'My case made the national spotlight. There are almost a million articles on the Internet and I have done interviews across the world, but they won't tell you the real story. Up until this point, I have kept the truth to myself, my legal team, some family and close friends."
So read a handwritten letter I received nearly a year ago from Al Snyder, a man I had come to know and admire for his courageous legal battle against the Westboro Baptist Church. Snyder sued Westboro after church representatives protested at his son's military funeral.
Marine Lance Cpl. Matthew A. Snyder was just 20 years old when he died in a one-vehicle Humvee accident in Iraq on March 3, 2006, just five weeks after his deployment. A half-dozen Westboro members picketed Matthew Snyder's funeral at a Roman Catholic Church in Maryland one week later. That none of the protesters had any personal knowledge of Matthew or his family didn't stop them from parading signs saying "America is Doomed," "Fag troops," "Priests Rape Boys," and "Semper Fi Fags."
For calling his son gay and disrupting the funeral, Al Snyder fought Westboro all the way to the Supreme Court without publicly revealing a secret - that he himself is gay.
Only now has Snyder decided to tell his story, an extended version of which I just authored for Politico magazine.
Initially keeping the matter a secret was a decision Al Snyder made with his partner of more than a decade, Walt Fisher. According to Al, it was actually Walt who never wanted to make the lawsuit about their sexuality.
"When we first started talking about it I couldn't see where it would hurt," Al told me recently. "I remember saying to Walt, 'I don't think people are really going to care about that.' And he said, 'What it's going to do is make this a gay issue and it's not.' He was right."
Snyder might never have sued Westboro had the church's bad behavior been limited to picketing the funeral. But not long after burying his son, Al discovered an online screed written by a Westboro member titled "The Burden of Matthew Snyder," containing vile assertions about the way he and his wife had raised their son:
"God blessed you, Mr. and Mrs. Snyder, with a resource and his name was Matthew. He was an arrow in your quiver! In thanks to God for the comfort the child could bring you, you had a DUTY to prepare that child to serve the LORD his GOD - PERIOD! You did JUST THE OPPOSITE - you raised him for the devil."
That's when Al contacted two lawyers in central Pennsylvania, Sean Summers and Craig Trebilcock, who agreed to file his case.
"You see this wasn't just a father fighting a gay hate group, this is about a gay father fighting for the dignity and respect of my son. A father who hid the fact that he was gay from the media and the public," Al wrote to me last year.
Summers and Trebilcock were successful in keeping Al's sexuality out of the case and benefited from rulings by District Judge Richard Bennett, an appointee of President George W. Bush, which precluded the questioning of Al about his lifestyle. While Al knows now that Westboro learned he was homosexual during the litigation, that information was never made known to the jury. It was not something he had kept from his only son.
Matthew had known of his father's sexuality since he was 14, when he'd asked Al about his relationship with the man he called "Mr. Walt." Al told his son the truth. While accepting his father's reality, Matthew quickly affirmed his own attraction to girls.
Al Snyder sued Westboro content in the knowledge that Matthew would have wanted him to do so. When able to write from his basic training at Parris Island, S.C., he'd be sure to extend greetings to Fisher:
"I'm getting used to the yelling already. I'm looking forward to being a Marine. . . . I love you. Tell Mr. Walt I said hi."
Despite the intense interest of national media in a proceeding that revolved around homophobic slurs, the relationship between Al and Walt remained a secret from the media and public through the first trial and the subsequent appeals. Not even the justices of the Supreme Court could have known that, when the case was argued on Oct. 6, 2010, seated in the chambers amid family members were partners Al and Walt. By then, Walt was walking with a cane, having been told he was suffering rheumatoid arthritis, for which he was receiving physical therapy. Soon he would be diagnosed instead with small-cell carcinoma.
Al Snyder lost his Supreme Court case on March 2, 2011, in an 8-1 decision, and lost Walt Fisher two months later.
Three years later, the vitriol directed at Al Snyder continues. Last December, Snyder discovered a hateful, online Westboro posting that made reference to Walt, the first public mention that Al has ever seen to the relationship. ("All this while he moved in with his 'house mate' - a simpering swishing queer-as-a-three dollar-bill open fag.")
Today, Al Snyder doesn't regard the entire experience so much as a coming out for him, but rather, a coming out for Westboro:
"I lost my battle in the U.S. Supreme Court but, in the end, won the war with the American people and the U.S. lawmakers. The lawsuit did what I hoped it would do. It brought this hate group out to the public."
Originally published in The Philadelphia Inquirer
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