On September 8, 1975, US Air Force Sergeant Leonard Matlovich, a decorated Vietnam War veteran, recipient of the Purple Heart and the Bronze Star, appeared in his Air Force uniform on the cover of Time magazine with the headline: “I Am A Homosexual“.
Matlovich was awarded that Purple Heart after stepping on a Viet Cong land mine while saving members of his platoon and the Bronze Star for killing two Viet Cong soldiers who attacked his post.
Because of his regrets about his own racist attitudes, Matlovich volunteered to teach Air Force Race Relations classes, instituted after many publicized incidents against minorities in the military during the late 1960s and early 1970s. He was very effective as an instructor and the Air Force sent him to coach workshops at bases around the country.
By 1973, Matlovich was well aware of the emerging Gay Rights movement. In 1975, he volunteered to put his career on the line in order to create a test case challenging the military’s ban on gays serving openly. That challenge drew intense, widespread coverage in the media and his photo appeared on the front cover of Time Magazine, a major turning point for the Gay Rights movement both in the military and for the rest of us.
Matlovich was kicked-out of the Air Force and given a general discharge for challenging the Pentagon’s policy. Eventually, he and the US Military reached an out-of-court settlement in which he was paid $160,000 and given an honorable discharge.
When Matlovich’s photograph appeared on the cover of Time, he became a symbol for thousands of gay and lesbian service members. Matlovich was actually the very first openly gay person to appear on the cover of a American news-magazine. The late, great gay journalist Randy Shilts wrote:
“It marked the first time the young gay movement had made the cover of a major newsweekly. To a movement still struggling for legitimacy, the event was a major turning point.”
When he joined the service, Matlovich was a converted Mormon and a church elder. He found himself at odds with the ways of the always zany Church Of Jesus Christ Of Latter Day Saints. He was excommunicated twice by the church for being gay, first in 1975 and then again in 1979, after his appearance on The Phil Donahue Show. He could have petitioned to be re-baptized, but by this time Matlovich had stopped being a believer at all.
Matlovich devoted the rest of his life to advocating for Gay Rights, shifting the emphasis to HIV/AIDS organizations after his own diagnosis in 1986. He died on June 22, 1988, just days before his 45th birthday. Matlovich was buried with full military honors in Congressional Cemetery, only 20 blocks from the US Capitol, in a ceremony that mixed the military pomp of a horse drawn casket and a 21-gun salute, along with eulogies from other Gay Rights activists.
Lee Jenny, the administrator for the cemetery (where many of our nation’s founders are buried):
“When Leonard lived in the neighborhood, he would come over here and walk. He loved the history. He was one of the most patriotic men I ever met.”
Jenny helped design the tombstone that Matlovich requested for his grave. It stands as a memorial to all LGBTQ Vietnam War veterans. It includes, in the top corners, pink triangles that were used by Nazis during WW II to identify homosexuals in concentration camps. The memorial does not bear Matlovich’s name. Instead, it reads:
“When I was in the military, they gave me a medal for killing two men and a discharge for loving one.”
It’s been 31 years since Matlovich left this world and many brave gay people have served, fought and died in the US military. President Barack Obama finally brought this battle to a just conclusion a decade ago, with honor for Leonard Matlovich at last. Who knows what the current President might do? Throw a parade for himself?