Dan Choi entered the United States Military Academy at West Point in 1999, well aware that as a gay cadet serving under the "don't ask, don't tell" law, which bars gays from serving openly in the military, his enrollment carried certain risks. Still, he said, he was undeterred by the policy.
But after a one-year tour of duty in Iraq
in 2006, his attitude changed. First Lieutenant Choi (pictured below) started a relationship with his boyfriend and discovered that he wanted to share his personal life with his friends and family.
"I realized that these are the things that my soldiers talk about," Choi said. "They know that they have somebody who can support them, who is cheering them on. They'll come home to them, and they'll have that stability. That's why families are so important. I finally understood that for myself."
Having to conceal his relationship, Choi explained, contradicted his values, as well as the military values of integrity and honesty. He created a fake female name for his boyfriend in order to talk with other soldiers about his relationship, and he began to struggle to make up excuses about why the people he worked with couldn't meet his significant other. The delicate balancing act proved too much for Choi.
"It was really when I had to force my boyfriend into the closet -- that was when it got to be too much," Choi said. "That's when I saw it as lying and as absolutely immoral.
"I promised to live under an honor code at West Point that says, 'You will not lie, and you will not tolerate lying,' " Choi said. "It's simple. It doesn't say, 'Straight people cannot lie, but gay people are allowed to lie about their loved ones, so we'll make exceptions for gay people.' I found that to be antithetical to the values that our military was founded on."
Last March, Choi made a career-changing decision. He appeared on MSNBC's The Rachel Maddow Show, where he announced unequivocally that he is gay
and discussed his support for Knights Out
, a group of West Point alumni that advocates for gay rights
. A few weeks after his television appearance, Choi received a letter detailing the Army's intent to discharge him from service. Since coming out publicly, Choi has worked extensively as an activist against the "don't ask, don't tell" policy.
Choi is one of nearly 14,000 gay service members who have faced discharge since Congress
passed "don't ask, don't tell" in 1993. For many gay soldiers, the law has had searing personal -- and financial -- consequences. Soldiers interviewed for this article discussed the daily stress that the policy created, recalling fears that their jobs could be terminated at any moment. In addition, current and former students discharged from ROTC programs discussed the burden of having to repay educational costs that had been shouldered previously by the military.
"It was incredibly stressful, almost to the point of being physically ill for that year," said Mara Boyd, who was discharged from the Air Force ROTC program at the University of Colorado at Boulder in 2003 after coming out to her commanding officer. "I think it's hard enough to come out and deal with all the things that our society today requires gay people to go through."
"Don't ask, don't tell," she explained, did not make the process any easier.
In addition to her discharge, Boyd was notified that she would have to repay approximately $32,000 to cover the educational costs that had been picked up by the Air Force. She continues to refuse to pay the debt, citing the discriminatory nature of the military's policy on gays.
Sara Isaacson, who will be a senior at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill in the fall, was discharged from the university's ROTC program after coming out to her commander in January. Like Choi and Boyd, Isaacson explained that she came out to preserve her integrity.
"It forces you to tell lies," Isaacson said of the military's policy on gays. "Integrity is one of the Army's seven core values. And those are the things that we as cadets, future officers, and members of the Army are supposed to live by, one hundred percent of the time. These are twenty-four, seven values. You don't only follow them when you put the uniform on."
Isaacson also faces steep debt as a result of coming out. Her commander has recommended to a panel of Army generals that she repay approximately $80,000 in educational costs to the military.
According to Aaron Tax, the legal director at the Servicemembers Legal Defense Network
, which offers free legal advice to gay soldiers, students like Isaacson have few paths of recourse when it comes to "don't ask, don't tell" debt. As Tax explained, students who are "outed" -- revealed as gay by someone else -- do not generally have to pay back educational debts. But students who come out voluntarily usually must repay their ROTC scholarships.
Soldiers also run the risk of losing military pensions and other retirement benefits as a result of the law, Tax explained. Under "don't ask, don't tell," a dismissed soldier is usually subject to one of three discharge categories, which is determined primarily by the soldier's record of service: "honorable," "general" and "other than honorable." If a soldier is discharged before serving for at least 20 years, he or she will usually lose a military pension. The military does not keep a public record of the different levels of discharges that have been issued under the law.
Last month, the House approved a proposal
to repeal "don't ask, don't tell," although the bill still must pass the Senate. The bill includes no provisions for students who have incurred debts as a result of the current policy. If the bill wins approval in the Senate, a repeal would not go into effect until after December, when the Pentagon will publish the results of a survey that examines how to implement a change in the law. In addition, the policy change would need to receive the approval of President Obama
, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, and the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
The strain that "don't ask, don't tell" has placed on gay service members has fostered a growing sentiment among discharged soldiers that the president and Congress are not moving swiftly enough to repeal the law. For Boyd, the drawn out debate on the issue has been frustrating.
"As of right now, I feel like what's in front of us is another compromise under a different name," Boyd said. "If anyone really looks at the amendment that was voted on, what exactly is changing? Because gay and lesbian soldiers are being discharged today under 'don't ask, don't tell.' So what exactly has changed? And even if the Senate passes it in the next couple weeks, then what? Gay and lesbian soldiers are still going to be discharged until December. . . . And then it goes to the Pentagon. And Mullen, Obama, and Gates must all approve it. That's a lot of 'ifs.' And there's no timeline. It's politicians passing the buck to other politicians."
Over the past few months, the president has addressed critics who fault him for failing to move quickly enough on gay rights with calls for patience. In May, a protester heckled Obama
during a speech at a San Fransisco fundraiser, urging the president to "move faster" on a repeal of "don't ask, don't tell."
"He said, 'do it faster,'" the president responded, straying from his prepared remarks. "It's like, come on, man. I'm dealing with Congress here. It takes a little bit of time."