Today the Weekend Reader brings you Soldier of Change: From the Closet to the Forefront of the Gay Rights Movement by Major Stephen Snyder-Hill, a leading LGBT activist and U.S. Army reservist who served two tours in Iraq. It was Snyder-Hill who infamously asked former senator Rick Santorum (R-PA) during a presidential debate if he would “circumvent the progress that’s been made for gay and lesbian soldiers in the military” following the repeal of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.” The 24-year veteran was booed by the conservative audience for his question.
Soldier of Change is Snyder-Hill’s personal account of being a gay soldier in the U.S. military — both before and after the repeal of DADT — and of his journey in the movement for equal rights.
You can purchase the book here.
I didn’t have to respond to Rick Santorum. America responded. And it restored my faith in my country. Almost immediately after the debate Josh sent me links to many websites where responses kept pouring in. People were outraged, not just in America but all over the world. I was seeing my story on news stations in Britain and receiving emails from everywhere. At one point, Google emailed to ask where I wanted all this correspondence to go.
Over the next two weeks my life was under the microscope of the public eye. My most intimate secret was being talked about on every TV station in the world. The Daily Show with Jon Stewart had a clip that poked fun at my arm size; it reaired on CNN, MSNBC, Fox News, Headline News, ABC, even Real Time with Bill Maher. The kicker came one night at about midnight when we had a quick reaction force (QRF) drill. We were woken up in the middle of the night and had to get out to our guard post with all our gear on, a drill we did randomly in Iraq. I ran out and was guarding my post when a fellow soldier said to me, “I saw President Obama was talking about you.” I don’t think anyone ever thinks they will hear that in their life, but sitting in Iraq, it was my reality.
So I ran back to my room to see what he had said when he spoke at a dinner for the Human Rights Campaign. As I sat and watched, I started to tear up at his words. He condemned the candidates for not standing up for me. He said, “If you want to be the president of the United States, then you can start by standing up for our men and women in uniform even when it is not politically convenient.” To this day words cannot express how wonderful it feels to have President Obama’s support. I was proud to be deployed under the first African American president and especially to hear him defend me. Later I thought about his life and the things he had gone through and wondered if it was easier for him to relate to me. At one time his mother and father could not have married because of laws that prohibited them. At one time if he had served in the military, he would have been segregated. Either way that day made me very proud. Before all the chatter got any bigger than it already was, I walked into my commander’s office to let her know I was the booed soldier who was all over TV. I was nervous. First, what if she judged me for being gay? Second, what if she was pissed off about what I had done? I respected her and valued her opinion of me. My voice shook as I told her. And without blinking an eye, she said, “Captain Hill, I don’t care if you are gay; I would take ten of you if I could. I have no problem with what you did. I’m just glad you’re not bringing me something worse than this.”
I don’t think she realized the enormity of the situation at the time. About thirty minutes after our discussion I received a page to come back to her office because a CCIR (Critical Incident Report) had come down from headquarters in response to what I had told her. She explained that the military’s primary concern was to make sure I was protected and that no one was messing with me. I was really touched by that and thought it showed a huge mindset change for the army. Just a month ago no one had responded to my complaint of the harassment training, and now they were concerned for my well-being. It made me extremely proud to be a soldier. The military took command and made sure this was being handled professionally and without incident. The command sergeant major also visited me personally to make sure everything was okay and that no one was making any comments or harassing me.
So many people in Iraq said they couldn’t believe all the controversy this caused. Lots of people told me what I had done was very brave, and I received a bunch of hugs. I got some negative reactions, but not many. Several of my soldiers told me they thought I had only said I was gay in my video because I was standing up for another gay soldier I might have known. I was known to speak out against bigoted comments about black people and women, so at first some people assumed that’s what I was doing.
One of my fellow soldiers in a high-ranking position told me that a few people from our command were not excited that I had appeared in uniform in the video, as it is against army policy to be in uniform at a political event. But they did note that since we were in a theater of war, we didn’t have civilian clothes. When I spoke to the military lawyers, I explained that I originally submitted the question without my identity or rank, and I made sure that I was in compliance with military protocol before doing so. They concurred that as an American I had every right to participate in the debates. A couple of them actually told me, “Good for you for standing up for what you believe in.”
I received a Skype message from a friend who connected me with a young soldier stationed on the same base as I was. The kid told me, “Sir, I don’t know you, but I want to thank you for what you did. I think it took an incredible amount of courage to do it. I will probably never tell anyone else in the army that I’m gay, but you stood up for us all.” He went on to tell me that someone kept using the word faggots during their training. That made me mad. I instantly shifted into “I want to protect him” mode.
I also received an anonymous email from someone pretty high up in the Pentagon. It read, “Your younger generation has an easier time coming out than our older generation does. I don’t know if I can ever come out, but if I do, you have made it easier for people like me.”
If you enjoyed this excerpt, purchase the full book here.
Excerpted 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 Press. Available wherever books are sold or from Potomac Books 800-775-2518 and at potomacbooksinc.com.
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