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

Soldier of Change: From the closet to the forefront of the gay rights movement
Stephen Snyder-Hill
Stephen Snyder-Hill

Stephen Snyder-Hill gained national attention in 2011 when he submitted a question via YouTube to a GOP debate while he served from Iraq. In his question, he asked about the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy and the candidates’ intentions to either uphold its repeal, or reinstate it. Immediately after asking the question, boos could be heard from within the crowd. While the boos came from a handful of people, what spoke even more was that no candidate thanked a currently overseas, in the field soldier for his service. Steve can now can be found by simply searching “booed soldier.”

His memoir, “Soldier of Change,” captures not only the media frenzy that followed the repeal of “Don’Ask, Don’t Tell,” placing Snyder-Hill at the forefront of this modern civil rights movement, but also his twenty-year journey as a gay man in the Army: from self-loathing to self-acceptance to the most important battle of his life — protecting the disenfranchised. Since that time, Snyder-Hill has traveled the country with his husband, giving interviews on major news networks and speaking at universities, community centers, and pride parades, becoming a champion of LGBT equality.

This column is an excerpt from “Soldier of Change: From the Closet to the Forefront of the Gay Rights Movement” by Stephen Snyder-Hill, by permission of Potomac Books, an Imprint of the University of Nebraska Press.

© 2014 by the Board of Regents of the University of Nebraska.

This Looks Like a Gay Dude’s House

The guys in my unit constantly asked about my fictitious girlfriend. They wanted to know if she was hot, how old she was, what she looked like, where she worked, if we were going to get married. At one time I used a picture of an Asian friend of mine who was kissing me while I was playing pool. They even made up a nickname for her, “Miso” (apparently for “me so horny”).

My boyfriend had his own place but stayed with me almost all of the time. One evening my boyfriend and I were in the privacy of my own home, sleeping. My phone rang in the middle of the night. Three of my army buddies were drunk and wanted to stop by to play my arcade game, which I had built from scratch. I told them I didn’t think it was a good idea, but they insisted.

Snyder-Hill-CoverThey said, “We’re on our way,” and then hung up. I panicked. I woke up my boyfriend and asked him to leave. Like we were in a fire drill, we both jumped up out of bed. He quickly got dressed, and I ran around the house hiding pictures of us. I was forced to clean my own house in the middle of the night, thanks to Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell (DADT).

I felt so bad for my boyfriend. How dirty would it make you feel to be told to leave in the middle of the night? He was a trooper, didn’t even flinch, and went fast so we wouldn’t get caught. This practice of hiding stuff was not uncommon, and I had gotten quite proficient at it.

Right before he got ready to kiss me goodbye and tell me he would see me later, my drunk soldier friends called me again.

They said they had changed their minds and wouldn’t be coming over. That made the whole thing even worse.

“You guys are going to get your asses kicked,” I threatened. “What, did we piss off Miso? Is she mad?” said the snarky voice on the phone.

My boyfriend heard the whole conversation. When I hung up, he said, “It’s best if I just go to my house.” So I went upstairs and cried about the whole situation. I never felt like a bigger piece of shit than I did that night for disrespecting him and living my life like this.

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I really hated my life. I hated living like I was in prison. It was hurting my relationship. And it was all so fucking stupid. Was this a “special privilege”? Was this about sex? I was not asking to have sex in the military. If given the chance of a rebuttal after Mr. Santorum answered my question with his “sex has no place in the military” and “gay people want special privileges” rhetoric, I would have told him that story.

In addition to the drunken drive-by that almost happened, I’ve had several other close calls in the DADT witch hunt. Over the years I had become good friends with a guy in my unit named Troy. While John was deployed, Troy and I palled around together a lot. 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….

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…

Stephen Snyder-Hill and his husband Joshua Snyder,. The couple married in 2011 in Washington D.C.
Stephen Snyder-Hill and his husband Joshua Snyder. The couple married in 2011 in Washington D.C. Courtesy Joshua Snyder

That comment made me weirdly standoffish toward Matt. We played video games for a while, then decided to work on our iPhones. I went to bed wondering whether this stuff was all in my head. I look back to Troy and know I wasted all that time that I could have had a good friendship. If you never give someone a chance to show that they can be cool, then you always stay a little shy and weird and secret. But there is so much to lose all the time. My life was like the show Dexter — not because I was a serial killer but because my whole life was a lie. Everything out of my mouth was always carefully thought out. Even now I sometimes have a hard time remembering not to call my husband she just because I got used to that. My friend Renshaw in Iraq was the first person to make that Dexter comparison once he found out.

Once again it was embarrassing and demeaning to tell my boyfriend he wasn’t welcome in my home the night that Matt stayed over, though asking him to leave in the middle of the night that one time was definitely worse. And when I called him she on the phone, I always thought that hurt his feelings. That takes a toll on relationships, and I think it’s one of the things that contributed to our breakup. It sucked, but it’s just one story out of thousands of troops who’ve had to live their lives like this. And many of them still do. Just because the army says we don’t have to lie anymore doesn’t mean it’s easier to tell people. We still have a mindset and culture to change before we will know it really doesn’t matter to people.

A case in point is the comment I got from a fellow soldier’s girlfriend.

“Where do you live?” she asked. “Columbus,” I replied.

“Ewww! How do you live there?” was her response. “There are way too many gay people. I couldn’t stand that.”

I have dealt with so many of those shitty comments in my life. The odd thing about this hate is that people don’t know they are being directly hateful to another human being. I always wished we had a stamp that said “gay” on our foreheads. That way there would be no coming out to anyone. People could avoid you if they had a problem with you. I used to come home and say that one of the these days I was going to take one comment wrong and burst out right in front of formation and tell everyone I was gay! I would let them deal with the shock and think about everything that came out of their mouths from then on. Of course that was just a fantasy. I never thought it would actually happen. The best thing about coming out to everyone at once during the debates is that, even though it made me vulnerable, it also caused the people who hated me to just stay away. It’s the nicest shield I could have had.

On the Internet people can hide behind their hate. Just read the comments on YouTube or on people’s Facebook posts. Are the commenters meaner than they really would be in person, just because they can post anonymously? Are they revealing their true selves? There were so many comments online in response to my appearance at the 2011 debates. One person wrote: “I hope that queer gets aids and dies.” I often wonder if he would say that to me face to face. I doubt it. But it is amazing that he found it acceptable to say it on the Internet, hiding like a baby. Even worse are the fake people. They treat you one way, but behind your back they are different. Those people make me sick, so I choose to exclude them from my life as best I can.

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