May 13, 2009 -- A West Point graduate who is being discharged from the National Guard because of "homosexual conduct" has appealed directly to President Obama to repeal the military's "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" policy on gay soldiers.
Click HERE to read the Department of Defense Policy Guidelines on Homosexual Conduct in the Armed Forces.
In a letter to the president, Lt. Dan Choi said the discharge letter, dated April 23, 2009, was "a slap in the face to me. It is a slap in the face to my soldiers, peers and leaders who have demonstrated that an infantry unit can be professional enough to accept diversity, to accept capable leaders, to accept skilled soldiers.
"My subordinates know I'm gay. They don't care," he said. "They are professional.
"As an infantry officer, I am not accustomed to begging. But I beg you today: Do not fire me," Choi wrote.
Choi, 28, who majored in Arabic language at West Point, announced he is gay during an appearance March 19 on MSNBC's "The Rachel Maddow Show."
Soon after, the army made plans to fire him, saying he had "negatively affected good order and discipline in the New York Army National Guard."
Choi said he was disappointed and angry, and it took him only 30 minutes after receiving the letter to decide: "I'm fighting this."
Despite the professional consequences, Choi said he doesn't regret his decision to come out. He said it's his platoon that's being punished, not him.
"I got fired because I was being too honest," he said. "That has nothing to do with performance or going to war. I'm angry, not for myself, I'm ready for all the consequences. I'm really angry because my unit is so professional. ... They are the ones being punished. They are losing a member of their team."
Bob Maginnis, a senior strategist with the U.S. Army who helped craft the law 10 USC 654 that bans homosexual conduct in the military, opposes a repeal of DADT.
"[Choi's] command did what they had to do under the statute and regulations," Maginnis said, who added that he doesn't think there's enough momentum for Choi's strategy to have any effect on the law.
"You have people that are throwing themselves on the mercy of public sympathy to persuade Congress to change direction, but if you want to rescind the law you need both houses to rescind it and then get the president to agree. I'm not sure we have sufficient votes to rescind the law," Maginnis said. "This is not one of the more important issues, frankly. It has little consequence to effectiveness of the organizations. A few hundred people a year isn't of any significance."
'How Can I Lie and Keep Quiet'
Choi told ABCNews.com that, until now, he had never confided about his sexuality to anyone in the army. He stayed silent for nearly 10 years.
"I have never, ever done anything homosexual while on duty and I never engaged in heterosexual conduct while on duty because the army is not about sexual anything," he said. "I had never had a boyfriend or girlfriend because of 'Don't Ask Don't Tell.'"
But in 2008, Choi said he found the man he describes as his first love, and that relationship spurred his decision to come out.
Difficulties of Staying in the Closet
"It has been one of the greatest things. I grew as a person. You know, you have the support. You have the encouragement to be a better solider. You have someone to share your very difficult times with," he said. "I was able to experience that and how can I lie and keep quiet because it's so good."
Staying in the closet, he added, "traumatizes people in a way ... Number one, I'm taught the honor code at West Point: do not lie. Units are based on honor code. But 'Don't Ask Don't Tell' says you have to lie. It forces people to lie, to hide. Hiding and lying aren't army values."
As one of the founding members of Knights Out, a new organization that supports West Point grads who are gay, Choi said he receives hundreds of e-mails every day from people looking for support, or simply thanking him.
"People are saying, 'I'm in Iraq right now and I got kicked out' or 'I'm in Afghanistan' or 'I'm at West Point right now and keep going because we need to know there are other people out there,'" Choi said. "One said he wanted to commit suicide, but 'Now I know there is someone else.' That's the main reason why I cannot stay quiet."
Knights Out Chair: 'I Was Investigated'
Knights Out formed on March 16 and now has 97 members, 59 of whom are out. Choi is the only member on active duty.
"We think this is a really urgent issue, for national security reasons. We cannot afford to lose one more Arabic linguist like we did with Dan Choi," said Becky Kanis, a 1991 West Point grad and chairwoman of the Knights Out Board. "His board hasn't met yet. It's not too late for him."
It may be more than a month before Choi's Show Cause for Retention Board meets to deliberate his fate. Until then, Choi continues to train with his unit.
Kanis said Choi's unit "shook his hand and said we support you, we're behind you" after he came out on TV.
"How many more people like that are we going to lose in the name of maintaining these old-fashioned prejudices?" she asked.
'Don't Ask, Don't Tell
"Don't Ask Don't Tell" was introduced under the Clinton administration in 1993. The policy allows gay military personnel to serve, but says that they aren't to disclose their sexuality or engage in homosexual acts. Under the policy, saying you are gay counts as homosexual conduct.
Since then, according to the most recent numbers released by the Pentagon, 12,500 service members have been dismissed because of their sexuality.
"We have to ask why are people coming out? What is it about this policy that makes it tough for people to serve?" said Nathaniel Frank, senior research fellow at the Palm Center think tank in Santa Barbara, Calif. that examines public policy related to gender, sexuality, and the military.
Frank, the author "Unfriendly Fire," acknowleged that the number of gay men and women dismissed for their sexual orientation is a small number in comparison to the total number of people dismissed from the military. However, he says the quality of the people being dismissed under DADT is troubling.
Kanis, for example, left a sought-after job commanding a special operations unit because she wanted to live openly in a same-sex relationship.
"I was investigated when I was a cadet for my sexual orientation. In fact, I denied being a lesbian and carried the guilt over lying for many years," she told ABC News.
"I was in the thick of things, I had a really good job actually. It was very hard to make the decision to go, but once I made that decision there was no looking back," she said.
Kanis is now working for Common Ground, a non-profit focused on trying to prevent homelessness.
Will Don't Ask Don't Tell Be Overturned?
When asked if "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" will be overturned, he answered, "I don't know," angering groups that have pushed for DADT's repeal.
"'I don't know?' The answer should have been a one-word answer: 'Yes,'" Aubrey Sarvis, executive director of Servicemembers Legal Defense Network, said in a statement accusing Obama of caving to senior military leadership and the religious right.
The Servicemembers Legal Defense Network (SLDN), a non-profit legal group dedicated to helping military personnel affected by DADT, has been working with Choi since he decided to come out.
"All of this movement has to come from the president. He is the ultimate enforcer of Don't Ask Don't Tell," SLDN spokesman Kevin Nix said.
On Sunday's "This Week" Sen. John McCain said he's open to revisiting the DADT policy, reiterating that he would rely on a study by the Joint Chiefs of Staff before making any judgements.
"Right now the military is functioning extremely well in very difficult conditions," McCain told Stephanopoulos. "We have to have an assessment on recruitment, on retention and all the other aspects of the impact on our military if we change the policy. In my view, and I know that a lot of people don't agree with that, the policy has been working and I think it's been working well."
The movement to repeal DADT, however, is growing impatient.
"The decision to just shut up and wait would certainly made my life a lot easier," Choi said. "But at West Point we recited in the cadet prayer to choose the harder right over the easier wrong."
On the White House Web site, it says Obama "supports repealing Don't Ask Don't Tell in a sensible way that strengthens our armed forces and our national security, and also believes that we must ensure adoption rights for all couples and individuals, regardless of their sexual orientation."
Before Choi came forward, 2nd Lt. Sandy Tsao, an army officer in St. Louis, had decided to come out to her superiors. She wrote to Obama to tell him about her decision and on May 5 she received a hand-written note in response.
"It is because of outstanding Americans like you that I committed to changing our current policy," Obama's note said. "Although it will take some time to complete (partly because it needs congressional action) I intend to fulfill my commitment!"
Tsao will be discharged from the military on May 19.