Dan Choi asked the Penn State Abington students to return with him to the so-called Triangle of Death near Baghdad, Iraq. The year is 2007.
Occasionally breaking into Arabic to set the scene, Choi described tribal reconciliation meetings he moderated as an Army lieutenant. His mission: to convince rival sects to abolish concealment, the denial of their faith by minority Muslims to preserve their jobs, homes, families and sometimes their lives.
But even as Choi encouraged Iraqi Muslims to embrace the concept of equal access for all, the West Point graduate was practicing concealment himself. His beloved career as an Arabic linguist only continued because of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” the U.S. policy that prevented homosexuals from serving openly in the military.
Choi told the students that the disconnect between the truth and his desire to serve to his country finally motivated him to reveal his homosexuality on national television. But the aftermath turned his world on end.
“I pledged to uphold the West Point Honor Code, which says that you cannot lie or tolerate liars. I didn’t want to shove my identity in people’s faces, but I fell in love,” he said. “I survived a war, but I was sacrificing my life by hiding my love.”
Choi’s eyes occasionally filled with tears as he described his forced discharge from the Army in 2009 and his ongoing estrangement from his mother and his father, a Southern Baptist minister.
“Growing up, I was taught ‘love your neighbor as you love yourself.’ You can’t love yourself if you are hiding,” he declared. “Love your neighbors whether they are lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender,” he said.
Despite the personal and professional upheaval Choi endured, he said he wouldn’t change anything. The support he received from his siblings, his Army colleagues and the general public has carried him through.
He encouraged the students who gathered in Lubert Commons to invest in what is morally correct, no matter the consequences.
“You must fight, rest and stand on the values with which you were raised,” he said. “Serve your country, not just in the military, but by telling the truth, teaching others and supporting causes greater than yourself.”
Choi’s activism continues, and he is pursuing graduate studies at Harvard. And there’s the possibility that his military career may resume. Since “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” was repealed in September, Choi promptly re-enlisted in the Army. He is waiting for some other issues to be resolved before his military status can be determined.
“I want to go to boot camp as an enlisted man, not an officer. I want to start all over and serve my country without the lies,” he said.
Choi’s appearance was the third of five iLife lectures as part of the Penn State Abington Lecture Series scheduled for this fall.
The remaining topics include:
- "Rise of the Cheezburger Empire:" Successful Webpreneur Ben Huh offers key lessons for creating the next big thing in the online world on Nov. 17.
- "Does Cyber-Smoke Reach the Gods?:" Nicole Karapanagiotis explores the phenomenon of online religious rituals on Dec. 1.
The Penn State Abington Lecture Series is sponsored by the Academic Environment Committee, LEAP (Lares Entertainment and Programming) and the Division of Student Affairs, and is funded by the student activities fee.
For more information on upcoming lectures go to http://abington.psu.edu/currentstudents or visit Abington LEAP on Facebook.