This past weekend at the NGLTF Creating Change conference, there was a notable absence that many have already tweeted and remarked about. Lt. Dan Choi was supposed to lead a Knights Out sponsored workshop on Friday morning about ending "Don't Ask, Don't Tell," but wasn't able to make it. He was training with his National Guard unit.
We received these photographs from Lt. Choi to publish and share with our readers from his training this past weekend, and he does express his deep apologies to the conference participants at Creating Change that he was not able to attend.
Lt. Choi's Session
The wonderful Sue Fulton, another Knights Out leader, took charge and I will say that she handled Lt. Choi's absence with incredible grace and skill, especially the disappointment by many of the delegates who were hoping to see and meet Lt. Choi. I was very relieved though that when the announcement was made that he was not going to be in attendance, there was not a sudden exodus to the exits by the packed room.
Fulton did an incredible job of presenting the issue, while also leading a very valuable discussion on DADT, with other notable voices in the room that included scholar/author Nathaniel Frank and Knights Out co-founder, Becky Kanis.
The workshop attendees were given the explanation that the reason for Lt. Choi's absence was that he was called back for duty, and he had to attend training with his unit which happened to conflict with Creating Change. This of course led to a lot of confusion for the delegates about what was going on, including myself, who had always thought that Lt. Choi was discharged and no longer able to serve.
Lt. Choi's Discharge
To clear everything up for our readers, I spoke to Lt. Choi at length earlier about what exactly the situation is. Apparently, Lt. Choi's commander has always been in full support of him, and even after Lt. Choi came out on The Rachel Maddow Show, his commander did not press for his discharge. The military did eventually serve Lt. Choi a discharge notification - essentially firing him from his job, but he was allowed to fight this at trial, and as it currently stands, the discharge has not been finalized. Given the current state of how DADT is in such flux, and also, in my opinion, the prominence and celebrity of Lt. Choi, his discharge might never be fully enforced.
There was a part of me that was very heartened by this news, and that we definitely can take this as a sign of more progress on the repeal of DADT.
However, there was also a part of me that hopes Lt. Choi will still be a powerful voice, even as he rejoins his unit, especially as Congress debates on how this repeal will take shape. For me, I will only accept as a victory a complete repeal of the policy, where service members can openly serve without any form of retribution or discrimination. No segregation of units, no separate rules (if they outlaw "homosexual conduct" they better also outlaw "heterosexual conduct"), and finally, the government enacts and enforces a non-discrimination policy that makes discrimination in hiring and firing based on one's sexual orientation and gender expression forbidden.
To achieve this we need voices. Powerful ones. Lt. Choi is no doubt an incredibly persuasive voice. He is also a person of color, and in a world where Asian American men are rarely given any voice in any debate, he shines at his rockstar ability to persuade, from the airwaves or Rachel Maddow to the offices of Senator Gillibrand.
I was heartened though to hear Lt. Choi's response, when I asked him what he thinks his new voice might be as the repeal of DADT takes shape. He spoke about perhaps helping the military implement a future non-discrimination policy, and advising in issues involving sensitivity trainings on LGBT issues. But the comment that struck me the most was when he said, "Actions speak louder than words." It made sense all of a sudden, that the sheer act of him rejoining his unit and serving with everyone else, could be his most powerful voice in the debate so far. That seeing an openly gay service member train and fight with his unit, is something that truly does speak louder than words.
I had an absolute blast at the conference. I have attended every year since 2005, and the highlight for me every time is the joy I have reconnecting with long time activist friends and then always also meeting new ones. This conference was especially meaningful since it was the first one for me as a Bilerico contributor, so I was able to finally meet in person a lot of the team that I read so much from.
(The issue of DADT, is of course very important for me as I have spent the last year working on a photography project of closeted military service members, and my first photography book from this series was just released and mentioned in the Los Angeles Times.)