Lt. Dan Choi’s White House Arrest Sparks Debate About HRC’s (Non?) Activism

by Kilian Melloy

EDGE Staff Reporter

Friday March 19, 2010

An act of civil disobedience by two gay servicemembers protesting Don't Ask Don't Tell (DADT), the military's 17-year-old ban on openly gay troops, and the White House's apparent lack of interest in promoting the end of the ban, has left some wondering where the nation's foremost GLBT lobbying group stands on more confrontational forms of activism. reported on March 18 that Lt. Dan Choi, who is facing discharge under DADT, handcuffed himself to the White House fence. Capt. Jim Pietrangelo, who has been discharged under the anti-gay ban, joined him. Both men wore uniforms.

Choi founded the West Point GLBT group Knights Out and has been a prominent voice in the push to repeal the ban. Choi had not been scheduled as a speaker at the Human Rights Campaign's March 18 rally against the ban, which took place at Freedom Plaza; he requested, and was granted, a spot to address the crowd. When he took the mike, comedian and rally speaker Kathy Griffin asked Choi what his response might be to those who oppose the ban and say that gays wanting to serve openly have "an ulterior motive."

Responded Choi, "You're great at telling joke, but let me make one thing very clear: this is not a joke. Don't Ask, Don't Tell is not a joking matter. It is the only law that enforces shame." Choi went on to say that the law constitutes "a dereliction of duty, and it is a dereliction of my moral code and my moral fiber" to keep quiet and serve as a closeted gay man."

"You've been told that the White House has a plan. But we learned this week that the president is still not fully committed," said Choi in his speech. "Our fight actually isn't just here at Freedom Plaza," he went on. "Our fight is at the White House. And I am asking you to send a message to the president with me, to my Commander in Chief: repeal Don't Ask Don't Tell. Not next year, not tomorrow, but now. Now is the time." Choi went on to announce, "Following this rally, I will be leading to the White House to say, 'enough talk.' " Added Choi, "I am still standing, I am still fighting, I am still speaking out, and I am still gay."

Choi extended an invitation to accompany him to the president of the HRC, Joe Solmonese, to openly gay war hero Eric Alva, also a leading proponent of rescinding the ban, and to Griffin, who shouted, "Of course!" But when Choi tried to get their attention later, neither Solmonese nor Griffin went with him. Choi and a crowd of about 100 people proceeded to the White House, where Choi and Pietrangelo were reportedly assisted in handcuffing themselves to the White House fence by Robin McGehee, who was also placed under arrest.

A statement from the HRC later accounted for Solmonese's not having accompanied Choi to the White House, saying that Solmonese "felt it was important to stay and engage those at the rally in ways they can continue building the pressure needed for repeal." Added the statement, "This does nothing to diminish the actions taken by Lt. Choi and others. This is the nature of social change and everyone has a role to play."

HRC Ticked at Choi?

But GLBT news site JoeMyGod reported on March 18 that the apparent snub to Choi was rooted in the HRC's displeasure that Choi had insisted on addressing the crowd. "According to some reports, Lt. Dan Choi was not scheduled to speak at the HRC press conference with Kathy Griffin at DC City Hall today," the JoeMyGod article said. "We're hearing that he asked to appear at the podium, but was told 'this is Kathy's show.' (Or something to that effect.)"

News programs carried the story, a Facebook page dedicated to "Solidarity w/Dan Choi, Jim Pietrangelo & Rob McGehee" sprang up, and bloggers reflected about the meaning of Choi's actions and Solmonese having declined to go to the White House with him.

A CNN report carried images of Choi and Pietrangelo handcuffed to the White House fence, with anchorman Rick Sanchez telling viewers that the story concerned "someone who has been on this show several times... I have interviewed Lt. Dan Choi, and we just got these pictures." As footage of Choi and Pietrangelo played, Sanchez continued, "Look at these pictures. That's Lt. Dan Choi on the left, handcuffing himself to the fence in front of the White House. Apparently, he's had enough."

The video footage documented the arrival of uniformed officers, who removed the handcuffs and taking the men into custody. Sanchez reported on Choi's Twitter messages, including one message that invited readers to join a site called GetEqual.

Blogger Rob Smith examined Choi's actions at a March 19 Huffington Post article, where he called the act of civil disobedience "of questionable sincerity, most likely intricately plotted as to gain the most amount of press and attention," and said that it was "big, over the top, political theater of the type that is destined to get tongues wagging about the issue once again," but which was also, Smith wrote, a reminder of "what real activism was."

Smith disclosed that he, also, was a gay men who had served in the armed forces, and wrote, "While I have no real desire to serve in the military again, I speak out for the same reasons that other gay veterans do: because there are thousands of gay soldiers currently serving whose voices are rendered completely silent due to this policy, and if we don't speak up for them, nobody else will."

Comparing Choi's deft, media-savvy activist to the step he took by handcuffing himself to the fence, Smith wrote, "This is either bold gay activism, the likes of which we haven't seen since the days of ACT UP, or it is a deafening cry for attention that just damaged the brand and credibility of one of the few real gay leaders the community has right now."

Smith went on to contrast outright civil disobedience to the "gala fundraisers for the usual heterosexual celebrities who deign to be supportive of us," and added, "I know that a lot of African-Americans don't like the comparison of the gay rights movement to the civil rights movement, but I happen to be Black and gay, so I'll say this: if the majority of the leaders who fought for my rights as a Black person were as complacent and easily placated as those who are allegedly fighting for my rights as a gay person, I would certainly not have had access to the opportunities and education that led me to this very point."

Joe Sudbay, in a March 19 posting at AmericaBlog, wrote about having been present as Choi and Pietrangelo cuffed themselves to the fence. "It was the first time I've seen civil disobedience up close. And, it was intense," wrote Sudbay. "To think it's come to this with the Obama administration. But, it has. This week, Barney Frank made it abundantly clear that the White House really needed to speak out on its desire to repeal Don't Ask, Don't Tell this year. That was Monday. No word from the White House, which says everything. There is no plan, despite the promises. It seems that everyone in DC knows that, but not everyone will admit it."

The Fringe Right Weighs In

Peter LaBarbera, the person behind anti-gay blog Americans For Truth About Homosexuality (AFTAH), leapt on the news of Choi's civil disobedience, using the action to characterize gays as disruptive and self-serving.

"The spectacle of Choi protesting his own Commander-in-Chief and Choi's self-aggrandizing crusade against the Armed Forces--which by law cannot allow open homosexuals--helps explain to the public why celebrated homosexuality has no place in our military culture," wrote Labarbera, whose screeds against GLBTs routinely put quotation marks around terms such as "gay."

"Imagine all the pro-'gay' activism that would follow an official governmental shift toward mandating that the military affirm homosexuals," added LaBarbera. "This must never happen."

The blogger went on to cite the arguments used by opponents of repealing DADT, including the claim that gays serving openly would impact troop morale. "Homosexual behavior is incompatible with good morale and military discipline--and 'gay'-affirming 'diversity' policies would offend religious and moral-minded servicemen and drive good men and women out of the military," LaBarbera wrote. "Somehow we think the United States Armed Forces can thrive in their true mission--fighting wars and protecting our shores--without being diverted into the dubious business of homosexual 'pride.' "

The AFTAH posting quoted Matt Barber of the anti-gay Liberty Counsel as deriding Choi for his "juvenile fit of civil disobedience," with Barber going on to claim, "As a former veteran with twelve years of service, I can say with authority that the military is only as strong as each link within its chain of command. Radical homosexual activists like Choi are weak links within that chain."

Added Barber, "Choi has proven himself an insubordinate. I have no sympathy for this reckless, self-serving ideologue. His demonstrated disobedience and disregard for orders (Article 10, Section 654 USC) bolsters the case against both homosexual conduct and sexual militancy in the Armed Forces."

In a posting last year, LaBarbera quoted Barber as characterizing same-sex relationships between males as a matter of "one man violently cramming his penis into another man's lower intestine and calling it 'love.' "

Kilian Melloy serves as EDGE Media Network's Assistant Arts Editor. He also reviews theater for WBUR. His professional memberships include the National Lesbian & Gay Journalists Association, the Boston Online Film Critics Association, The Gay and Lesbian Entertainment Critics Association, and the Boston Theater Critics Association's Elliot Norton Awards Committee.

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