Dec 3 2013




Gabriel Arana, who is Senior Editor at American Prospect magazine, has written a long and powerful article about Dan Choi's journey over the years. He captures the high moments, the dark moments, the martyrdom and the Choi's frailties that complicated his search for an elusive truth.

The article at times is painful to read and at other times brings huge smiles to your face as you remember him at his best moments.

Here is the beginning of the article but you can read the entire article by clicking here.

Midway between the White House and the Capitol on Pennsylvania Avenue in Washington, D.C., the Newseum Residences is one of those glass-and-steel high-rises that feels more like a hotel than an apartment building. The floor in the lobby always looks as if it’s just been polished, the frosted glass wiped down. The building’s ten inhabited floors are near identical. Each has a long, windowless hallway with 13 or 14 doors, their numbers etched on brushed-steel plates. In the elevators, a printed sheet in a display announces the day’s schedule of events—breakfast in the lounge at seven, yoga on the roof deck in the evening. Most of the time, though, it seems no one lives there.

On the 12th floor, Dan Choi’s apartment is the one with the lantern at the foot of the door—“for weary travelers,” he likes to say. A studio with a galley kitchen, it costs him $1,700 a month. He sleeps on the two L-shaped couches that fill the living area. An electric keyboard, two bongo drums, and a microphone stand take up a corner. Tibetan prayer flags hang from a wall. Just out of view is the District Court for the District of Columbia, where he had his latest breakdown.

Inside the entrance, on a stretch of wall about six feet wide, Dan has sketched, in black marker and colored pastels, a tableau of his life. Along the bottom, a figure plays the trumpet. This is Dan back in high school in Tustin, California, where he was the star of the Model United Nations team and senior class president. To the right is a soldier in uniform silhouetted against an American flag, which symbolizes Dan’s years in the Army. In the left-hand corner, three Islamic arches frame a marketplace, evoking Dan’s 15-month deployment in Iraq at the height of the surge. Across the top, he has depicted his proudest moment: when he and 12 others chained themselves to the fence outside the White House in November 2010 to protest “don’t ask, don’t tell,” the law that barred gays and lesbians from serving openly in the military.

On a Wednesday in August, Dan is setting up for Hungry Hungry Hippos night. On the white coffee table, he’s laid out a platter with sliced boiled eggs dusted with paprika; mini carrots and tomatoes; Sour Patch Kids; and a dozen pot cupcakes that have collapsed into themselves. “I can make brownies, but the cupcakes I can’t get right,” he says. He’s got backup: a six-foot glass bong. The table’s centerpiece is Hungry Hungry Hippos, a children’s game in which players operate four plastic mechanical hippos and try to gobble up as many marbles on the board as possible. By the time an artist friend walks through the door, Dan is stoned, a fact he broadcasts loudly. “I’m high!” he tells her before bursting into high-pitched laughter. Dan offers her a hit, bringing a flame to the bowl. She takes one, exhaling with a grimace.

“What is that?” she says.

“Isn’t it great?” Dan asks. “I used whiskey instead of water for the filter.”

“It’s harsh, man,” she says.

Within an hour, the other two guests show up: a young lawyer and Dan’s drug dealer. They nibble on the snacks while watching a video of comedian Margaret Cho. “I think she’s sick of me for calling too much,” Dan says. He met Cho at Occupy Atlanta in 2012. The video ends, and the group begins the night’s first and only round of Hungry Hungry Hippos. Someone says “go” and the players pump their levers, making the hippos extend and open their mouths into the center as the marbles rattle. Before the game can finish, Dan removes his hippo from the board and places it on his head. “I’m taking my ball and going home!” he says. Everyone chuckles.

With the plastic animal balanced on his head, Dan grabs the microphone from the corner and holds it close. He pulls back his shoulders and raises his chin, his square jaw protruding over the mic, gaze locked in as if he’s standing at attention. Thirty-two years old, he’s not as jacked as he was during his Army days, but he’s still fit—muscular shoulders and a broad chest that tapers into a narrow waist. In the lambent glow of the blank television screen, he’s striking. His hair is shaved on the sides military--style, his expression grim. It’s easy to see why, four years ago, Dan Choi may have been the most famous gay person in America. But then the spell breaks. “Welcome to the Delilah show!” Dan exclaims as the plastic hippo falls to the ground, and he breaks out into a parody of Billy Joel’s “Piano Man.”

For 21 months—between his debut on The Rachel Maddow Show in March 2009 and the passage of the National Defense Authorization Act in December 2010—Dan Choi was not just the best-known spokesperson for the movement to repeal “don’t ask, don’t tell.” He was its emblem. A West Point graduate, a combat veteran, a fluent Arabic speaker, he was the kind of soldier the military should have been promoting instead of kicking out. In interviews and at press conferences, he was articulate and passionate, charming and funny.

“The issue needed a voice and a face to get the attention of the media, the military, and Washington,” says Nathaniel Frank, a historian at New York University and author of Unfriendly Fire, the pre-eminent account of gays serving under “don’t ask, don’t tell.” “Dan Choi had a good understanding of political theater, a passionate attachment to his role as an activist, and a strong sense of righteous anger that he was unwilling to let go of.”

By the time “don’t ask, don’t tell” was abolished, Dan had been interviewed scores of times, appearing in all the major newspapers and news networks (save Fox); spoken at dozens of gay-rights rallies from Wichita to Moscow; lectured at universities from Texas A&M to Harvard; and been named a “brave thinker” by The Atlantic.

Now, Dan wakes up most days with nothing to do. After the sun rouses him from his spot on the couch, where he sleeps under his “affirmation quilt”—fan letters are printed on each square—he takes two capsules of Hydroxycut, a diet pill loaded with caffeine, and Wellbutrin, an antidepressant used to treat bipolar disorder. Sometimes he goes for a long bike ride or works out at the gym in his building. He attends fundraisers and art openings, occasionally in uniform. Now and then, he drives to Fire Island, a gay vacation destination off Long Island. He earns a living by giving speeches at $10,000 a pop, which the Gotham Artists agency arranges for him. He smokes pot—a lot of it, he admits. “I can’t tell the difference,” he says, “between being high and not.”

Dan says he has no friends, which isn’t quite true. From time to time, someone from his past will show up—an Army buddy, a high-school pal. He’s gotten acquainted with the other gay guys in the building and invites them over for grilling parties. He knows a bunch of activists in D.C., though they are better at changing history than keeping in touch. He still talks to his younger sister, Grace, and to his cousin Sandra. But he no longer speaks to his dad or mom, Southern Baptists who don’t approve of his sexual identity. After his breakdown in March, he had a falling out with his older brother Isaac, who accused Dan of embarrassing the family. He has drifted from most of his fellow cadets at West Point and keeps his distance from Knights Out, a group of openly gay and lesbian West Pointers.

Each time I see Dan, he seems to have rearranged the furniture in his living room or adopted a new lifestyle trend. One day, he had gotten rid of his garbage can to be more cognizant of the waste he produces, which required him to walk to the trash chute each time he ordered takeout or had groceries delivered. Another day, he had downloaded a meditation app from iTunes and wanted me to listen to it with him. He likes to watch TED talks (“Your Body Language Shapes Who You Are” and “How to Start a Movement” are among his favorites).

In late August, I was on my way to interview Dan at his apartment when he messaged me that a big protest was shaping up at the White House. President Barack Obama had just announced that he would ask Congress for authorization to use force in Syria. I raced to meet him at the north entrance, but all I found were tourists snapping photos and Dan circling around on his bike. He hung out for a while, texting a friend to ask for an update. She didn’t respond. After 20 minutes of scouring his contacts for people who might have more information, he looked up from his phone and gave me a sideways grin. He was being a good sport, but he looked crestfallen. I sensed—or maybe I just imagined it—he was asking himself the same question I had been: Who is Dan Choi without “don’t ask, don’t tell”?