War Stories: Booed gay soldier chronicles life in the closet to gay rights activist

Joshua and Stephen Snyder-Hill
Joshua and Stephen Snyder-Hill

When Stephen Snyder-Hill and his U.S. Army unit were taking fire during the 1991 war in Iraq, the then-18-year-old private glanced down at a picture he carried of his brother with a girlfriend.

“I decided if I died that day, I would never have loved somebody,” he said.

The realization began a journey of self-acceptance, coming out, reconciling religious beliefs, standing up for himself and fellow LGBT service members, and fighting for marriage equality.

And, famously, it led to boos from Republican presidential-debate-goers that gave him a platform for his advocacy.

Snyder-Hill, now a married, 43-year-old U.S. Army Reserve major who lives with his husband in Columbus, will tell his story in a book to be published next year.

snyder-hill-book-cover“Soldier of Change: From the Closet to the Forefront of the Gay Rights Movement” is about his experiences coming out, serving in the military under Don’t Ask Don’t Tell, fighting to change Pentagon policies even after its repeal, and becoming a gay activist.

Snyder-Hill was thrust into the national spotlight in September 2011 when he asked debating Republican presidential candidates via YouTube whether they wanted to reinstate the military’s just-ended ban on openly gay service members. He was serving in Iraq at the time, but he was booed loudly. And not one GOP candidate — there were nine running at the time — stood up for a gay man who was serving his country in a war zone.

Sadly, it wasn’t the first time Snyder-Hill felt that disrespect.

Back when he was a student at Ohio State University in the mid-1990s, a letter in the campus paper joked that gay people headed to a protest march in Washington made it less likely anyone in Columbus would get AIDS that weekend. Snyder-Hill wrote his own letter telling the homophobe how he fought for his right to share that thought.

During his flight to Iraq, he recalled, one of his fellow soldiers made an anti-gay wisecrack.

“When I started … one of my friends had said, ‘You should be writing this down,’” Snyder-Hill said. “I thought of all the things that pushed me to the point of asking that question.”

Before the U.S. Supreme Court overturned the Defense of Marriage Act and the Department of Defense extended family benefits to LGBT service members, Snyder-Hill and his husband, Joshua, sued the Pentagon over its unequal treatment. They also are co-chairs of Freedom Ohio’s effort to overturn Ohio’s 2004 marriage ban.

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The couple were grand marshals of Columbus’s Pride parade this past June and hosted a bus trip to Washington, D.C., for couples to get married on the steps of the U.S. Supreme Court.

Snyder-Hill said he began writing Soldier of Change while serving in Iraq and finished it after returning home to Columbus. It will be published by Potomac Books, which specializes in military-related subjects.

The forward to the book will be written by actor, activist and social-media maven George Takei.

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