SAN FRANCISCO — Army Capt. Stephen Hill says he wasn’t trying to score political points when he asked the Republican presidential candidates if they would reinstate the ban on gays serving openly in the U.S. military.
He wasn’t worried that his debate question, posed via a YouTube video recorded in Iraq, would generate boos or reveal his sexual orientation to millions of people, including his superiors and fellow troops.
All Hill was thinking about in September was his husband of four-and-a-half months, Joshua Snyder, in Columbus, Ohio.
Now that “don’t ask, don’t tell” has been lifted, he needed to know if the military would take the next step and recognize his marriage, or if a new president would try to force soldiers like him back into the closet.
“I was looking forward to the future and hoping everybody would realize we are soldiers first, always,” said Hill, 41, an Army reservist who returned last week from his yearlong deployment. “I was hoping ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’ would be a distant memory for everybody.”
In an interview with the Associated Press, Hill reflected publicly for the first time on his reasons for submitting the pre-recorded question for the Sept. 22 debate, as well as his reaction to the heckles heard around the world; the answer that former Sen. Rick Santorum gave to thunderous applause; and the outrage expressed on his behalf by, among others, his commander in chief.
With Snyder on the telephone, Hill watched the debate live from Iraq at 4 a.m. And this is what he asked: “In 2010, when I was deployed to Iraq, I had to lie about who I was because I’m a gay soldier and I didn’t want to lose my job. My question is, under one of your presidencies, do you intend to circumvent the progress that’s been made for gay and lesbian soldiers in the military?”
Santorum replied that he would re-institute the ban on open service by gay troops because “any type of sexual activity has absolutely no place in the military.”
“What we are doing is playing social experimentation with our military right now. That’s tragic,” he continued. “Leave it alone. Keep it to yourself whether you are heterosexual or homosexual.”
Hill says the fact that he just outed himself on national television had barely registered when he absorbed the boos and Santorum’s answer followed by applause.
“When the actual booing occurred, my gut dropped out, because my first inclination was, did I just do something wrong?” he said. “The answer, obviously, wasn’t very supportive of gay people, and there was a lot of fear of how the Army would take the question.”
He did not have to wait long to find out. At breakfast later that morning, the segment was playing on the chow hall television. Hill immediately tracked down his commander, who told him she had no problem with what he’d done but that she would need to run it up the chain of command. She later relayed the response.
“She said, ‘What the military’s most concerned with is that you are OK, because it’s a lot of pressure on you and we want to make sure if there is anything we can do to help,’” he recalled.
President Barack Obama, about a week later, chided the Republican contenders for staying silent when several people booed an American soldier. Santorum said he had not heard the booing but condemned the audience members who did it.
What Hill remembers most was that a presidential candidate defined his marriage and military service in terms of sex. He holds that up against the times he hid Snyder’s photograph because Army buddies were coming over to play video games, introduced his husband as his roommate or brother, and the legal vows they exchanged at the grave of Air Force Sgt. Leonard Matlovich, who was discharged in 1975 after becoming the first gay service member to challenge the U.S. military’s ban on gay troops.
Snyder and Hill last month joined other same-sex military couples in suing the government for the same benefits as straight military couples, which the Pentagon denies them on grounds that federal law defines marriage as a union between a man and a woman.
“This is not about sex,” Hill said. “A special privilege is not hiding pictures in my house or God forbid, taking mortar fire again and not knowing if Josh will be recognized. I’m fighting every day to protect everyone’s rights as human beings, and it seems counterintuitive for me to be fighting for those rights and not have them.”