by Wayne Self
He’d been invited to ask a question for the debates on the subject of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” the policy which for nearly twenty years had kept soldiers quiet about their sexual orientations and had only recently been repealed.
This is what happened:
Hill’s appearance made headlines, sending him on a whirlwind tour of media outlets including Hardball with Chris Matthews and the Rachel Maddow Show. The booing and the disdain evident in the answers of the Presidential candidates was striking to many observers, since no contender for Commander-in-Chief on the stage that day stood in defense of a deployed American soldier.
But what many may not know about Hill is that his big TV moment was also the moment he came out of the closet.
In an interview with Hill for this week’s Coming Out events, we discussed his sudden fame, its effects on his career, and the lessons his coming out story, unusual as it seems, might have for anyone thinking about coming out of the closet.
Coming Out is more habit than event…
Many LGBTQI people have experienced that moment when someone assumes we’re straight, and the snap decision whether to let the assumption go uncorrected. In that moment we make calculations related to the importance of our identities, the social or physical dangers of revelation, and the relative inconvenience and worth of setting the record straight. Sometimes those calculations can bring us back into the closet for a moment—or for years.
For Hill, that “closet moment” was a tour of duty in Iraq. Hill explains: ”I was out to family and friends in my civilian life, and even had a partner, but when I was deployed to Iraq I had to abide by ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’ or risk being discharged and losing my pension.”
The result of Hill’s sudden return to silence was that no one in his day-to-day life knew he was gay. Missing his partner was a private affair. Events back home were held secretly to heart.
“I was having to lie about who I was in order to serve my country,” he explained.
Hill felt that the men and women who were expected to count on him in life or death situations could not fundamentally know him due to this lie. No stranger to gay friends or Pride parades, he was suddenly silenced. No matter when you come out, or how out you are, circumstances can sometimes make it difficult to stay that way.
As Owldolatrous Press Contributor Ryan Legg explains here, it’s up to every individual to balance the social responsibility and desire to come out with the personal responsibility to be physically, legally, and socially safe, but it’s never too late to start developing the observational skills, resources, and connections that will make the habit of being out a safe and fulfilling lifelong choice.
…but sometimes it’s an event.
Few people come out as publicly as Hill did, but many people do find that coming out is more of a public event than they’d like. Telling one person might send shock waves of gossip through the family. A public display of affection might turn into a scene. Simply living life as a couple might cause neighbors to whisper or worse.
Hill’s coming out on TV while still deployed was a very big deal in the hermetically sealed world of an Army base on foreign soil.
“Our mess hall seated about two thousand people, and they have these TV’s hanging up on the walls, where guys can watch the news when they’re eating. I remember walking into this huge mess hall and hearing the whole place just go silent. Suddenly, people that didn’t know me at all knew I was gay.”
Many queer folk have experienced this sudden “homoriety” (homo + notoriety), where our queerness precedes us, where we’re known as “that gay guy” or “that lesbian” before we’re known as individuals.
While we all handle our homoriety differently, Hill has taken his in stride, relishing the opportunity to talk to people who had never before befriended a gay man.
Because you won’t always be greeted with cheers, you may experience some regret….
Organizations like The Trevor Project, HRC, and GLAAD are working very hard to bring a message of celebration, unity, and love to people who come out of the closet, no matter where they may be, but that message can often seem distant compared to the immediacy of scorn from families, rejection from friends, and damnation from clergymen.
“When I first heard the boos, I started to wonder if what I was doing was wrong or bad,” Hill recounts. “I started to think that maybe I’d made a mistake.”
People who’ve never had to come out simply may not understand the extraordinarily brave and vulnerable step you’ve just taken, just as you may not understand the intensity of their reactions. Given the responses you may get, it’s not unusual for even the bravest soul to feel regret or uncertainty.
…but you’ll find support and encouragement in unlikely places.
Hill remembers how one of his peers surprised him.
“This guy and I never got along, anyway. So when he came up to me, I thought, ‘here goes.’ But he said, ‘Hey, man, I’ve got your back. My brother is gay.’ You never know about people. Some of my fake friends drifted away, but other friends got closer.”
He says that even the Army brass have been supportive:
“They want people to know that the Army has changed. The Army media relations guy was awesome. He talked to me for hours and they really saw what happened as an opportunity to let people know that the Army is a more accepting place.”
His sudden fame may have made things temporarily awkward around the base, but it’s also broadened Hill’s world, giving him the opportunity to meet people he’d never expected to meet. Of course, Hill’s case is unique, but coming out can expand your world if you’ll let it. It can open your life new people, places, and opportunities, even as it makes some situations more challenging.
Like many of us, rather than fixate on, say, the friends and family who have become more distant since he’s come out (“Unconditional love is just that. If you put restrictions on loving me, then f*ck you”), Hill is moving forward, focusing on the positive aspects as he works to create the life he wants with his husband, Joshua.
Your Coming Out can benefit others.
Stephen and Joshua have become media advocates for LGBT people, especially around the issue of marriage equality. Through media appearances and their website, marriageevolved.com, they work to broaden people’s understanding of marriage in the 21st Century, putting a relatable face on the issue.
When Harvey Milk insisted: “You must come out,” this was his hope: that the public would stop seeing LGBTQI people as faceless, strange “deviants” and start to seeing us as real, relatable, knowable individuals; as fellow human beings. And, slowly but surely, it’s working.
If you’re LGBTQI, coming out is just about the best thing you can do for other LGBTQI people, and it’s a very important step to take for yourself. It’s also a very personal, very consequential choice, whether it happens on TV or at the family dining table.
If you’re thinking about coming out, remember these resources. Be brave! Be careful! Good luck!
Resources for Coming Out
Make the Connection: National Runaway Switchboard — information and help for runaway youths and kids thinking of running away.
Planned Parenthood — mostly info for teens on choosing how to come out, but could be useful for anyone.
Safe Teens — another coming-out resource for teenagers.
The Trevor Project — provides crisis intervention and suicide prevention services to lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and questioning youth.
Twenty10 — coming-out tip sheet.
Out & Equal — list of LGBTQI and youth resources.
Fenway Health — toll-free listening line for LGBTQI adults and youth.
GLBT National Help Center — another hotline for LGBTQI folks, free and confidential.