Lt. Dan Choi. I said his name out loud and my boyfriend laughed. It made him think of “Forrest Gump” and the character that Gary Sinise played. That was Lt. Dan Taylor, a proud soldier from a long lineage of soldiers who had died in battle. Lt. Dan was a leader and fully expected to follow in the footsteps of his father and grandfather. When Lt. Dan and his platoon fell under attack, he protected many of his soldiers, like a true leader. While under a bombing attack, he lost both legs and was waiting to die a hero’s death. However, Forrest Gump saved him.
This blog isn’t about a fictional hero named Lt. Dan, I’m going to write about Lt. Dan Choi, an American hero and leader.
Dan Choi grew up in Southern California, the son of a Korean-American Baptist Minister. That fact was evident when I heard Lt. Dan Choi address a room of 500 or 600 people for the opening keynote at the Linkage Diversity and Inclusion Institute. Even though it was 8:15am, the room was at attention to hear this speech. Lt. Dan Choi commanded the room, not like an officer in the US military but more like a preacher. He told a story that felt authentic and compelling, with more than a few life lessons weaved throughout. I didn’t want to miss a single word.
His opening words included a photograph of Afghanistan, from the mid 2000’s. Choi had graduated from West Point with degrees in Arabic and environmental engineering. There were only a handful of military officers who spoke Arabic. Choi became a highly valued member of the army and quickly aided in sorting through bad intelligence by translating conversations of insurgents and locals alike, real time. That, in and of itself, is leadership.
But Choi didn’t expect what was to come. He told the room what changed for him. He shared what had happened that gave him so much courage to speak his truth. It wasn’t a message from above. It wasn’t a life or death event. The simple truth was that Lt. Dan Choi fell in love. He stated that when he finally experienced what it felt like to put someone else ahead of himself, it changed him. Falling in love and having so much emotion and care for another human being sparked a new fire of courage and leadership. Choi realized that he could no longer hide from the fact that he was a gay man. This led to Choi coming out, in a rather public manner. He came out on TV, on “The Rachel Maddow Show” and began a fight against the questionable morality and wisdom of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.” In a letter to Congress and President Barack Obama, Choi wrote that the policy is a “slap in the face to me. It is a slap in the face to my soldiers, peers and leaders who have demonstrated than an infantry unit can be professional enough to accept diversity, to accept capable leaders, to accept skilled soldiers.”
Because Lt. Choi showed such courage in standing up for what he believed in and not disparaging the US military,
I think he is a leader. Love is a force that brings bravery to the forefront. It helped Lt. Choi fight for what he deemed right. He attended the very prestigious military academy, West Point. He served proudly in the US Army. He didn’t find it fair that he had to cover up or “not tell” the military that he was gay. And eventually, the US government would agree.
What really struck me as I listened to Lt. Choi centered around his love and commitment to his faith. Choi continuously quoted the Bible. He spoke of his father’s service and commitment to his congregation with respect. My favorite moment was when Choi mentioned that his father was specifically a Southern Baptist minister (the ballroom in Atlanta did catch it’s collective breath.). When he asked his father why Southern Baptist was his denomination of choice, Choi lovingly imitated his father’s Korean accept with the reply, “because we are from South Korea, of course.” That drew quite a laugh from me. I think I almost snorted.
Despite his authenticity and candor, Choi seemed tired of the speaking circuit. He mentioned a desire to find a job and to live a quiet, settled life. Living in the public eye for so long, fighting against the system for what he believed in, these were both completely counter culture to his upbringing. Although he never directly came out and said it, I also got the feeling that his parents did not appreciate his activism. I understand that. Most Asian cultures place high value on protecting the family and saving face. And being gay is frowned upon by many Christians, including Southern Baptists. For Choi to step out in such a public way, it really must have felt like a threat to his family.
But the nugget of wisdom that struck me the hardest was a simple statement that Choi said. He said he listened to his father’s sermons growing up. Choi learned about the concept of unconditional love. He said that regardless of the conditions that his father might put on it, Choi will always love his father. That is both courage and leadership.