On the front lines in the battle to allow gays and lesbians to serve openly in the armed forces, Lt. Daniel Choi didn’t hold back about his feelings for the nation's leading gay rights group, the Human Rights Campaign (HRC), in a recent interview with NEWSWEEK. Choi said the group was more concerned about social status than real social change. "You do not represent us if all you are looking for is a ladder into elite society," he said. Choi's remarks added to a growing debate in the gay community about the best tactics for affecting change.
Working within HRC is former Specialist Jarrod Chlapowksi, a U.S. Army veteran and Korean linguist who has been fighting for the repeal of "don't ask, don't tell" since 2005, when he decided not to re-enlist despite a pending promotion to sergeant and a promising military career ahead. Instead, he cofounded Servicemembers United, the largest organization of LGBT troops and veterans, and last year went to work for HRC as their military consultant. Chlapowski spoke with NEWSWEEK's Eve Conant about why he quit the Army, Choi's controversial remarks, and why any schism in the gay community needs to be bridged—not deepened. Excerpts:
Conant: If you had a promising career in the Army, why would you leave it?
Chlapowksi: It was definitely a career track of mine. It was an environment I seemed to function very easily in. The decision [not] to re-enlist did not come easy. I was serving and was openly gay but I witnessed too many flaws in the law ["don't ask, don't tell"], like third-party discharges—a civilian could come to your commander, a jilted boyfriend or girlfriend, and that would be permissible evidence. Even if you were not actively asking or telling, you could lose your job because the law was so vague. The other thing was the lack of provider-patient confidentiality. I could talk to a chaplain or psychiatrist and they could out me to my commanders. This is a particularly big issue with PTSD [posttraumatic stress disorder]. Part of the therapy is talking about relationships, and you couldn't do that. [According to the relaxed regulations announced by Defense Secretary Robert Gates on Thursday, third-party testimony and privileged communication will no longer be grounds to start an investigation.] That's why the [American Medical Association] came out against DADT last fall. So because of things like this, it made a career path for me in the Army pretty irrational. I was angry that I had to make that decision, though, and I had saved up $10,000 over the course of my military career, and so I made the decision to put that money into [the] fight to repeal the law.
What are you, HRC, and Servicemembers United doing to fight the law now?
My piece of the fight is to mobilize Iraq and Afghanistan vets to fight the law. The real costs of this law have been hidden for so long, and the best messengers to talk about this are those who've been directly affected by it. I try to bring them out of the woodwork. We're working with a large coalition of progressive grassroots organizations, and on May 11 we'll be bringing as many vets as we can to go on the Hill and lobby Congress.
In an interview this week, Lt. Daniel Choi complained that the larger national groups, like HRC, have become too insular and elitist, and don't represent the gay community. Would you agree with that?
I would disagree. Saying that ignores the efforts of thousands of vets who are working hard every day to repeal "don't ask, don't tell." Not all their work is quite as public as Dan's last week, but it has a purpose and these people are just as invested as he is in repealing the law.
Choi also said that he felt "betrayed" that Kathy Griffin and HRC president Joe Solmonese did not join him on his march up to the White House.
I don't think that was fair. That was a spur-of-the moment action done by Dan. If he had approached them before the rally, then on-the-spot decisions would not have been made.
Have you and HRC been getting complaints about this?
What we're seeing is part of the general frustration in our community. Sure, we are getting a lot of questions, like "So what is HRC doing?" And in response I direct them to our site on "don't ask, don't tell" so they can see what our expanding field team is doing in our target states and around the country. Overall, I see this as an opportunity to educate.
Was Choi handcuffing himself to the White House gate helpful to the cause?
The majority of members of the defense community—vets and active-duty service members I've spoken with on these issues—have expressed displeasure at the use of the uniform in any activism. [Choi was wearing his uniform during the White House protest, as was former Capt. Jim Pietrangelo.] This is certainly not a tactic I would have chosen, and I'm not so sure this action was worth alienating the defense community. That said, there is room for all types of actions in this movement. And I think that, done strategically and in coordination with broader coalitions working on these issues, there is room for actions similar to what Dan and Captain Pietrangelo chose to do on the White House gates.
We claim as a community that we can function just as well as our straight counterparts in the military, which depends on group efforts to succeed. So let's prove it. We have a few months to get this right [before the Defense Authorization Act comes to a vote], and there is no reason, if we work together as a coalition, that we can't see a repeal this year. This is our final push. We need every living body, gay and straight, to help out with whatever means they can. There is room for all types of activism, but one effort can't be done at the expense of other efforts.
What is next in the fight against "don't ask, don't tell"? The Pentagon announced Thursday that it would relax the enforcement of "don't ask, don't tell" rules. In particular, Secretary Gates said the military will no longer open investigations into service members based on anonymous complaints, will restrict testimony from third parties, and will require high-ranking officers to review all cases. This has been described as a temporary measure until Congress can take permanent action, but could this also be viewed as a way to take the pressure off an immediate repeal?
It's a positive step. The power for a full repeal lies in Congress, but that doesn't mean the Pentagon can't move toward easing the implementation of DADT while we work toward full legislative repeal. The bottom line is that there is no way to make this law palatable. The Pentagon's steps today should be taken as an indication that the Pentagon has no issue with open service in the ranks, and provide Congress all the more reason to push forward full repeal.