Soldier of Change: From the closet to the forefront of the gay rights movement

Stephen Snyder-Hill, circa 1991.
Stephen Snyder-Hill, circa 1991.

I always thought that if I would ever come out to anyone in the military, it would be Troy. Then he asked me something that made me rethink this. We were on our way to annual training, and I noticed that the flight attendant on the plane was wearing a rainbow bracelet. Troy asked, “Do you know what that bracelet means?” I wondered if this was his way of asking about me, but he seemed a little uneasy, so I just played dumb.

All of my friends, including my boyfriend, played video games at my house on the weekend. It was a total nerd fest — we’d stay up all night and order pizza. This was my “gay life.” Troy always asked if he could join, and I really wanted him to, but I couldn’t risk it. I didn’t know how he would react. So

Snyder-Hill-dressI always made up excuses for why he couldn’t come over. He asked me again one day, and I decided to test the water.

“I want you to, but there is something I never told you about my roommates,” I said.

“What?” he asked, seeming a little cautious. “Well, they are kind of progressive.”

“What do you mean, progressive?” he said nervously.

This was my invitation for him to say, “I don’t care,” or “I’m cool with whatever.” But he didn’t. So I slipped into lie mode. “They smoke pot,” I said, to which he answered, “Oh, I don’t care if they do that.”

This was a failed attempt. In truth my roommates did not smoke pot, and one of them was later offended that I had made him sound like a pothead. Plus I really wasn’t thinking what my roommates must have thought of me being so willing to throw them under the bus to test the water to see if he would accept them (when it was really about me). So I went back into the safe closet from Troy. We went through a couple more years of me dodging the issue and putting necessary limitations on our friendship.

Toward the end of his military service I slowly tried to hint a little more and even invited him to my house a couple times. Of course I hid some pictures and other obvious pieces of evidence. One day Troy stopped by while I was in the middle of my workout, so he went upstairs to play with my computer until I finished. At that very moment my boyfriend came over without my knowledge and went upstairs to put away our laundry, so it was pretty obvious. But Troy never said anything. But he also never acted different toward me.

During our last Family Day, when Troy was almost finished with his military service, I started talking to him about having gay friends. He didn’t seem freaked out. So I blurted out, “Do you know about me?” He smiled and said, “For a while now.” He told me that every time he came home from drill, his wife asked, “Did Steve come out to you yet?” Then he said, “I wish you would have said something because I really wanted to play video games with you guys!” For the first time I realized that I had wasted years of a great friendship in hiding. To this day Troy and I are good friends. Part of my decision to come out to my friend Renshaw in Iraq in 2011 was directly the result of wasting years of a friendship with Troy.

The last couple of months in the military with Troy were fun because together we secretly laughed at all the homophobic comments. He told me about a bunch of unattractive and overweight soldiers who were talking about “queers” wanting them. Troy had no qualms about walking up to them and saying, “No queer would ever want any of you guys. Don’t flatter yourselves.”

Just as Troy was preparing for the end of his military career, I met another friend, Matt, on extended combat training. He was as much of a tech geek as I am, so we became fast friends. I talked him into transferring to our unit, which meant he’d have to drive much farther to the battle assembly, but he agreed. Then it became apparent that he thought we could hang out on the weekends, so I had to dodge that bullet. He was also someone who always asked to see pictures of my girlfriend.

One time drill ended too late for Matt to find lodging, so I offered to let him stay at my place for the weekend. So I did a quick run-through at my house. My roommate was out of town, and I asked my boyfriend to stay at his own house. So Matt came over and dropped off his stuff.

The first thing he said when he walked through the door was, “Dude, this looks like a gay dude’s house!” I about shit. First of all, my house wasn’t that abnormal. The guy I was dating loved to decorate, so he had made the house look nice. He had painted all the rooms and hung a few pictures and plants, but it wasn’t effeminate. I didn’t know how to respond, so in defense I said, “How do you know what a gay dude’s house looks like?” It’s funny how quickly you can defend yourself. But even my defense was a bit homophobic because I was accusing him of being gay.

That comment made me weirdly standoffish toward Matt…

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