When I first got to Ohio State University and started coming out as a gay man, I saw bumper stickers that said “Silence Equals Death” with a pink triangle on it. Then one student wrote in the OSU newspaper that he didn’t have to worry about getting AIDS with gay students going to the March on Washington. I wrote back and put my name to it: “You wouldn't know me. I look like you. I talk like you. I sound like you. I'm no different than you. Well, you know what? There is one difference. I actually went to serve my country so you have the right to say what you just said about gay people. And I just want you to know that a gay person did that for you. I protected your freedom to be able to do that.” That was my first kind of empowering activist moment.
My husband Josh and I have been in a lot of situations fighting for LGBTQ+ advocacy since then. In 2010, when I was deployed to Iraq, I had to lie about who I was because I was a gay soldier and I didn’t want to lose my job. I sent in a video from Tikrit, Iraq on Sept. 22, 2011 with my question for the Republican presidential candidates’ forum: “My question is: under one of your presidencies, do you intend to circumvent the progress that has been made with gay and lesbian soldiers in the military?” (The repeal of the anti-LGBTQ "don't ask, don't tell" policy went into effect two days earlier.)
The audience booed. Rick Santorum said he would reinstate the policy — and the audience cheered. I was horrified.
In 1991, during Desert Storm, I was in an artillery fight in a ground battle and this big explosion hit the right side of us. I was mesmerized by it. But I was snapped back into reality by another explosion on our left. I thought we were going to die. My life flashed before my eyes. But while I waited for that last shell to hit, I looked at pictures taped onto my driver's hatch. One of the pictures was of my brother and his girlfriend and I just started crying because I realized what that darkness was — I was gay, I was going to die, and I was never going to be able to love somebody. When that final shell didn't hit us, I remember promising myself that I was going to live authentically. That's when everything changed for me. Since there was a ban on gays serving openly in the military, I decided I was going to come out in college.
I was 19 in 1988 when I joined the Army. I was stationed in Germany. My mom loved history so I decided to visit Dachau, the concentration camp. It was awful. You just could feel the death. You could feel the suffering that people had endured. One of the pictures I took there was of a prison uniform with wooden shoes. That uniform had touched the skin of a human soul that had lost their life in the Holocaust. That's when my activism blood started to flow because that uniform had a pink triangle on it. That hit me: “Oh my God, that could have been me. It was somebody that died because they were gay.
I thought about all of that when I asked that question at the Republican debate and got booed.
I was honorably discharged in 1996 but decided to sign up for the Army Reserves in March 2001. But I was dating Josh, my now-husband, and I knew it was going to be hard going back into the closet under "don’t ask, don't tell." It was really rough. I would go to drill weekends and lie about who I was. If friends wanted to come over, I told Josh he had to leave and I hid all the photos. It just wasn’t fair.
Before that, in 1995, when I was at OSU, I had a lump on my chest and went to the Student Health Center. I was assigned to Dr. Richard Strauss. I was an unsuspecting 25-year old who went into an appointment with a predator. Dr. Strauss did to me some of the same things that I've since heard he's done to others: unnecessary genital and anal exams. He had me get completely naked, even though I told him the problem was a lump on my chest. It got really uncomfortable even before the exam because he started asking some really inappropriate questions — things about my sexuality and my sexual desires.
We were halfway through the examination without gloves and he had done all this unnecessary stuff that felt really wrong when I realized that he had an erection and he was pushing himself against me. I froze. I just didn't know what to do. I told him that I already had an examination by my doctor and I didn't need these genital and anal examinations. I tried to desperately get out of the situation. But no one could put themselves in this situation and tell anyone how they would act.
I was angry. I called the Student Health Center the next day and told them what had happened. I said I didn't want this to be just a complaint. I wanted this to go to the top person so they understood what had happened to me. Dr. Ted Grace — the director of the Student Health Center — called and said he talked to Strauss and Strauss denied everything.
I was really upset so he suggested having a meeting with Dr. Strauss and two other doctors. I was intimidated by all these doctors while Strauss was jovial, polite and nice. But as we started to talk about the allegations, Strauss got defensive, justifying everything. Then I talked about him having an erection. He slammed his hand down on the table and screamed and said that I was trying to ruin his reputation. Everybody was shocked. They just looked at me and one of them said, “Well, it appears that you were confused and mistaken about what happened.”
Dr. Grace called to see what could be done to make this better. I said, you can promise me that this never happened to anybody else. And Dr. Grace confirmed it had never happened to anyone else. And I said I want you to assure me that if it happens again, you're going to contact me. And I want it documented in his file. And he said, yeah, that's fine. And I said, great, then put it in a letter to me. There was silence. But later I received a letter from Dr. Grace with some new patient consent forms. These were the forms I had to sign when I went in but now included language I had suggested that allowed patients to exclude an examination of certain body parts, elect to have a chaperone present during an exam, and change to another doctor if they were uncomfortable. In the letter, he said, “I want to assure you, we've never had any complaints about Dr. Strauss. We've only had positive comments.” But the letter also said they’d keep a quality assurance file on him. I thought that’s the best I can get so I put the letter away and forgot about it.
Then on July 18th, 2018, I saw Strauss's face on TV. Josh worked for OSU in Human Resources and he knew what was going on because they were getting all kinds of negative publicity from wrestlers coming forward complaining about Strauss. But I wasn't paying attention because I wasn't a wrestler. Then I saw Strauss’s face on TV and flipped out. Josh said, “that guy did this to you?” And I said, “Yeah. I complained, too.” And he was like, “This is a big deal. Some of my superiors and colleagues at OSU have been saying there is no proof yet of the wrestler’s accusations.”
I googled Strauss because I didn't remember his name — but I'd never forget that face. I could remember his breath on my genitals when I saw his face. But I wanted to make absolutely sure that I wasn't going to ruin my reputation by falsely accusing somebody. Then OSU released this clean personnel file for Strauss, over 200 pages that didn’t say one thing about him doing anything wrong in his entire 20-year career there, only exemplary letters. They were trying to make the survivors look like liars.
But I knew there was paperwork that showed complaints about Strauss because I had complained. I wrote to Perkins Coie, the law firm OSU hired to investigate Strauss, and they said they were glad I came forward. The firm confirmed with me that they did have my paperwork, so why did OSU release that clean personnel file?
After Perkins Coie said they would not give me my paperwork, I did an official public records request asking OSU for my paperwork. When I got my complaint letter and the complaint form and we started reading my words as a kid from 1995, I felt disgusted. These words reminded me of how bad it was for me and triggered back a bunch of traumatic memories.
When the Perkins Coie report came out in 2019 [saying Strauss abused at least 177 students and student-athletes at OSU and the university failed to act], that's when I found out that a kid complained about Strauss two days before me. And this OSU doctor, Ted Grace, knowing about that other kid’s complaint, stared at me in silence as another doctor told me that I was confused and mistaken. I was furious. I wasn’t going to let these people get away with it.
I sued OSU because I wanted my day in court. I wanted to be able to tell my story. I found Public Justice, this really cool nonprofit that was in alignment with the same goal that I had in 1995 — to make sure that this never happened to anybody else.
OSU settled with some of the men, which I understand. They couldn’t keep this fight up. OSU’s game plan was to beat us down and wear us out. OSU has no soul. They will bankrupt you.
Josh reminded me the other day that the recent dismissal of our case was like when I got booed: “The judge said it’s not questionable that you were abused by Strauss, it's not questionable that OSU failed you, and that the legal system failed you, too. But just like with "don't ask, don't tell" and getting booed — that was only the beginning.”
He’s right. This dismissal is only the beginning. We’re appealing the judge’s decision. OSU can't silence somebody that's using the power of their voice. At least I won’t let them get away with it this time.
Steve Snyder-Hill is a retired Army Major.