The Snyder-Hills, Soldiering for Change


OPUS News Chicago — APRIL 8, 2015

John Livelsberger interviews Steve Snyder-Hill and husband Joshua with dog Macho. Photo: Jack Foos-Gordon.

It’s a cool spring Saturday in Indianapolis, Ind. The NCAA Final Four is in town and legions of college basketball fans have descended on Indy to show support for their favorite teams. It’s also a perfect day for a protest march by the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender Hoosiers, and their supporters.

They’re still revved up against the Religious Freedom Restoration Act—signed into law by Republican Gov. Mike Pence. They’re also unhappy about a subsequent “fix” to the bill that only offers limited LGBT protections to cities and towns that already have LGBT non-discrimination policies on the books.

Armed with anger and concern, the hope and want for civil rights, they gather around the Soldiers’ and Sailors’ Monument on Monument Circle calling for equal protection under the law. The gathering’s starting point is appropriate. It will be led by a famous soldier and LGBT activist, Army Maj. Stephen Snyder-Hill—along with fellow veterans of the U.S. armed forces.

The march will take the protesters to Lucas Oil Stadium, home of the Final Four. There, the protesters will stop to hear the soldier and his husband, Joshua Snyder-Hill. Other LGBT activists will speak to the already fired-up crowd.

In 2012, as an Army captain, Steve hit the national stage after being booed during a Republican presidential debate. He was still an active combat solider in Iraq when Steve submitted a question via YouTube for the presidential candidates to answer. He asked them if they would reinstate the Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell ban on openly lesbian and gay members of the military.

In years since, Steve has become a vocal LGBT activist. He wrote the book, Solider of Change: From the Closet to the Forefront of the Gay Rights Movement. But most important to him, he’s settled into the role of husband.

After the march, with the protest chant “No hate in our state!” still ringing in my own ears, I caught up with the Snyder-Hills.

On first meeting them, they come across as humble, yet passionate and driven. They want to make sure that the LGBT community, in every state, archives civil rights and marriage equality.

The Snyder-Hills knew about the civil rights march in Indianapolis—named “Stop the Madness”—only days before. Just the weekend before, the couple was in California. After the stop in Indy, they will find themselves in Tennessee on the weekend of Apr. 10.

I asked if they saw themselves as gay superheroes, who drop everything at a moment’s notice to run to a cause in need.

“You know, the thing is, I think each one of us can become a superhero,” Steve said. “Harvey Milk, Rosa Parks, Martin Luther King, Jr.—all of them used the power of their voices, and it means so much for us to come out. Sometimes it is a lot of going across the country, and when you hear people yelling ‘No hate in our state!’ then you just think, it’s not just our state. It’s all states, and we really need to be out there for everybody, no matter if it’s our state or somebody else’s.”

Just like going off to Iraq to fight for the freedoms of all Americans, Steve and Josh with Macho the dog, just along for the ride, do not think twice about driving over two hours from their home to help give voice to embattled Hoosiers. In the last two weeks, Indiana residents have taken a beating from the rest of the nation, elected officials, social media, and late night comedians.

Part of their drive and passion could, in part, be the fact that the 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals chose to uphold same-sex marriage bans in Michigan, Tennessee, Kentucky and their own home state of Ohio.

I mentioned to Steve I had read somewhere that he said his husband has more rights on a military base than in their home state of Ohio.

How are they dealing with that frustration?

“I mean, it is really frustrating knowing that I fought for 26 years in the army, fighting for everybody’s rights, and I always felt I was fighting for everybody else’s except for mine,” Steve said. “And now, we’re kind of at a point where we kind of feel the same way as a couple—where all the things we’ve been fighting for is great, federally, for our protection, and our state does not grant us those things. So, we are going to keep fighting.”

Fight, they do, all over the country—whether it’s on the street, in news rooms, or in-studio on shows like The Rachel Maddow Show on MSNBC.

The U.S. Supreme Court is expected to rule later this Spring on state same-sex marriage bans, once and for all states. And many like the Snyder-Hills are hopeful they will rule in favor of marriage equality.

I asked Steve and Josh what they thought the most important cause for the LGBT community would be if that goal is achieved.

“Our next big thing will be our transgender community, because our own LGB community hasn’t been as accepting as we need to be for our transgender brothers and sisters.” —Army Maj. Stephen Snyder-Hill
“I think that [the need for LGBT to speak out] is never going to stop. There are people that are hateful everywhere. Marriage equality is inevitable, and it’s one step,” Steve explained. “I mean, in the mid ’60s, interracial marriage was illegal, but today African-American people still suffer from discrimination. Our own president has been treated so horribly by people, and I think we are always going to have a challenge. But our next big thing will be our transgender community, because our own LGB community hasn’t been as accepting as we need to be for our transgender brothers and sisters.”

I asked Steve if he thought shows like Transparent were giving a much needed voice to the transgender community.

“Anything that causes visibility to anyone can give them a voice,” he said. “I think that speaking up and telling your story gives people a voice and that’s what that community needs to do. You know I’m not transgender and I don’t know what it’s like to be transgender, but I ask every day for people to understand what it’s like for me to be gay. I ask them to accept me and to understand what I go through, so I need to do the same thing for my transgender community.”

Throughout our conversation, Josh is content to let Steve take the lead. But make no mistake, Josh is a formidable LGBT activist in his own right.

Joshua started fighting for LGBT civil rights while Steve was still deployed in Iraq. In the book Soldier of Change, Steve notes that Josh’s eyes “had changed” in the year Steve was deployed. Josh stopped being an “armchair activist,” got up, and got out to fight for equality.

I asked how the couple’s activism and certain amount of celebrity affect their families in Columbus, Ohio. Like a pro, Josh answered with the sincere, infectious smile that he has worn all day.

“Our families have been amazing. They’ve been really supportive,” he explained. “Steve’s mom texts us that Steve is going to be speaking at a library in Sandusky, and they are just so proud and supportive. They’ve been nothing but champions; they’ve come to our speeches. Steve’s parents came to a Ted Talk where he spoke. My parents came to Youngstown University. They have been nothing but huge advocates. Even our little nieces are big supporters.”

Steve was worried about a word I used.

“I hate that word celebrity, because I don’t ever want to feel like it’s about us. It’s not,” he insisted. “It’s about every one of us. We are all in this together, and our story is not Josh and my story—it’s all of our stories.”

Despite all the forward momentum that the modern LGBT movement gained, there are still many people that want to take away everything fought for, and earned, since the Stonewall Riots. Some of them are conservative elected officials—and some of those elected officials are also military service members.

I asked Steve how he felt about elected officials who don’t feel that same-sex couples have the right to marry, or should have access to spousal benefits, and would like to see existing benefits be stripped away. I used the example of Republican Indiana state Sen. Mike Delph, a staunch social conservative, who has been at odds with his own party about the way marriage equality was handled in the Hoosier State. Like Steve, he was a service member.

“He got to that position of power because people elected him,” Steve explained. “Probably the most discouraging thing is when I see that people don’t go out and vote, and then people make laws like [the Religious Freedom Restoration Act].”

The very law that was being protested in Indianapolis that day is the perfect example.

“You know this shirt that I’m wearing?” Steve points to his blue t-shirt.

Across the front of the shirt, it says “Veteran” but the “V” has been replaced with a pink triangle. The pink triangle memorializes the gay men in Germany and occupied Europe who, in World War II, were placed in concentration camps like Auschwitz. Gay men were made to wear a pink triangle instead of the Star of David that Jewish prisoners were forced to wear.

“The pink triangle means so much to me because, at one time, it was not only legal that people persecute and kill gay people—it was encouraged by that whole society in World War II,” Steve said. “I think that we need to not ever forget that, just like this logo says.”

Steve points to another logo on his shirt that says, “Silence equals Death.”

“We need to make sure we never forget where we come from and that it’s always possible for hateful people to get into positions of power. We need to remember that we have the power not to put them there,” he said.

Because of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell, Steve’s voice was forced into muted silence. Now that he can speak, he does and he does not hold back.

He empowers others to stand up and speak, to tell their stories. It’s the last thing Steve said to me as we ended our conversation.

“Always trust the power of your voice.”

The voices were loud in Indianapolis—and resonated with power. The Snyder-Hills helped see to that.


Author: John Martin Livelsberger

John Martin Livelsberger is a writer. He lives in Michigan City Indiana with his husband Chris, four pugs, and a couple of cats that just happened to wander in.

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