now works in the FBI’s public affairs department. “The good ones tend to be very charismatic and well spoken, and I think Dan is all that.”

Choi’s bedroom wall stands testament to Choi’s never-ending determination to win equal rights for gay soldiers.

In the midst of an otherwise standard Korean-American childhood in Southern California, Choi noticed that something about him was different. The first time was when he was in the third grade. It was 1989. Watching a television show, he found himself attracted to one of the actors and wondering whether this feeling was wrong. “Every time I saw him, I was like, this is different from the ‘Eww, girls are icky,’ right? Very different from that. This one was like, it’s not going away… I didn’t know anyone else like this.”

Choi pushed the thought out of his head, putting off worrying about the issue until later. So even as he crushed on other boys, Choi acted the part, never acting on his love interests and instead going to dances with girl friends, even making a pact with his best friend—a girl—to get married at 38 if they were both still single. All the while, Choi wished he could be straight, if not only to join in on discussions with friends about girls. “When [my friends] always talk about, ‘Oh, you think she’s hot?’ It’s like, ‘Yeah she has beautiful eyes, great smile.’ I just tried to hide all the time, but tits didn’t work for me, but I would never be able to say that publically.”

For Choi’s parents, their main concern seemed to be that Choi was measuring up to his older brother—“[My parents would say], ‘(speaks in an accent) Oh your brother, he got a 1400 SAT,’ and I only got a 1360, so I was like, ‘Aww, I’m a failure’—and developing an eye for Korean girls. “I went to dances all the time, had pictures,” Choi says, “And my mom was always like, ‘Why the white one? Why you have the baek-in (“white person”)?’ If you only knew, you would be happy about the white girl. And that’s exactly what happened when I came out to [my parents].”

But Choi wouldn’t come out for another decade or so. It wasn’t until he was 27 that he could fully admit even to himself that he was gay.

The fear of losing everything, even his religion, was one of Choi’s biggest dilemmas. Choi recalls writing in a journal while on a mission trip to the Dominican Republic when he was around 20 years old. “Dear God,” he wrote, “I have a sin. I just want to change, but I have to say it: I’m gay.”

“I couldn’t believe that I wrote it down on paper, and I threw it across the forest,” Choi says. “I still have the journal, but it was so strange to come out to myself.”

Sohn isn’t surprised Choi didn’t come out for as long as he did. “You have to understand the Korean American community in Orange County is very conservative. Politically, the church is very strong, it has a very strong influence in the community down in Southern California.” Another big reason? “Dan went to Westpoint right out of high school, and that’s a very tough environment to test out being gay, especially if you’re unsure of your sexuality.”

For Choi’s father, going into the military was a very respectable profession, especially for a man. Choi’s older brother also had chosen to become a soldier, a societal role Choi’s father considered to be “manly” and “responsible,” Choi says.

Of course, for Choi, joining the army also meant he had to keep quiet about his sexuality, or be kicked out. He kept up the act well.

“I didn’t know [Dan was gay], I didn’t even think it a possibility,” says Jeffrey Peterson, Choi’s last supervisor in active duty in the military. “There are some soldiers that you meet, and you just know they’re gay. Dan didn’t have any of those stereotypical clues.”

Then when he was 27, Choi fell in love. He met Matthew Kinsey, a Gucci executive, 44 at the time, at a gay bathhouse, a place where Choi could secretly explore his sexuality. And with this man, Choi began his first relationship, gay or straight, ever in his life.

dan choi window picture
Choi stands at his living room window staring out at the street below. “I just moved [to New York], but I’m not sure I like it here,” he muses. “Too busy.”

But though his heart wanted to sing of his love to the world, Choi still felt he had to hide the truth about his orientation. So he began telling family and friends about his new relationship, only he called his significant other Martha—similar enough in sound to Matthew’s real name to explain any slipups in gender reference. And Martha worked not at Gucci but at Bulgari so no one would be able to search the Gucci directory and discover no Martha was working there. When Peterson pressured Choi to introduce him to his girlfriend, Choi lied and declared, “She hates army people!”

Kinsey thought the secrecy was ridiculous. “He was like, ‘I don’t know anyone named Martha who works at Gucci,” Choi says. Some of Choi’s friends also didn’t buy into the story—“Some of my friends were like, ‘I don’t believe you, nobody our age is named Martha.’” Choi’s mother on the other hand never questioned Matthew’s true identity. Instead, she questioned everything else.

“I said that my boyfriend was Martha, and all these details were true,” Choi remembers. “I said, ‘She is 44 years old,’ and my mom was like, ‘Oh, menopause, oh, she, no baby.’ And I was like, ‘She’s white: half white, half Spanish,’ and my mom was like, ‘Oh, they so strange, white people.’ And then I was like, ‘Yeah, and I’m in love,’ and she was like, ‘No, don’t fall in love!’ And ‘She has a great job, she lives in New York City,’ and my mom was like, ‘No, too cold, New York City.’ My mom was saying all this bad stuff.”

Choi lamented the fact that he had to hide his relationship even as he was sharing about it. “When you’re in love, you shouldn’t be careful with telling people,” he says. “You can’t control when you’re falling in love.” The stress began to affect him emotionally and professionally. Even Peterson, who had by now become a close friend of Choi’s, wrote Choi a less-than-glowing performance review, writing that Choi was unmotivated and not invested in his work.

Finally, Choi had had enough.

“I had very good reviews from all of my time, but you know, when I fell in love, I was like, I can’t go to work and do this anymore. It got to be too much. I’ve been hiding for too long.”

Though Choi and Kinsey are no longer together, to this day, Choi credits Kinsey for giving him the push he needed to come out, starting with family and friends.

The first person he told was his best friend, the very girl he had forged a marriage pact with when he was 17. At the time, the friend, who had just broken up with her boyfriend, was helping him drive back home to California from active duty in New York. While on the road, Dan asked his friend if she had feelings for him. She said yes.

“Okay, I have to let you know that I’m gay,” Dan said.

His friend gasped. “I’m so surprised! Never would have thought!”

But the friend took it in stride. “She said, ‘This is great because now we can be friends, and there’s no sexual tension during the entire trip,’” Choi recalls.

One of the next people Choi told was his younger sister, Grace. He started by telling her Martha didn’t work for Bulgari, but Gucci. “Oh, even better,” Grace replied, excited about all the free samples she could receive from Matthew. Then Choi added, “And Martha’s a man.”

Though initially shocked, Grace quickly approved of this new revelation and was even happy about it. Because she had bipolar disorder, she had largely been considered the “black sheep” of the family. Now she wasn’t the only one.

To Choi’s surprise, Choi’s brother was similarly accepting. “He was crying when he called me,” Choi recalls. “He said, ‘I’m so sorry I was homophobic. I know that was so hard because I was the last one you told. I really didn’t want that kind of distance.’ But we became closer because of it.”

Sadly, Choi’s parents did not share his siblings’ views.

Choi had long feared what their reaction would be. After all, they had put his sister through three exorcisms and repeated hospitalizations. If that was what they did to her for being bipolar, what would they do to Choi for being gay?

That his parents, especially his mother, reacted the way they did was unsurprising. “Everything [got] flipped upside down,” Choi explains. “Because all of their Bible verses that they used, that they taught, they didn’t apply to gay people.”

“My mom, she was having a fit. She was like, ‘(speaks in an accent) You have the demon!’ [She] was like, what about this girl, what about that one. And it’s like ‘Fine! Black girl, fine. Japanese girl fine. Okay, anyone. Vagina, okay.’ She was saying that, she was so desperate, she was like, ‘Just have the sex, and you will be cured.’ And I said, what about before marriage? You always said, get married and then you have sex. She was like, ‘Don’t matter. Just go have the sex, and you see.’ My mom was very desperate when I came out to her.”

What made the experience even more difficult was the fact that being gay was, at its most fundamental, a matter of one’s preference in sexual practices. In fact, for Choi, when he came out to his parents was also the first time he had ever discussed sex with them. In his observation, Korean parents including his own still balk when it comes to talking to their children about sex.

“We are an asexual community of Korean-Americans, doesn’t matter your orientation,” he explains. “Just coming out as gay, if you just think about it in the sex context, it’s so hard to come out to your parents, because you’ve never even talked about sex, straight sex even.”

To this day, three years later, Choi and his parents don’t speak.

dan choi poster imageChoi blames the difficulty of coming out to his parents as well as their inability to accept his sexual orientation on what he explains as the DADT of the Asian community. In general, he explains, Asians in the U.S. tend to stick to their stereotypical roles of studying hard and keeping a low profile. It’s a DADT he believes is both imposed on Asians by society at large and by Asians themselves.

There are good and bad stereotypes, Choi observes. High intelligence. Kung fu. Excellent grades. Terrible driving skills. Dexterity at math. But even sticking to their guns on just the positive stereotypes can have a detrimental effect. It means that Asians are not trying to break the mold. More importantly, they are not making themselves visible in the eye of the public.

Visibility, Choi feels, is the best way to break the DADT of Asians. And when Choi made the decision to come out of the closet, he decided he would do it with a big bang.

“It’s like, just get your Ph.D from Harvard, just be a dentist, if not a doctor, surgeon, maybe be a professor, oh, then you’d be #1. But never be a comedian, never be a porn star, never be what most people see and they say, that’s very visible. I’m bad at math, so I was just like, I should be visible.”

By this time, Choi had co-founded Knights Out, an alumni organization for LGBT Westpoint graduates. When he presented the idea of his coming out publically to his fellow Knights Out members, some were concerned. After all, not only would he shake a community long characterized by its adherence to military tradition and order, but he would also be giving up his career. Many counseled him on the risks associated with this.

But Choi was adamant, even though it meant giving up his dream of becoming the first Korean-American General. Besides, no one could deny the huge step forward this would signify in getting rid of DADT.

“I knew that it would have an impact, I knew that the military wouldn’t allow him to stay in after he made that statement,” says Brenda “Sue” Fulton, now an executive director of Knights Out. “But I knew that it would be an important statement in getting people’s attention and letting them focus on the discussion in a different way.”

All the same, no one ever anticipated the amount of attention, if any at all, the Knights Out press release would receive. No one thought Choi’s small act of coming out publically would land him an appearance on national TV.

But it was less than a week later when Rachel Maddow invited Choi onto her show. And Choi finally spoke the three words he had so longed to say without hesitation: “I am gay.”

And the rest is history.

In hindsight, did DADT have to be repealed? Without a doubt, Fulton says.

“It didn’t help the military at all!” Fulton explains. “Integrity and honor are core army values, and here you’re forcing people to lie. It’s ridiculous.”

“Imagine if we couldn’t say, ‘I’m Korean American, and I’m proud of it.’ Imagine if that was illegal,” Choi says. “I thought DADT was a first amendment issue, was that who we are, we couldn’t express it, [and] we weren’t equal. The tie-in was that it abridged free speech of those three words, ‘I am gay.’ You say those three words and you get kicked out.”

dan choi notes picture
Choi’s bedroom wall stands testament to Choi’s never-ending determination to win equal rights for gay soldiers.

Even though DADT has been repealed, however, Choi still has his work cut out for him.

Choi specifically cites the lack of protections in the army for gay soldiers against harassment and discrimination, as well as the absence of counseling programs for soldiers who have recently come out. In addition, he points out that even though the policy is gone, he still has not been allowed back into the army. Finally, until recently, he had hoped to argue in court that his arrest after his protest at the White House was a violation of free speech. The case was denied.

But Choi remains undeterred. He hopes that one day, gay individuals who live in environments that condemn gayness and feel they have nowhere else to go can, with no hesitation, turn to the army, where they can come out at their own time with the support of their fighting comrades.

“The straight supremacists say, ‘We never say we’re straight, why do you have to say you’re gay?’ It’s like, because we’re discriminated against still! So we have to say it.”