Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Open Letter to the Organizers of TEDxMiddlebury
Dear TEDxMiddlebury organizers,
We appreciate all the hard work that has gone into putting together the exciting line-up of
speakers for this Saturday’s conference! However, we noticed that you've invited Lt. Dan Choi—
a West Point graduate discharged from the U.S. military for violation of “Don’t Ask; Don’t Tell,”
and who avidly spoke out against the policy—and we must confess that this disappoints us.
You mention on your website that after he was discharged, Choi “wrote a letter to the Senate
Majority Leader [Harry Reid], relinquishing his West Point class ring.” But did you know that just
a few months later, in an interview with the Village Voice, he had a bit more to say about Reid?
Angry that Reid had failed in shepherding DADT repeal through the Senate, Choi said, “Harry
Reid is a pussy, and he'll be bleeding once a month.”
Simply put, we find this statement to be disturbingly misogynistic. Furthermore, we do not think
it is an isolated remark from an otherwise unproblematic individual, but rather hold that it is
emblematic of the violent, hegemonic masculinity upon which the U.S. military is founded—the
same masculinity at the heart of the military’s pervasive homophobia, tolerance of sexual
assault, and transmisogynistic practice of court-martialing transfeminine soldiers for “crossdressing.”
After defensively arguing that he was a “pro-choice, pro-ERA” feminist and thus couldn’t possibly
have been misogynistic, Choi eventually stated, “I apologize for using the slur and resolve to
educate others in any capacity I'm afforded in the future.” Now that you’ve provided him a
venue in which to speak, will he use it this weekend to educate those in attendance on the harm
caused by the military’s unrelenting hatred of femininity? Or perhaps the ways in which the
military benefits from systemic and institutionalized racism? No; we rather fear and expect
Choi’s talk, “Translation of Love,” will instead focus on how he “embrac[ed] risk” by coming out
while still a soldier, or by engaging in civil disobedience.
We do not desire to silence Choi’s voice, but do wish you had provided an alternative view of
the military—for example, queer/trans anti-war activist Mattilda Bernstein Sycamore’s. When
Choi debated her on Democracy Now, he made his views on war clear, saying, “...war is a force
that gives us meaning. War is a force that teaches us lessons of humanity.” And at the National
Equality March, he proclaimed, “We love our country, even when our country refuses to
acknowledge our love. But we continue to defend it...because love is worth it.” In fact, Choi
explained in one interview how war helped him come out: “many times I would spend alone in
Iraq...I would be very contemplative...I could have died at any moment in the area that I was
in...Why should I be afraid of the truth of who I am?” His main concern was, “if I die in
Afghanistan or Iraq, then would my boyfriend be notified?”
Bernstein Sycamore argued that Choi's “rhetoric...asks us to believe that the vicious wars of US
imperialism are for ‘love’...How many Iraqis died in order for him to express the ‘truth of who I
am’? What about the truth of the war?...He’s not worried about dying in an atrocious war, or
killing innocent civilians, but about whether his boyfriend will be notified.”
On your website, you describe DADT as an “immoral policy.” Is there anything else associated
with Choi and the military you might describe with that adjective? Or is it that because he is
associated with the fight for ‘equality,’ everything else he gladly represents can go
unquestioned? It would seem that the words of journalist Yasmin Nair hold true at Middlebury:
“identity—and its efflorescence under a neoliberal war—becomes the excuse for war and it
erases the possibility of a critique of Choi's ideology.”
With all this in mind, what was your reasoning behind paying Choi to speak here? What are his
“ideas worth spreading”? Or perhaps we should ask both of you and our larger community this
broader question from Tamara Nopper’s essay in the new anthology Against Equality: Don’t Ask
to Fight Their Wars: “Why is it that the straight progressives are more willing to have gays and
lesbians serve in the U.S. military (or get married) than...seriously considering the political
views of LGBT folks who take radical political stances against the military state”?
Unfortunately, we’d argue Bernstein Sycamore has already articulated the answer to that: this is
“the nightmare of assimilation we’re living in—add ‘gay’ to any reactionary goal, and the liberals
will jump on the bandwagon, but the founding values of gay liberation—fighting police brutality;
challenging US imperialism; ending oppressive institutions like marriage and the military and
organized religion; and creating personal autonomy for sexual merrymaking outside of
conventional norms—nope, we rarely hear anything about those queer values.”
Perhaps our campus will include such values and voices in the future.
Members of the People’s Gender Council of Middlebury
Submitted in solidarity with members of African American Alliance, Feminist Action at
Middlebury, Middlebury Open Queer Alliance, Social Justice Coalition, Queer Studies House, and
Women of Color, as well as the following faculty: Laurie Essig, Roman Graf, Sujata Moorti, and
William Poulin-Deltour.