Lt. Dan Choi on Why 'Don't Ask, Don't Tell' Compromise Is Not Acceptable

Last May, Iraq veteran Lt. Dan Choi publicly announced he was gay on The Rachel Maddow Show as a protest against the military’s "don’t ask, don’t tell" policy. He is currently in the process of being discharged from the Army. In the last year, he has become one of the most visible advocates for allowing gays to serve openly in the armed services, twice handcuffing himself to the White House gate, resulting in arrest. Despite news this week of compromise between lawmakers, gay-rights groups, and the Obama administration to overturn the 17-year-old "don’t ask, don’t tell" rules, Choi is not celebrating. In an open letter released exclusively to NEWSWEEK, Choi says he opposes the deal because it "does only half of what was promised."

From the first day I served and raised my right hand, I committed to the military’s values of integrity and an uncompromising dedication to honor. On Monday, when I learned of the president’s compromised approach to repealing "don’t ask, don’t tell," I felt betrayed. I am not celebrating now. My adherence to those military values is why I see this latest action as contrary to my understanding of leadership.

Seventeen years after the "don’t ask, don’t tell" law was first passed by Congress in 1993, what we have learned is undeniable.  The U.S. military’s ban on gay service members is a social experiment in discrimination that has failed more than 14,000 times; 14,000 isn’t just another number, it is an Arabic linguist, a highly trained and skilled infantryman, or another patriotic enlistee who sacrificed themselves for our country’s freedoms.  

On Monday, the White House announced compromise legislation to begin the process of repealing the outdated, discriminatory "don’t ask, don’t tell" policy. In the 11th hour, after waiting 18 months for the president, my commander in chief, to show real leadership, we were handed a deal that does only half of what was promised. Rather than a full repeal of the ban, the proposal would push repeal off to an unspecified date in the future, and only then if the president, secretary of defense, and chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff mutually agree that the time is right. There is no timetable for action, no promise for full repeal. Under this “compromise,” "don’t ask, don’t tell" could remain the law of the land forever.

I’m not going to lie. This compromise isn’t what I, or any of my fellow advocates, wanted or expected. The compromise does not end the firings. Nor does it restore our integrity. It is the result of a White House that has been AWOL on "don’t ask, don’t tell" repeal for the last year and a half, and now is desperately trying to find a solution—any solution, regardless of how unworkable—to a problem and a promise it would rather just go away. Our “fierce advocate,” as the president promised the gay community he would be, has presented us with a last-minute Hobson’s choice, and it is no cause for celebration.

As the clock continues ticking toward a Thursday vote in Congress, the president is asking the lesbian and gay community to praise this compromise because it’s the best we could possibly get. My question for the president that I ask in this video is simple: under your compromise, when will the discharges end? How long can we ask gay service members to live a lie? How long can we deny existence to their families? How long do we need to study the injustice in order to understand that discrimination is un-American? Poll after poll shows that the American people don’t need another study in order to know what’s right. Nearly 80 percent of Americans, from all walks of life, already understand what the president and the Congress still find so hard to grasp. The people support a full repeal of "don’t ask, don’t tell" now. When will their leaders do the same?

This week, regardless of the outcome in Congress, there will be no cause for celebration. As long as soldiers must compromise their honor, I will not celebrate. I will only celebrate when the service of those gay and lesbian Americans serving in uniform is honored. I will only celebrate on the day that my commander in chief finally shows uncompromising leadership by immediately stopping the unjust firing of able-bodied, patriotic men and women who have chosen to risk their lives for their country. 

Choi is a West Point graduate and an openly gay veteran of the Iraq War.

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