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Maj. Stephen Snyder-Hill: From soldier to LGBT-rights activist
Special to the online edition of Windy City Times
by Charlsie Dewey

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Maj. Stephen Snyder-Hill said he hit rock bottom one day while serving in Desert Storm.

He was only 19 years old.

Artillery fire was hitting on his left and right and Snyder-Hill said he thought for sure he was going to die.

"I sunk down in the drivers seat and I thought 'this is it, I'm going to die today.' I looked in front of me, where I had a picture of my brother and his girlfriend in my vehicle, and that is when I hit bottom, where I finally came to terms that I had to [deal with it]. I thought, I want to live one day of my life for myself."

Snyder-Hill said he had felt different for as long as he could remember and that feeling of difference caused him to feel depressed for years, but he didn't really understand what made him feel different.

That day in Desert Storm, he first acknowledged the difference: He is gay.

"I felt like I was going to die that day without having ever been allowed to love anybody," he said. "It was a really low point. I promised myself if I make it out alive I'm going to try to live my life for myself and understand this. So I came out to my parents and my brother."

He left the military and entered college and began what he told Windy City Times was his "young gay life."

"I'd just gotten back from war," he said. "I was getting ready to go to college, and for the first time I was able to confront this and accept it and start to come to terms with it."

While coming to terms with his sexuality was a struggle, when he finally accepted himself as gay Snyder-Hill said he embraced it, putting pride stickers on his car and living his life openly.

He said once he obtained his college degree, he knew he wanted to re-enter the military.

"When I went back in I knew it was going to be really rough, because it was after I'd come out," he said. "Basically, it meant I'd have to go back into this closet it had taken me 22 years to get out of. I knew that was going to be pretty torturous, but I had no idea how bad it was going to be."

He said when he was first serving in the military it was before "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" ( DADT )—but when he re-entered, the policy was in effect.

"DADT came into effect and we thought for the first time it's going to be wonderful," he said. "We are finally, for the first time, allowed to officially be here and before it was like we weren't really there."

He said he and other LGBT service members couldn't have been more wrong.

"Now, there are Army rules that if you are caught doing any of these three things you get kicked out: engaging in homosexual sex, trying to marry another person of the same gender and declaring to be homosexual. If you did any of those things, all of a sudden the military had an ability to kick you out."

DADT quickly turned into a witch hunt. More than 14,000 men and women were discharged during 1994-2011, when DADT was finally overturned.

"We had to go to homosexual briefings," Snyder-Hill explained. "I can't even tell you how wretched that is. It makes you feel dirty. Basically they would tell you what homosexuals were allowed to do and what they weren't allowed to do. They coached people on how you could turn somebody in if you suspected they were homosexual."

Snyder-Hill lived in fear of being discovered throughout his service.

He and his boyfriend took numerous precautions to hide their relationship. They created code words for saying I love you during phone conversations, he kept the volume on his phone turned all the way down when they talked so his comrades wouldn't overhear the male voice on the other end of the line.

Snyder-Hill said one of the worst experiences he endured was hiding under an airport stairwell and saying goodbye to his boyfriend before he shipped out to Iraq, while the rest of his unit openly embraced their loved ones in the terminal.

"The day we left from the airport, before I flew out to Iraq, we tried to find a safe spot at the airport where nobody would see us," he said. "We stayed in there like little rats, we cried and said goodbye to each other. … We look out and all these people are saying goodbye, they are hugging, their wives are all exchanging information and they are trying to console each other and keep each other company and here we are like rats hiding."

Another defeating experience was dashing around his apartment in the middle of the night collecting photos before a group of his military buddies arrived.

"My boyfriend and I were sleeping and we got woken up in the middle of the night because a bunch of my soldier friends wanted to come over to my house to play video games," he said. "Instantly I jump up and I say, 'Hey, my Army friends are coming over, you've got to go.' We both get up and we are scrambling around. I'm running around the house and getting all the pictures off the walls and panicking, because I don't know how close they are. He is trying to get dressed and get out. By the time we get down to the foyer and I have all these pictures in my arms, I get a call back and they are like, well we're not coming over.

"I felt the lowest I've ever felt in my life standing there in my foyer with all of these pictures asking the person I love to leave. I said 'I'm so sorry,' and he just looked at me and said 'you know what, I'm just going to go home.'"

That is why, two days after DADT had been repealed in September 2011, Snyder-Hill asked the Republican Party's presidential candidates what they would do about the policy if one of them were elected to office.

He received boos from a handful of audience members and was told by then-candidate Rick Santorum that by asking to serve openly in the military he was asking for a special privilege.

"What actually gutted me … the entire audience gave Rick Santorum a standing ovation when he stood up and said I was asking for a special privilege to serve my country," Snyder-Hill said. "When that guy reduced my career—I have 26 honorable years and I'm highly decorated—he reduced that to sex and took every meaningful thing I'd ever done in the military away in two seconds, and all those people applauded. That was more devastating to me than three people booing."

Snyder-Hill has written a memoir, Soldier of Change: From the Closet to the Forefront of the Gay Rights Movement, that details his experiences, including his early childhood struggles with knowing he was different but not really understanding how; his years of military service, both before and after DADT; and the night he became an advocate for LGBT equality.

Snyder-Hill will speak Tuesday, Nov. 11, at the American Veterans for Equal Rights Veterans Day Dinner. The dinner is being held at Ann Sather restaurant, 909 W. Belmont Ave., and begins at 6 p.m. Tickets are $35, and can be purchased by mailing a check to AVER, P.O. Box 29317, Chicago with "veterans dinner" in the memo line.

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