Close friends while attending the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, Dan Choi and Dan Manning were heavily involved in the campus’ evangelical Christian ministry. They even made a missionary trip together to the Dominican Republic in 2001.
Although neither man knew it at the time, they were both closeted gays.
Earlier this month, Choi (West Point class of 2003), an internationally known LGBT civil rights activist, and Equality Wisconsin board co-president Manning (class of 2004) had a brief reunion in Milwaukee after Choi accepted his friend’s invitation to be the guest speaker at a groundbreaking joint fundraiser for Equality Wisconsin and Fair Wisconsin. The event, held on a Monday evening at a private home on the city’s East Side, raised $17,000 to be divided between the two groups.
Choi had also planned to stump for Manning in Fond du Lac, where the latter was waging what turned out to be a successful campaign to become the city’s first out gay city council member. A manufacturing engineer at Giddings and Lewis, Inc., Manning also is the founder of Salute the Troops, an organization that benefits Wisconsin veterans.
Choi was unable to help his pal on the campaign trail, however. He had to cut his trip short when he learned that after two years of legal battles stemming from his arrest during a 2010 White House protest, his case was finally proceeding to a conclusion.
Although the two friends’ lives followed parallel paths in many ways, their experiences have been very different.
Manning, who grew up in Vidalia, Ga., said he secretly dated another man outside the campus community during his freshman and sophomore years at West Point.
“I was trying to rationalize it, and I said to myself that I must be bisexual – surely I wasn’t gay,” he said, laughing. He said there were a handful of other gay cadets he knew on campus – all of them closeted. The unofficial leader of the secret network was given the honorific title of “queen bee,” Manning added.
Choi said he was shocked when he learned about all this activity years later. The son of a Southern Baptist minister from Orange County, Calif., Choi described himself as “completely closeted” during his West Point years. He said he followed a philosophy best described as “don’t ask, don’t tell, don’t listen.” His fear of exposure was so acute that he wouldn’t even utter the word “gay” or listen to talk about the issue.
“I just thought it was a phase or something that a demonic exercise could cure me of,” Choi said.
Manning later joined the Service Academy Gay and Lesbian Alumni Association Network, which is an umbrella organization for the groups KnightsOut (U.S. Military Academy), USNAOut (Naval Academy) and Blue-Alliance (Air Force Academy). Manning reviewed requests to join KnightsOut in order to ensure the applicants were really gay and not outside infiltrators.The group has about 40 West Point alumni and cadets.
Manning was surprised when he received an application from Choi in January 2009, but he quickly recognized what an effective spokesman his old friend would make for the group.
“It took us quite a while to convince Dan to be the face of SAGALA, but he ultimately did it out of that rare compassion he has for people,” Manning said. “Dan’s a great soldier. He saw the need, and he took action.”
Choi said he never wanted to be an activist, but “even before we went public, people were emailing me saying they were suicidal. … It was only when people cried out for help that I realized we have to do everything we can with the short amount of time we have.”
When Choi finally came out, it was in a big way – on MSNBC’s “The Rachel Maddow Show.” He went on to speak at numerous LGBT events, lead Pride parades, including New York City’s LGBT Pride March, and participate in protests. In addition to his arrest in Washington, he was taken into custody in Moscow.
Choi was present when President Barack Obama signed the bill repealing DADT on Dec. 22, 2010.
Despite – or perhaps due to – his bravery, Choi has encountered more rejection than his friend.
Manning’s old West Point roommates have been very supportive since he came out, he said. On the other hand, Choi’s former West Point friends abandoned him.
“My roommates were so religious that we … would all pray for the entire company to become religious,” he said.
Manning, unlike Choi, also has received support from his family. Choi’s father “officially doesn’t love me,” he said, referring to his dad’s employment by the Southern Baptist Convention, which prohibits members from approving, affirming or endorsing “homosexual behavior.”
“The real pain is to know that no matter what you do, your parents aren’t going to be proud of you,” Choi said.
But Choi intends to remain a committed activist as long as he’s needed, he said, and he expects that to be for many years to come.
“The more you sweat in peace, the less you bleed in war,” Choi said. “We have to ask ourselves how hard are we willing to fight now so that future generations don’t have to bleed. We’ve just done our basic training.”