Freedom Fighter: A Gay Soldier’s Battle for Equality

U.S. Army veteran Steven Snyder-Hill visited campus Friday to share his experiences as a gay soldier and the hardships he and his partner faced during the Don’t Ask Don’t Tell
policy. photo by Graig Graziosi/The Jambar.

United States Army Captain Steven Snyder-Hill appeared on YouTube during the 2011 Republican primaries, asking the assembled candidates which of them would protect the rights of LGBT soldiers to live openly while serving in the military. His question was met with jeers from some members of the crowd, and none of the candidates spoke to his defense.

On Friday, Steven Snyder-Hill, author of “Soldier of Change: From the Closet to the Forefront of the Gay Rights Movement,” visited Youngstown State University to deliver a lecture concerning his experiences and the continued campaign he and his partner, Joshua Snyder-Hill, have fought to help secure rights for the LGBT community.

During his presentation, Steven Snyder-Hill recounted stories from his time in Iraq, explaining the struggles he faced trying to maintain a relationship with his partner. From calling Joshua Snyder-Hill “Jessica” to deflect suspicion to replacing the phrase “I love you” with the code word “Oliver,” Steven Snyder-Hill was forced to hide his relationship while serving in the military due to the then-active Don’t Ask Don’t Tell policy.

The DADT policy was enacted under the Clinton Administration in 1994 and remained active until September of 2011. It’s purpose was meant to prevent military personnel from discriminating against homosexual members of the military, while also requiring homosexual military personnel to keep their sexual orientation hidden from their fellow service men and women.

Steven Snyder-Hill recounted the day he left for Iraq, the effects of the DADT policy still in action.

“While all of the other soldiers were saying goodbye to their loved ones, Josh and I had to hide under an escalator to say ours,” Steven Snyder-Hill said.

Under DADT, same-sex couples were not recognized by the military, barring them from the rights allowed to married couples — such as healthcare, housing allowances and leave for emergencies concerning one’s spouse or significant other.

“I felt like I was fighting for everyone’s freedom except my own,” Steven Snyder-Hill said.

While Joshua Snyder-Hill often worried about his partner in Iraq, Steven Snyder-Hill struggled with the same concerns.

“Since, according to the military policy at the time, Josh and I were nothing more than friends, if anything were to happen to him, it’s very unlikely I would have been allowed to take emergency leave to go see him,” Steven Snyder-Hill said.

Following the repeal of DADT and his controversial video during the 2011 Republican primaries, Steven Snyder-Hill became an overnight hero to those fighting for their right to marry. Eventually, Steven Snyder and Joshua Hill were married.

To date, the Snyder-Hill couple, who are Ohio residents, have successfully challenged Ohio’s refusal to allow homosexual couples to hyphenate their last names for reason of marriage, campaigned nationwide for LGBT rights and co-founded the organization C-Bus of Love, which takes homosexual couples from Ohio to Washington D.C. where they can be legally wed.

“As of right now, I have more rights on a military base than I do in the state of Ohio,” Steven Snyder-Hill said.

Steven Snyder-Hill’s lecture took place only a few days before Youngstown State University’s “Coming Out Week,” a week of activism and awareness events aimed at educating students to the LGBT community’s efforts to gain equal rights under the law.

Jackie LeViseur, director of alumni and events management, was primarily responsible for bringing Steven Snyder-Hill to campus, and hopes students can take his message to heart.

“He came here for free to share his story and to speak on behalf of others who have had a similar experience,” LeViseur said. “It’s important for us to celebrate who we are and to learn from somebody. He really has a message to share, one of courageousness, and he’s fighting for others to be free.”

Brian Wells, co-adviser to YSUnity, YSU’s LGBT student organization, spoke to the influence he hopes Steven Snyder-Hill can have over the students who hear their story.

“Steve is a fellow Ohioan, and could be your neighbor, your brother, your friend … he can really speak to why fighting for issues of social justice are just as important in Ohio as they are in other, more progressive regions. I hope he’s inspiring to our students, and I hope his message was educational and an opportunity for growth for those who attended,” Wells said.

Tim Bortner and Lisa Ronquillo, YSUnity’s current and former presidents respectively, were present at the lecture, and expressed gratitude and hope for continued progress towards a safe environment for all students on campus, regardless of sexual orientation or gender identity.

“It was very inspirational — I’m glad he came and spoke,” Bortner said. “Especially heading into Coming Out Week, I hope we can continue to promote education and awareness through events like this.”

Ronquillo spoke to the central message of Steven Snyder-Hill’s lecture, which she believes is applicable to all demographics of students, regardless of sexual orientation.

“He’s inspiring. He’s someone we need to continually tell his story … [the Snyder-Hills] are just like everyone else. They aren’t out to shape the world based on some agenda, they just want to love,” Ronquillo said. “If we can hear that story more and more everyday, the hatred will stop.”

Additional reporting by Spencer Curcillo and Alexis Rufener.