GOP Contenders Silent as Audience Members Boo Gay Soldier

by Kilian Melloy

EDGE Staff Reporter

Friday September 23, 2011

The booing of a servicemember who came out as gay and asked a Republican presidential hopeful about his views on gays in uniform was met with a telling response by the GOP contenders at the Sept. 22 Fox News / Google debate in Orlando, Florida: Silence.

"The big question today, even among conservatives, is: Why did none of the candidates stand up for the soldier?" noted ThinkProgress in a Sept. 23 article.

The question to notoriously anti-gay politician Rick Santorum came from active member of the United States Armed Forces Stephen Hill, who essentially outed himself to the nation by asking Santorum about gays and lesbians serving openly in the military.

"In 2010, when I was deployed to Iraq, I had to lie about who I was because I am a gay soldier, and I didn't want to lose my job" Hill said via video from Iraq, where he is currently serving. "My question is... do you intend to circumvent the progress that's been made for gay and lesbian soldiers in the military?"

Santorum responded that were he to win the presidency, he would issue an executive order that would once again impose a ban on openly gay and lesbian patriots serving their country in uniform, an EDGE Gay Blog posting reported on Sept. 22. The anti-gay pol -- who once famously compared lifelong committed relationships between same-sex couples to sex with animals, and who has not served in the Armed Forces -- also offered the remark that "any type of sexual activity has absolutely no place in the military," though he did not offer to explain why this mundane observation might be considered more relevant when it came to gay and lesbian soldiers.

"Look, what we're doing is playing social experimentation with our military right now and that's tragic," Santorum added, going on to say, "That policy would be reinstituted and as far as [gay] people [who are already] in [uniform], I would not throw them out because that would be unfair to them because of the policy of this administration, but we would move forward in conformity to what was happening in the past, which is -- sex is not an issue. It should not be an issue. Leave it alone. Keep it to yourself -- whether you're heterosexual or homosexual."

Santorum's boilerplate, hard-right ideological reply raised some hackles, but the media also took note of the fact that when Hill asked his question -- identifying himself as a gay man as he did so -- some in the audience booed him.

Even more troubling, GLBT equality advocates and mainstream media sources alike noted, was the fact that not a single one of the candidates assembled for the debate reacted to the monumental disrespect shown a serving American soldier on national television.

CBS News reported that "the GOP candidates on stage chose to ignore" the boos directed at Hill.

One theory was that the booing -- plainly audible to viewers watching on television -- was not as noticeable to those on the stage.

The National Review Online cited a member of the audience, Sarah Rumpf, who described the incident.

"The person who booed was just a few rows in front of us," Rumpf reported. "The booing got an immediate and angry reaction from nearly everyone sitting around him, who hissed and shushed at him. Lots of loud gasps, 'Shhhh!' 'No!' 'Shut up, you idiot!' etc."

But the NRO article did take Santorum to task for his non sequitur of a reply, which some took to reflect an assumption on Santorum's part that all gays, whether serving in uniform or not, lack sexual self-control.

"Whatever you think of 'Don't Ask, Don't Tell' or homosexuality, Hill is risking his life on behalf of his country," noted NRO writer Jim Geraghty. "It is troubling, and revealing, that Santorum's answer entirely defined Hill as a gay man first and as a soldier second, if at all."

Gay Conservatives Take Umbrage

Gay conservative group GOProud, which has drawn criticism in the past for its unflagging support of candidates such as Herman Cain and Michele Bachmann even when they denigrate the GLBT community, demonstrated that they would refuse to tolerate the crossing of certain lines when they demanded that Santorum pay Hill an apology.

GOProud Board Chairman Christopher R. Barron and Executive Director Jimmy LaSalvia issued a brief joint statement on Sept. 22.

"Tonight, Rick Santorum disrespected our brave men and women in uniform, and he owes Stephen Hill, the gay soldier who asked him the question about 'Don't Ask, Don't Tell' repeal, an immediate apology," the release read.

"That brave gay soldier is doing something Rick Santorum has never done -- put his life on the line to defend our freedoms and our way of life," Barron and LaSalvia pointed out. "It is telling that Rick Santorum is so blinded by his anti-gay bigotry that he couldn't even bring himself to thank that gay soldier for his service.

"Stephen Hill is serving our country in Iraq, fighting a war Senator Santorum says he supports," the release continued. "How can Senator Santorum claim to support this war if he doesn't support the brave men and women who are fighting it?"

Another gay conservative group, the Log Cabin Republicans, figuratively threw their hands up in disgust at Santorum's reply.

"Senator Santorum's shameful response to the combat soldier's question regarding open service was incoherent and out of touch," the group's Executive Director, R. Clarke Cooper, said in a Sept. 22 news release.

"America's uniformed leaders support gays and lesbians serving alongside their colleagues with dignity and respect," Cooper added. "Santorum's divisive and homophobic remarks do not befit a commander-in-chief.

"Americans want to hear about how our next President is going to cut our national debt, present a confident foreign policy and most importantly help the private sector thrive to create jobs," Cooper continued. "Unfortunately, for many Americans the take-away from last night's debate was not that Republicans have the solutions our country needs, but that too many in our party are clinging so strongly to a failed and discriminatory law that they are willing to disrespect a man in uniform.

"As a current Army Reserve officer and an Iraq combat veteran, I found it appalling that a soldier serving down range would be disrespected in such a fashion."

"If Republicans are going to tolerate the shunning of gay troops, they will cause the very problems of unit cohesion they claimed would be the result of DADT repeal," ThinkProgress predicted.

Some have suggested that creating discord in the ranks in order to blame gays and seek a fresh ban on GLBT servicemembers is a tactic that the anti-gay right may be willing to employ. Such charges were leveled at Republican Congressman Duncan Hunter of California when he sought a law that would have provided "conscience protections" and banned "pressuring" heterosexual troops who might have objections to gays into accepting them.

"Imagine a bill like this defending some other form of intolerance," a Sept. 8 ThinkProgress article said. "What about if troops were legally protected from pressure to approve of a person eating Cajun food? Or speaking Chinese? Or practicing Islam? Or having a menstrual cycle? 'Conscience protections' is religious code for 'protected prejudice.' "

Kilian Melloy serves as EDGE Media Network's Associate Arts Editor and Staff Contributor. His professional memberships include the National Lesbian & Gay Journalists Association, the Boston Online Film Critics Association, The Gay and Lesbian Entertainment Critics Association, and the Boston Theater Critics Association's Elliot Norton Awards Committee.