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Stephen Snyder-Hill: Major, U.S. Army

The first impact hit to his right. A cinematic collision of metal and sand, of explosives and earth, a blue and orange fireball swirling in the darkness, the most beautiful thing he’d ever seen. The second shell hit to his left—that was the frightening one. “Danger close,” they called it.

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Photo by Chris Casella

He was in artillery, he knew what it meant: The Iraqis were honing in on his unit. Stephen Snyder-Hill was about to die.

He shrunk down into his vehicle and looked at taped-up photos of his family, eventually landing on a picture of his brother and his brother’s girlfriend. It hit him all at once then, during the 80-hour ground battle of Desert Storm, a moment of clarity and mortality intertwined—I’ve never let myself love anybody else. I’ve never been honest to myself about who I am.

He was gay, he finally admitted, and he swore he’d never lie to himself again. He survived the barrage.

But during the next 20 years, “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” forced Snyder-Hill to continue lying to the Army and his fellow soldiers. He was redeployed to Iraq in 2010, just as it was announced that the controversial policy would be repealed, after leading to the discharge of approximately 14,000 troops. In anticipation of its demise, he married his boyfriend Josh in Washington D.C. while on leave in May 2011. As the 2012 presidential campaign escalated, though, several Republican candidates promised to reinstate the policy if elected.

At the Republican primary debate in Orlando on September 22, 2011—two days after the official end of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell—Snyder-Hill asked, via video from his soldier’s quarters in Tikrit, if any of the candidates intended to circumvent the progress that had been made for gay soldiers. The question received scattered boos and was directed to Rick Santorum, who said he would reinstate the policy and that sex had no place in the military. His answer was met with roaring applause. The incident propelled gay rights to the forefront of national political discourse, dragging Snyder-Hill along for the ride.

Despite his private nature, he has accepted his share of the intense spotlight of this civil rights battle. But he’d rather be at home in Columbus. He loves his dogs, Gizmo and Macho, who playfully terrorize our interview sessions. He loves video games and anything high-tech. He loves nutrition and physical fitness. He loves God, his family, his country. He loves the Army. And he loves a man. That last fact threatens to overshadow all the other things about him, and that’s what he wants to change. That is why he fights.

How scared were you when you asked the question—of the potential consequences, of the reaction from the candidates, the crowd, or the viewing audience? Scared before? I would say virtually not at all. Scared after, and really thinkin’ about the consequences of it? Yeah, I can’t even tell you. I mean, to come out to somebody can be very humiliating because sometimes it’s like people still view you differently…I did it to 6 billion people. Yeah, that sucks. When I got booed, I can tell you that my gut just completely dropped out…but I’ve seen people that have been so adamantly against everything that happened and said, “That was sensationalized. It was three people that booed and they were just all about that.” You know what? They’re right, it wasn’t a lot of people that booed, and that isn’t the point to it. The point to it is that Rick Santorum answered that question, and he said that…You’re asking for a special privilege, and he reduced my 26-year honorable career that’s highly decorated to sex. And all those people in that audience that night stood up and cheered that answer. I can tell you that that booing had nowhere near the profound effect [of] all those people cheering that I’m asking for special privileges for my country and reducing me to sex.

Is it exhausting to prepare for someone else’s response to you revealing something this personal? It does get exhausting to think, “How are they gonna react to what I say? How are they gonna take what I say? Are they gonna accept me, or are they gonna reject me?” But one thing about that is that Rick Santorum said, Keep it to yourself whether you’re gay or straight, and that was his tagline, whether you’re homosexual or heterosexual. And what he didn’t realize is that he was saying, “Keep it to yourself, don’t tell people about what you did on Friday night with your wife, don’t tell people about what movie you just went to see with your wife, don’t show people any photos in your wallet.” I think that people really start to realize that while that sounds like, “Well, just keep it to yourself,” they’re thinking, “Don’t tell me about you.”

When Rick Santorum answered that question, he did reduce my entire life to sex, and that really sucks. I’m awesome at building computers. I love computers, like I built an arcade machine that plays 280,000 video games. I am kinda like a little computer genius. I play the piano; I can play every Journey song ever made and rock the house on any Pink Floyd. I mean, there’s so many things about my personality that don’t have anything to do with being gay, that aren’t about sex, just as there are for everybody else.

What’s the long-term toll of hiding such a significant part of yourself under Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell? I always tell this story because I think that it’s one of my lowest points.

My soldier friends called me one night, and they basically said that they were coming over and they wanted to play my arcade machine. And so I had to wake my boyfriend up in the middle of the night and say, “Hey my friends are coming over, you gotta leave.” So literally in the middle of the night, we jump out of bed, I run around and grab pictures off the wall of our vacations, run downstairs, and it’s like we’re in a hurry to get ’em out of here before they come over. Then the phone rings and I pick it up, and they’re on the other line. They’re kinda drunk, and they’re like, “We decided we’re not coming over tonight.” And I have all these pictures in my arms, and I’m sittin’ there thinkin,’ “What is wrong with my life?” This is my home, this is like my sanctuary where I should be safe, and I’m sitting here holdin’ all these pictures. And I looked at him and I was like, “I’m so sorry,” and he said, “You know what, I’m just gonna go to my house tonight.” And that’s probably what started the chip on my shoulder to get to where I got, to the Republican primaries.

You became the center of this media firestorm after the debate. What was that like for you and Josh to be separated by so many miles and such different circumstances? He was excited that that question went out because it was a really profound moment…I’m in a foreign country at a war with nobody that knew I was gay. Not one person knew that I was gay, so I was very naked, exposed. I felt very, very vulnerable because you just can’t describe how that feels to do that. When things started to blow up, it really did get crazy because it was like pretty soon you could just Google the word “gay” and I would pop up on it. So it was kinda crazy, and then we went out for a [quick-reaction-force mission] and somebody said, “I heard what Obama said about you today.”

President Obama had really not said anything very publically about LGBT people in general before that event, and after the Republican debate, he came out very strongly at [a Human Rights Campaign] event and chastised all them and said, We protect all of our men and women in uniform. And then later on, Biden and him came out in support of gay marriage, and you always wonder if that was a litmus test for him to be able to show really strong support for the LGBT community. And it paid off.

I first talked to Josh in anticipation of the CBus of Love trip, in which you took gay couples from Ohio and other states to the Supreme Court to get married legally. What was the result of that? We let them each go down the stairs of [the] Supreme Court steps before the [Defense of Marriage Act] hearings and announced them husband and husband, wife and wife. And who knows—was a judge lookin’ out the window that day and just saw that interaction, or just saw these people expressing their love? Maybe, maybe not. You don’t know, but I’m not willing to take the chance that these little things that we do are not affecting people. And that’s the whole message of my book [Soldier of Change] is that I don’t wanna be pompous enough to assume that anything that I’m doing individually is making this great wave of change, but it is collectively.

Not long after Josh and I spoke, three gay men were beaten in the Short North. How real is that threat still for members of the LGBT community in Columbus? There’s always a threat. There’s a threat for black people in Southern cities to go certain places. There’s a threat wherever there’s gonna be hate from people. Am I scared? Absolutely not. Now am I not complacent, would I go out into a very negative place and tell people I’m gay just to see what their reaction was? You know, I’m gonna be smart about what I do, but I don’t think that people should live in fear, and I think that our community should react just like that they did—a campaign to wear pink, and just a strong force to say, “This is unacceptable, and we’re not gonna accept it.”

In my book I talk about an [incident] back when I was in college where…somebody threatened me and called me a faggot when I was coming home, and I was in a fight with a guy that I was dating, and we were upset and just arguing, and it just hit me the wrong way…it was just one of those times where I thought, “You know somethin,’ I’m gonna stand up for myself, and you have absolutely no right to threaten me.” And I got in his face and ended up holdin’ him down and just poundin’ the shit outta him, like hittin’ him as hard as I could on his spine, and I coulda killed him. And that’s somethin’ that I’m not proud of at all. I mean, I don’t think that it’s a prideful thing. I just think that it was a time that I decided that I was gonna stand up for myself, and I wasn’t gonna let somebody push me. And do I recommend people do stuff like that? No, but I also think that people need to understand that not everybody’s gonna lay down and take threats or take violence, that we’re gonna defend ourselves if we need to.

You’ve made a stand, but you were only afforded this role as an activist because things were so wrong in society. Listening to you tell your story makes it sound like leading up that point of speaking up, you were getting pushed ever closer by things that were out of your control. Yeah, the wrongs of the world, I think, pushed me to do what I did. I think you’re spot-on. I think that if you could hear—when we shut the doors and we’re not talkin’ to media—hear me and Josh correspond, you would see that this is still a challenge to me to this day. This week—if I could take my name out of it tomorrow I swear to God that I would. I really want to be able to not spend our weekends gone and doing talks and just spend time with my dogs, and I really do actually get a little bit depressed by the amount of things that we do. What reenergizes me, though, is that people like you want to hear our story, and it almost feels like this responsibility that I could never ever relinquish to be able to have the opportunity to tell it. If we can articulate it enough to help people understand and change, then that’s what drives people like us to do what we do. I don’t want to ever compare myself to Martin Luther King or anybody, you know, Rosa Parks, or Harvey Milk, or any of those people, but a lot of these people are people that felt an obligation—they felt a need to stand up for what they believed in. And I think sometimes you do get wrapped up in it, where you feel like that if somebody’s willing to listen we need to always tell our story. But it doesn’t make it easy.

Stephen Snyder-Hill’s new book, Soldier of Change, detailing his life and his struggle for marriage equality, is available now at www.soldierofchange.co.

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