Former Army Lt. Dan Choi was one of just eight Arabic-language experts in his West Point graduating class, and he served in “The Triangle of Death” in Iraq. Despite his unique expertise, his Army career ended abruptly in 2009 after he came out on “The Rachel Maddow Show.” The Army promptly discharged him under “don’t ask, don’t tell,” which prohibited gay and lesbian people from serving openly in the military. The 17-year-old law was repealed late in 2010.
Read Luke Visconti’s column What Changed Obama’s Mind About Gay Rights?
Since then, Choi frequently speaks out about discrimination and violence against LGBT people. The son of a Southern Baptist preacher, Choi’s voice resonated among the crowd at PSEG, the Newark, N.J.–based utility company, as he recited Arabic poetry and talked about his experience coming out to his family and his Army unit. Choi was the year’s first speaker in PSEG’s annual Diversity and Inclusion Speaker Series. More than 100 PSEG employees, including members from seven of the company’s nine employee-resource groups, attended.
“This event helped cement our place within the company, bringing difficult conversations to light and helping push us toward full workplace recognition and equality,” says Sally Nadler, college-relations manager for PSEG and chair of GaLA, the company’s LGBT employee-resource group.
Founded in 2005, GaLA has just 30 members, in part because the ERG is based at the company headquarters while most employees work in the field in distant locations. “We expect that both membership and interest from GaLA supporters will grow as the group expands their programming and outreach efforts,” says Jenn Kramer, communications manager for PSEG.
Speakers such as Choi—whose experience links veterans, LGBT people, Asian Americans and others in a compelling story—can help employees of different groups recognize the challenges their coworkers face, says Ramona Blake, PSEG’s diversity and inclusion manager.
“Employees get that the company is serious about diversity and inclusion,” Blake says. “They also receive the message that it’s OK to be an ally and that’s important.”
Diana Drysdale, vice president of renewables for PSEG Energy Holdings and GaLA’s executive sponsor, echoes that sentiment. “There are still states where an LGBT employee can be fired for being open,” she says. These employees are forced to hide. “Think about how hard it is to get the best out of people when they have to live that way.”
Read Luke Visconti’s column “You’re Gay? You’re Fired!”
Fighting for Talent
The civil-rights movement of the 1960s, led by Blacks, continues. Then, corporations followed the military in racial integration. Today, companies lead the military in advancing civil rights for the LGBT community.
“Corporations look for talent,” Choi says, no matter what race/ethnicity, gender or orientation, to survive in a global economy with diverse customer bases and talent pools. “One of the worst things about ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’ in the military was that talent was lost.”
Choi had also feared those in the military would be closed-minded and homophobic. His experience proved the opposite. After he came out, other soldiers thanked him, sharing their stories of gay brothers, lesbian sisters, cousins, friends and colleagues. “Holding on to these stereotypes is the greatest barrier to any social movement,” he says.
When New York became the sixth and largest state in the nation to recognize same-sex marriages, the change advanced civil rights across the country, Choi says.
“It’s a harbinger of great things to come in our collective civil-rights movement,” he says. “A victory in one area of civil rights is a victory for all of us.”