Former Army Lt. Dan Choi is coming to Wisconsin to campaign for an openly gay local candidate and to help raise money for Fair Wisconsin and Equality Wisconsin, the state’s two leading LGBT advocacy groups.
On Monday, March 25, Choi will appear at a fundraiser from 5:30 to 8 p.m. at a historic home on Milwaukee’s East Side. Milwaukee County Executive Chris Abele and LGBT civil rights advocate Andrew Nunemaker have pledged to match every dollar raised at the event up to $10,000. The two groups will split the proceeds 50-50.
During his visit to Wisconsin, Choi will also hit the campaign trail with Equality Wisconsin board co-president Dan Manning in his quest to become Fond du Lac’s first out City Council member. The two veterans became friends while attending the United States Military Academy at West Point.
Choi’s high profile and passionate brand of activism have made him a celebrity in the LGBT civil rights movement. Discharged from the Army after coming out on “The Rachel Maddow Show,” Choi became one of the nation’s foremost activists fighting to repeal the anti-gay military ban dubbed “don’t ask, don’t tell.” In 2010, Choi was arrested for handcuffing himself to the White House fence to protest what activists considered President Obama’s slow pace in fulfilling his campaign pledge to repeal the discriminatory law (it was finally overturned in September 2011).
Twelve other activists were arrested along with Choi for disobeying a police order to disperse, but he is the only detainee who refused to make a plea deal. Instead, he’s continued to pursue his case, which has been tied up in appeals. It resumes on March 28.
Choi was also arrested during a peaceful march in Moscow in 2011 that drew international outrage.
Attendees of the March 25 fundraiser will have the opportunity to meet Choi as well as hear his inspiring story firsthand.
The event marks the first joint fundraising effort between two groups that have been increasingly working together behind the scenes to augment each other’s efforts and ensure their donors get maximum impact for their contributions.
Well-intentioned advocacy groups sometimes inadvertently overlap each other’s efforts, or even unknowingly undermine them. For instance, if elected officials don’t like the answer they get from one organization, they sometimes turn to the other looking for a better deal, which can derail strategies and cause inter-community tension.
But that’s not happening anymore in Wisconsin, said Fair Wisconsin director Katie Belanger and Equality Wisconsin director Jason Burns. They said their goal is to present a united front and rekindle the spirit of unity that emerged during the 2006 campaign against the voter referendum that ultimately added a ban on same-sex marriage and civil unions to the Wisconsin Constitution.
“When Jason called and said, ‘We’ve got Lt. Dan Choi coming out for an event and we want to explore a joint fundraiser,’ I thought it was a way to show very publicly how close our organizations are getting to each other,” Belanger said.
“A united community and a community that speaks with one voice and stands together is much harder to divide than a community that’s fractured,” Burns said. “Our job is ensuring the advancement of the movement in Wisconsin, and we don’t do that when we’re competing.”
“Ultimately, it’s incumbent upon us to communicate what the priorities are and assess what the greatest opportunities are to make positive change,” Belanger added. “When we’re assessing the (political) landscape and determining priorities and issues, it’s important that we’re doing that together, so that we can have even greater impact. When legislators see we’re on the same page, it resonates much stronger.”
The two groups are already working together on several efforts, including the fight to get the Milwaukee Public School System to implement domestic partner benefits in a fair way. While married opposite-sex couples automatically receive the benefits, same-sex couples must jump through a number of burdensome hoops to prove that they are a couple. In addition, they must pay onerous taxes on the benefits – taxes that heterosexual married couples are exempt from paying.
In the coming years, major priorities for both EW and FW include cultivating support for equality at the local level and reaching out to Republicans.
“This year, we’re trying to identify key Republicans who are supportive of our issues and find ways to work with them,” Burns said. Given the GOP’s control of state government, “if we’re going to get any pro-LGBT legislation passed over the next 10 years, we’re going to have to start cultivating bipartisan relationships,” he explained.
Belanger described the effort as trying to get Republicans on board a train “that’s already left the station.”
“People are moving so forward so fast on these issues, that the Republican Party can’t afford to be left behind any more,” she said.