Of the many eccentrics wandering around the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) this year, few were more wide-eyed than Lt. Dan Choi- the former Army infantry officer who outed himself on the Rachel Maddow Show and was then discharged under the military’s near-defunct “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy. As he traversed the hotel grounds, Choi resembled a journeyman exploring uncharted territory- fully aware of the slight absurdity that his presence represented, but perfectly willing to soak in the atmosphere.
For almost two years, Choi’s activism has meant he’s been associated primarily with the political left. Last summer at Netroots Nation, the closest progressive equivalent to CPAC, he gave his West Point graduation ring to Harry Reid, telling the former majority leader that he’d only accept its return after DADT was finally repealed. Choi indeed got his ring back in December, so with a short-term political objective accomplished, he told me some ideological experimentation was in order.
“We should take a look at where we can go, not where we have been,” Choi said of the gay rights movement’s political allegiances. “For me, as somebody who has been just recently turned into something of a political activist, or a political entity, I think it’s important for the education of the gay community that they don’t have to lock themselves into one ideology or one political organization.”
Asked of the reception he’s found at CPAC, Choi said “People don’t think it’s me. They don’t think that I’d want to come here.” He polled his Twitter following on the wisdom of attending, and received a largely negative response. “If you take a look at my feed, a lot of people did not want me to come. There were a lot of incendiary comments as to why I’m hanging around with skinheads or white supremacists, why I’m palling around with terrorists.”
“But I think that being here is so important,” he continued, “because when they do recognize that it’s me- even people at Focus on the Family- they say, ‘Thank you for your service, are you going to try to go back in?’ and ‘I’m so glad you got your ring back.’ There’s a personal identification that transcends any of the political dogma.”
Choi was in part motivated to attend CPAC in response controversy generated by GOProud, the pro-LGBTQ rights Republican organization that prompted several socially conservative lawmakers and think tanks to boycott the conference.
“I think they’re American heroes,” Choi said of the group, notwithstanding their lack of an official position on same-sex marriage. “There are two kinds of people in the world- those that go into hostile territory and make a safe space, and those that wait for that safe space to be formed for them.”
Choi was among the melange of characters who attended a party thrown by GOProud on the second night of the conference. “It was hilarious,” he said. “It was great; it was very gay. But we throw the best parties, don’t we? So many people were there. I met with former [Republican National Committee] Chairman Michael Steele- we talked about being tokens. He’s a very honorable man, always willing to make dialogue with others, and he’s followed my case.”
Choi encouraged young gay activists to expand their political purviews. “Our friends are not the people who are in power,” he said. “I don’t call up Harry Reid and say, ‘I’m lonely, let’s go have a drink.’ They can be your allies, but the moment they leave your cause, you have no political benefit to being pals with them.”
This post was originally published by Campus Progress.