The Rise And Fall Of Dan Choi

Andrew Sullivan —  Dec 3 2013 @ 1:40pm


Gabriel Arana has a long, pull-no-punches profile of the DADT activist and Iraq veteran. One of Choi’s darkest moments was at his trial earlier this year for chaining himself to a White House fence in 2010:

Dan called four witnesses to testify, then showed a video of his Rachel Maddow interview. While it played, he wept. “The defense rests!” he announced, putting his head down on the table and throwing up his arm. The judge called for a recess; Dan lay on the floor and shouted obscenities. In the afternoon, the prosecution delivered a brief closing argument. Dan gave a 40-minute speech. Raving and disjointed, it was a broken mirror of the life story he had told six months earlier. When the judge found him guilty and fined him $100, Dan cried out, “I refuse to pay it. Send me to jail!” Instead, friends took him to the emergency room of Washington, D.C.’s VA Medical Center, where he was admitted to the psychiatric ward.

The trial laid Dan bare. His passion. His penchant for inflamed rhetoric. His ability to attract followers. His solipsism. His vulnerability. On a few occasions, Dan has told me the trial was a plea for help. “I didn’t know what to do with myself after ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’ was repealed,” he says. Other times, he finds his nerve. “I just want them to apologize to me in open court—that’s all.”

I knew Dan, if not as well as many others. Every time I saw him, I told him to find some solace outside of the struggle, to get some peace of mind, to take care of himself. I feel terrible I didn’t do more. I know how one’s personal life can become besieged by a cause. For more than a decade, marriage and military activism consumed me, even as I was psychologically traumatized by the hatred other gay activists directed toward me and consumed by the stories of pain and self-destruction so many gay men confided in me. If you believe, as I did, that this was a transcendent moral calling, it became harder and harder to put limits on how it took over your life. I talked with Dan about this – especially about absorbing the suffering and pain of so many who looked to you for some kind of help. How do you say no? How do you say: this is where the struggle ends and my life begins?

This is the challenge for anyone trying to create change. I am luckier than Dan in some respects. I have a therapist of great skill and compassion; I have a faith that always imposed a spiritual check on my own narcissism; I have and had friends of surpassing loyalty and love and honesty; I found a husband who anchored me, and empowered me and kept me from self-harm. I see in Dan a human being whose passion for others in the end occluded his own sense of self. He forgot that happiness is an option – indeed that our struggle is about extending the full pursuit of happiness embedded in the Declaration of Independence. Alas, as time went by, I found myself consumed with work and too easily forgot my comrade on the battlefield. And when we did meet – sometimes randomly on the street – he seemed too far gone to reach any more.

Arana’s conclusion:

A few things I am certain of. Washington can make people, even those who fight for human rights, lose their humanity. It gets covered up with talking points, strategy, branding. At the height of Dan’s celebrity, few in the repeal movement pulled him aside and said, “All this doesn’t matter more than you do. Let’s go home.” Maybe that’s because he’d cut himself loose from the people who cared enough to tell him he was losing himself—people like Grace, Isaac, Sandra, William Cannon, Sarah Haag-Fisk, and Laura Cannon.

None of this is to say Dan would have listened. He had fallen in love with his own martyrdom. He had conflated activism with celebrity.

Dan’s story runs in my head like an episode of E! True Hollywood Story. He starts out naïve and precocious. He rises. He succumbs to the pressure—all those interviews, rallies, fan letters, expectations. But instead of playing out on Bravo or in the pages of Us Weekly, it played out on MSNBC and in The Advocate. What I have to keep reminding myself is that by speaking when no one else would, Dan Choi did a good and courageous thing, and in part because of it, gays and lesbians can now serve openly in the military.

(Photo: Former US Army Lt. Dan Choi, a gay rights activist and opponent of ‘Don’t ask Don’t Tell’, arrives at the E. Barrett Prettyman Federal Courthouse on March 28, 2013 in Washington, DC. The former Iraq War vet and graduate of West Point was going to trial to face charges that stem from a November 2010 arrest for chaining himself to the White House fence to protest “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.” By Brendan Smialowski/AFP/Getty Images)