Sexuality in Service

Exploring the changes in military life two years after the repeal of don’t ask don’t tell

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“One of the problems I had was that I was serving in a position that someone else wanted,” says James Hermansen-Parker. “So they used my being gay against me.”

The former ship’s mate moved to Norfolk in 2001 while serving as a submarine nuclear machinist. The California native was discharged for being gay less than a year after returning home from Operation Iraqi Freedom and says that the real threat to the military came from the “witch hunts” that accompanied the Don’t Ask Don’t Tell policy.  

“There were countless numbers of military intelligence people, like language specialists, people the military really needed, but they were tossed out for being gay. It makes no sense to me.” After his involuntary honorable discharge, Hermansen-Parker stayed in Hampton Roads and is currently the president of Hampton Roads Pride, one of the largest gay organizations in Virginia. The nurse at Sentara Norfolk hospital married his husband, Josh, in 2010.

“Who is any of us to judge what anyone else defines their love as,” he says. Major Steven Snyder-Hill avoided expulsion during DADT by hiding who he was. But he finally got angry enough to come out on ABC’s Primetime. The 24-year army reservist, who served honorably in Operations Desert Storm and Desert Shield, was fighting in Iraq last year when he heard that many of the Republican presidential candidates were hinting that, if elected, they would repeal the repeal and go back to the policies of Don’t Ask Don’t Tell.

“Somebody has to confront these people and ask them what they are going to do,” he remembers thinking. “It was going to affect a lot of lives.” His videotaped question to the candidates’ about their views on extending military benefits to gay spouses was met with boos from the conservative crowd.

The incident made Snyder-Hill the poster child for gay service people. “I’m probably the one person in the military who is out to everybody,” he says, calling from Columbus, Ohio, where he works as a nutritionist for the city’s public health department. “Because I came out during that debate, I don’t have any anonymity at all anywhere I go when it comes to the military.” Despite that, he says his fellow Army reservists seem fine with it. One of them made it a point to rub his hand and say, “Your gay isn’t going to come off on me.”

Like many, Snyder-Hill looked at DADT as a sign of progress at first. “We were actually allowed to be there, we just couldn’t tell everyone that we were there.” But he argues that the policy went against many of the U.S. military’s core values—like the idea of honor and the notion that one has to be honest with oneself and truthful and sincere in all actions. “They were asking us to lie,” he says. He used to have to hide personal photos in his home in case fellow soldiers should stop by.