By Sean Barron
Maj. Stephen Snyder-Hill likely will never forget the day in September 2011 during a Republican presidential debate when he became a civil-rights activist after having posed a controversial question to then-2012 presidential hopeful Rick Santorum.
“That was a pivotal moment for the LGBT community,” recalled Snyder-Hill, who was booed after asking Santorum if he would circumvent progress that had been made for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender soldiers serving in the military.
Nevertheless, the negative response galvanized his desire to fight on behalf of gay people’s rights, Snyder-Hill added.
The question came shortly after President Barack Obama repealed the 1993 “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy instituted by the Clinton administration, under which gay service personnel were permitted to stay in the military if they refrained from openly declaring their sexual orientation. Many people, however, felt the law was discriminatory against gay and lesbian soldiers.
Snyder-Hill, who lives in the Columbus area, began his Army career in 1988 and served in Operation Desert Storm. He shared part of his story with many people who came to Saturday’s ninth annual Pride Youngstown Festival along Federal Street, downtown.
Preceding the festivities was a colorful parade that began in the 300 block of West Federal Street.
Enlisting in the Army bolstered Snyder-Hill’s belief in the right to life, liberty and pursuit of happiness as outlined in the Declaration of Independence. That document, he said, does not exclude those in the LGBT community.
For his service, which included a deployment to Iraq in 2010, Snyder-Hill won several awards, including the Meritorious Service Medal. He also wrote about his experiences and struggles of being gay in his book, “Soldier of Change: From the Closet to the Forefront of the Gay Rights Movement.”
Accompanying Snyder-Hill at the fest was his husband, Joshua Snyder-Hill, who said it’s important for LGBT people to be proud of who they are, because that can positively influence elected officials and break stereotypes aimed at them.
The all-day festival featured more than 60 food and other vendors, along with plenty of entertainment and activities for children. Its overarching purpose was to celebrate the LGBT community while encouraging greater solidarity, especially in light of President Donald Trump’s declaration Wednesday on Twitter banning transgender people from serving in the military, noted Tim Bortner, festival chairman and vendor coordinator.
“It’s just so important we stay together and fight and never back down from anyone,” Bortner said.
Echoing that theme was Atty. Kim Akins, a Pride Youngstown founder who, during a brief presentation, accused Trump of “declaring war on this community.” Also chilling, she said, is the recent filing by the U.S. Justice Department arguing that the 1964 Civil Rights Act does not protect employees from discrimination based on sexual orientation.
“You must show up and vote at every election!” she said emphatically. “Vote. Register. Protect your rights!”
City Councilwoman Anita Davis, D-6th, who’s also a Pride Youngstown board member, added that it’s imperative to focus on the fact that LGBT peoples’ rights in the workplace continue to be threatened and not be distracted by Trump’s tweets. She also called the president’s proposed ban “an assault on all gay rights.”
Attendees found plenty of merchandise for sale at the day-long festival, which included colorful jewelry, shirts, scented soaps, skin-care products and items such as stun guns and batons for protection. Resources included information on reproductive rights.
In addition, members of the LGBT community who have suffered discrimination had an opportunity to share their stories, courtesy of Equality Ohio, a 12-year-old nonprofit organization that advocates for full equality for LGBT people.
“We’re collecting these stories in the hope of showing lawmakers that discrimination happens in Ohio,” explained Marshall Troxell, an intern with the organization. “We have heard from people who are LGBT having to seek multiple landlords … who have heard the landlords say, ‘I’m not comfortable with you living on my properties.’”
Equality Ohio also is pushing for passage of Ohio House Bill 160, which would ban discrimination in housing, employment and public accommodations based on gender identity or sexual orientation, Troxell continued.
Also at Saturday’s event were Jeff Bixby and Gretchen Heideloff of the Gay, Lesbian Straight Education Network’s Northeast Ohio chapter, which serves 23 counties in the region. GLSEN is a national nonprofit that strives to create safer schools, largely by ensuring all students in kindergarten through grade 12 are valued and respected, regardless of their sexual orientation or gender identity, said Bixby of Medina, a former teacher.
“Regardless of your sexual orientation, you need to be interested in this issue. All teachers need to be aware of these things in school,” he said, adding that LGBT students are especially prone to bullying.