Courage In and Out of Uniform

How a gay former soldier tries to educate the masses, and how the North Country helps

Story by Adam Patterson, photos courtesy of Dan Choi

Dan Choi was never afraid. He never felt unsafe, but kept his secret at arm's length from the majority of his fellow soldiers at Fort Drum in Jefferson County, New York. Only a select few of his closest “combat buddies” knew him that well. Now, the whole world knows. They know he is gay. And they know his military career has gone on hiatus for that reason.

Since Choi declared his sexual orientation on national television, educating the populous about “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” a policy left over from the Clinton administration in regards to the sexual orientation of enlisted Americans is his main priority. And to top it off, he’s getting help from the movers and shakers of North Country politics.

what's this pic about?

Choi during Ramadan

“There’s a lot of support around here.”

Senator Kirsten Gillibrand, formerly of New York’s 20th Congressional District, (stretching from the Hudson Valley to the Adirondacks), fortified Choi’s beliefs behind his campaign against Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell (DADT). “There’s a lot of support around here,” Choi says.

Choi and Senator Gillibrand have met on several occasions, and Choi says the senator has been quick to lend a hand in supporting him.

“I didn’t know where’d she be on it [the policy], then her staff was so supportive,” Choi says. “She’s been so awesome with all of this.”

Another North Country military figure is secretary of the Army John M. McHugh, former congressmen of New York’s 23rd congressional district, the state’s northern-most Congressional District, which also includes Fort Drum. Though Choi has never personally met with him, the former congressman has made stances against DADT, asking that the act be repealed.

“His testimony in front of the Senate Armed Services Committee and the House Armed Services Committee have his views on the repeal of the law,” says Lt. Col. Anne Edgecomb of the Department of Defense.

Bill Owens, the current congressman for New York’s 23rd district, also supports the repeal of the law. He even references Secretary McHugh in his views.

“I believe the people in charge of our military, like Secretary McHugh, know what is best for our soldiers and what makes our fighting force effective,” Owens says. “I stand by their decision to repeal Don't Ask, Don't Tell.”

Choi says his time at Fort Drum was not as bad as people might think. Hiding one’s sexual preference, he says, wasn’t a main priority at the fort.

“I didn’t see rampant homophobia. There were soldiers who were openly gay and didn’t hide it at all. It’s not hard to tell, either,” Choi says.“The worst part for me was starting a relationship when I got home.” To Choi, most of the soldiers he encountered were intimidated more by the horrors of war than the sexual orientation of a comrade.

“When soldiers do come out, it’s absolutely powerful."

Even though certain North Country politicians remain vocal in their support of repealing of DADT, and Choi’s personal experience serving out of the North Country was tame, he believes that the most important thing in terms of awareness and making an impact doesn’t have to come from lawmakers.

Choi has led rallies in cities like Syracuse, N.Y., Washington D.C., and New York City, and believes being a face to the cause can galvanize politicians, even North Country ones, into action.

what's this pic about?

Choi in uniform

“When soldiers do come out, it’s absolutely powerful. It exponentially resonates with lawmakers much more than any kind of specific study,” says Choi. “But when congressmen hear from what a particular person has gone through it’s a lot more difficult to ignore.”

But even before Choi and North Country politicians were making national headlines with DADT, the divide amongst lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LBGT) rights has been fiercely debated among locals.

Westboro Baptist Church in Topeka, Kansas, is often described as an anti-gay hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center. The congregation, which includes founder Fred Phelps and members of his family, has marched up to the North Country, notably Plattsburgh, several times to protest. The Press-Republican says that on Phelp’s website is the phrase, “God hates fag-enablers, and God hates Plattsburgh.”

The controversy of the issue has ignited and divided Internet chat rooms.

One particular blog, titled Aholiab and Bezaleel,has spoken out against Phelps’s group. The blogger, a born again Christian, while opposing homosexually, stands up against the claim that God hates Plattsburgh. Even this was greeted with debate.

A reply post outlines the inherent “flaws,” not only in the author's logic, but in her views as an evangelical Christian, even going so far as to insult people like President Obama.

Choi says he is used to sentiments like this, but remains optimistic in his fight.

“There’s a lot of support up here,” Choi says, “I just wish I could do more.”

Do you think homosexuality should be a factor in a peron's military service?