Lieutenant Dan Choi was introduced last Tuesday in Finney Chapel with the words, “On this Valentine’s Day, we welcome a man who has fought long for love.”
The West Point graduate came to speak after being honorably discharged following his coming out on The Rachel Maddow Show in March 2009. Since then, he has advocated against “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” until its repeal on Sept. 20, 2011. He is also known for his environmental and Asian American activism. The event was sponsored by the Asian American Alliance, Student Finance Committee, the Politics department, Third World co-op and the Multicultural Resource Center, among others.
Although Choi began his speech by asking Oberlin to be his valentine, his talk quickly shifted. Fluent in Arabic, he cited a poem that was commissioned by a king, but is known now only by the name of the poet. His point was that this man, who came from nothing, was now more remembered than the king. He then questioned teaching pluralism in his time in service, only to come home to the same prejudices.
“You don’t have to proclaim your identity, you have to live it,” he said.
Choi then described his journey from his first inclinations in the fourth grade to the very moment that he finally admitted to his family that he is gay. “The reason I came out when I did? Because of my mom. My mom is really annoying,” he said. Choi continued with an impersonation of his mother, “When will you marry a Korean girl?!”
His family, with a Southern Baptist preacher as its patriarch, pushed him to remember to pray in Jesus’ name. Choi recalls begging, “Dear God, just make me straight or make me not have to live this life. Dear Jesus, please let me get a boner for Michelle Pfeiffer … in Jesus’ name we pray.”
From the outset, his mother instantly considered his declaration as “not real,” and he moved out six months afterward. He related his relationship with his family to his relationship with the military. Both he loves, both he will give the space they need, but he will change for neither.
“If you love them, trust them. To hate them is to say they will never change and never learn from the truth,” he said. Instantly, his tone changed again and he said, “We’re gonna turn this into a rally, everybody stand up!”
Across Finney, students, parents and guests alike rose to their feet and began repeating after Choi, “I am somebody.”
The words began to echo as the intonation of every word began to arouse excitement. A little louder, a little faster and a littler more confident, “I am somebody!” the masses repeated.
“We echo it to everyone because somebody needs to hear,” he said, “The question isn’t who to blame for the war. It’s not the soldier, it’s the activist who has not yelled loud enough to prevent that war.”
Following his half-hour talk was an hour-long question-and-answer session. Tina Zwegat, director of orientation, attributed this setup to Choi’s preference for dialogue rather than a one-way speech. Zwegat was vital in helping create a collaboration with the College of Wooster to help bring him to speak in both Ohio schools. She estimated that 500–600 participants were in attendance at the Oberlin event.
“Lt. Dan Choi really covered quite a wide range of people who would be interested in hearing about what he had to say,” Zwegat said. “If you really listened to the talk, it was more about activism, being passionate about what you’re doing, and really thinking outside of the box.”
While Zwegat played a major role in bringing him, Choi’s visit was truly spearheaded by College junior, David Roswell. After attending Power Shift, an annual youth environmental conference, his work began instantly when he went up and asked for Choi’s contact information in April 2011.
“He had a message and ideas that Oberlin really needed to hear, and that’s why I thought it was important to bring him here,” Roswell said. “Central to his talk was how to be an activist that any Oberlin student could relate to. We often try to compartmentalize people like that, and we forget that there’s still something important to hear.”
After his talk, Choi, along with Roswell, went to the Feve where some of the audience members were as well. Oberlin did not let Choi off without “uncomfortable but not aggressive” questions, according to Roswell, but Choi was impressed by the well-formed and thoughtful inquiries.
Rachel Ishikawa, College sophomore and co-Chair of Asian American Alliance, attended a dinner with Choi before his event along with members of Lambda and the Oberlin College Democrats. While his talk centered primarily on his association with the LGBTQ community, Ishikawa pinpoints his dual conflicts as an Asian American and homosexual man.
Katrina Cortes, also a College sophomore and the other co-chair of AAA, was “pretty disappointed” and said that Choi was “too preachy.” “I didn’t think it was right to make jokes without centralizing his Asian-American identity,” she said. “Everyone has their issues about what they really wanted him to talk about.”
The chairs of AAA were not alone in their sentiments. “We expected to learn a lot and for him to go beyond the story that everyone already knew,” said Tim Ng, College senior and co-chair of the Midwest Asian American Student Conference Committee that is to take place next month. “As a guest speaker, he should have gave another side of his experiences that we have never heard. He narrated more than he spoke.”
In contrast, College freshman and Lambda member, Conor Arpey said, “I didn’t expect him to be such a great speaker. I’ve seen a lot of speeches here, and he was one of the best I’ve heard.”
As organizer, David Roswell noted, regardless of the response, people on campus were undoubtedly talking about the speaker who went from saying, “I don’t belong to a party. I’m gay. Life is a party and our party doesn’t have an end. And we have glow sticks,” to saying, “Being a soldier made me a better activist and being an activist made me a better soldier.”
His parting message, however, was considerably different: “We still have a ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’ in our hearts, and no person can sign that off.”