Dan Choi, Leadership and the Cult of Personality

"Washington can make people, even those who fight for human rights, lose their humanity."

Winding down from family feasts of thanksgiving, I was touched by a recent long essay. This portrait of soldier-activist Dan Choi brought to mind the cult of personality that flourishes here in DC and permeates the advocacy world beyond as well. A cult which often swallows up its best and brightest, and then leaves them bereft when the story ends and the audience is gone. Some survive the maelstrom and become stronger; others, like Dan, pay a very heavy price. Throwing the glare of heavy klieg lights on an already traumatized person is a recipe for disaster. Fortunately for Dan and the LGBT community, he was able to make his decisive contribution to the repeal of Don't Ask, Don't Tell, and then move on, however emotionally frail he may be at this moment. He was a soldier who showed immense courage when it was needed, a man whose actions helped catalyze the final act in the campaign begun shortly after the policy was introduced in 1993.

There were many others -- Col. Margarethe Cammermeyer (Ret.) and Staff Sgt. Eric Alva, Joe Steffan and Tracy Thorne, Karen Stupsky and JB Collier, Sue Fulton and Dixon Osburn, Zoe Dunning and Allyson Robinson, Aubrey Sarvis and Autumn Sandeen, and so many more whom I never got to meet, never having been a part of the U.S. military. But this episode in the movement for equal rights in this country, while not complete because of a lack of a military non-discrimination policy for one, and, secondly, the persistent absence of a policy of open service for trans members of the military, is now sufficiently complete that it serves as a model for other campaigns currently in progress and those yet to come.

I've learned a few lessons from my acquaintanceship with Dan and others. Sometimes leadership can be nurtured over time, yielding people tempered by experience, elevated by the inevitable losses, and supported by close friends and allies who cushion the journey. At other times a need acutely arises and someone steps forward, often with the necessary personality to embrace the spotlight but without the emotional stability to persist and ultimately survive the onslaught of celebrity.

Then leaders from different camps and experiences may come into conflict, just as competing organizations can clash. SLDN managed the efforts for over a decade, until Democratic control of Congress and the Presidency in 2009 made repeal a distinct possibility and attracted others into the fray, like HRC and GetEqual. The longer the commitment one makes, the less willingness there is, understandably, to make way for another, particularly someone who hasn't been toiling in the trenches as long.

Some people need media training, others seem born to it, generating even more resentment. And the media compounds the problem, often severely, by limiting their Rolodexes to the same few people. Those people, and Dan is a good example, often start off well but flame out with overexposure. The media seems always to be searching for the new "It Girl," and as with most new toys, quickly tires and discards it quickly. If one has rejected personal support on the way to the magazine cover, and has lost institutional support along the way or never had it in the first place, it can be a very lonely trip back to mundane reality.

There have been occasions when those tapped to lead, or others who demand the right to do so, come with their emotional trauma already fixed into place. Activists are often working through their personal trauma and fighting for their own needs. The best can sublimate that inner struggle to ultimately benefit the community as a whole, like Dan. Some use the political sphere as their personal support group, creating resentment and setting the movement back, while others see the movement as a comfortable place with friends and a secure paycheck which vitiates the possibility of leadership. What works for individuals also holds for institutions as well.

It would be helpful if the movement was able to nurture and support its leaders, and the LGBT community does have some resources to do just that. There has been an annual retreat for movement Executive Directors for many years. The state LGBT equality movement has the Equality Federation, though it has become increasingly cut off from local political realities. There are courses in leadership at the Kennedy School and Duke University that give movement executives the opportunity to bond with and support one another.

But it seems that in spite of the structures that are created to serve and protect that rare expression of leadership that can make a real difference, the best examples are those which are organic and spontaneous, like Mr. Choi. Maybe that's a romantic notion, from a bygone era. The average American, when thinking of civil rights, knows only the charismatic Dr. Martin Luther King, and few if any of the others who made Dr. King's work possible and the movement for African-American civil rights ultimately successful. For example, it has only been in the run-up to the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington this past summer that gay civil rights leader, Bayard Rustin, the architect of the March, received his due recognition.

Maybe that's why the leaders who make the most difference are those who are free of encumbrances, who are the least dependent on paychecks and corporate health coverage, who may not have the most to lose. Janice Joplin famously sang the words of Kris Kristofferson, "Freedom's just another word for nothing left to lose." We're fortunate when those people step forward to benefit us all.

I end with a quote of Mr. Rustin's which is apropos of the man, Dan Choi:

"When an individual is protesting society's refusal to acknowledge his dignity as a human being, his very act of protest confers dignity on him."