Bring back some good or bad memories

October 17, 2019

“A GAY VIETNAM VETERAN” – Leonard Matlovich Tombstone

The headstone belonging to a gay Vietnam veteran still today remains a poignant reminder of the homophobia faced by the LGBTQ+ community on a daily basis. He arranged for his own burial at Congressional Cemetery, and designed his tombstone which reads: “A Gay Vietnam Veteran. When I was in the military, they gave me a medal for killing two men, and a discharge for loving one.”


Had Leonard Matlovich (1943–1988) never publicly admitted his homosexuality to Air Force officials in 1975 he might have retired from the military and slipped quietly into oblivion. Instead, on March 6, 1975 with 12 years of exemplary military service, he wrote and delivered a letter to his commanding officer in which he openly admitted his homosexuality. By May of that year, this unlikely celebrity became the focus of attention that would not fade for five years.

For thousands of gay and lesbian Americans, particularly during the 25 years following World War II, expressing their homosexuality publicly remained unthinkable. That changed one warm June night in 1969 when a routine police raid against the Stonewall Inn, a private gay club in New York’s Greenwich Village, met with unexpected opposition. The men who had always been easily targeted for their homosexuality decided to fight back. If their identities became public, they were willing to take the risk even if that meant losing their jobs, becoming estranged from families, or meeting with further violence.

The movement for gay rights was still young in 1975 when Leonard Matlovich revealed his sexual orientation in a letter to his commanding officer. That admission would lead to a place on the cover of Time magazine. Emblazoned across his chest in bold black letters, according to The New York Times, on September 19, 1975, was the caption, “I Am a Homosexual.”

Leonard Matlovich on the cover of Time magazine, September 8, 1975.

Leonard Philip Matlovich was born on July 6, 1943 in Savannah, Georgia, the only son of a career Air Force sergeant. He spent his childhood living on military bases, primarily throughout the southern United States. Matlovich and his sister were raised in the Roman Catholic Church. In an article for The New York Times, on May 25, 1975, Lesley Oelsner wrote that, “Technically, the sergeant’s case is just beginning. To Sergeant Matlovich, though, the case is really much older, going back at least to his youth, when he was, as he puts it, an ‘Air Force brat’ growing up on bases from Georgia to Guam, wanting to be in the military himself and worrying about his sexual inclinations.”

Despite a deep inner conflict, Matlovich decided at the age of 19 that he wanted to follow in his father’s footsteps. By his own admission, he had become a “white racist,” and a “flag-waving patriot.” Not long after he enlisted, the United States increased military action in Vietnam, about ten years after the French had abandoned active colonial rule there. Matlovich volunteered for service in Vietnam with a sense of patriotic pride firmly entrenched. He served three tours of duty and was seriously wounded when he stepped on a land mine in Da Nang. His military service in Vietnam earned him both a Purple Heart and a Bronze Star. By 1975, Matlovich was already in his 12th year of service. As a technical sergeant stationed at Langley Air Force Base in Hampton, Virginia, Matlovich was also a race-relations and drug abuse counselor. His exemplary work earned additional awards. Trying to suppress the sexual inclinations he considered aberrant behavior, Matlovich joined fellow soldiers who mocked homosexuals. Oelsner noted that, “What changed everything, he said, was a change that started, slowly, at first, in his attitude toward black people. He was in the service with blacks; then, on one assignment, a black man was his supervising officer. One stereotype after another stereotype started to crumble,” Matlovich said.

Matlovich had enrolled in the race relations program while he was stationed in Pensacola, Florida, and became an instructor. That was when he began frequenting gay bars. “I met a bank president, a gas station attendant—they were all homosexual,” Matlovich recalled for Oelsner. He “came out” to his friends, but continued to conceal the fact from his commanding officers. Matlovich gradually came to believe that the discrimination faced by African Americans was similar to the persecution that homosexuals endured. For him, it became a civil rights issue.


Letter Changed His Life

Matlovich described the way he delivered the letter he wrote about his sexual orientation for The New York Times, in the September 19, 1975 article on his case. He said that he handed his “coming-out” statement to his superior. His captain asked, “What does this mean?” Matlovich said, “It means Brown v. the Board of Education” a reference to the 1954 landmark Supreme Court case outlawing racial segregation. For Matlovich, his test of the sexual-preference tolerance the military system would allow him was the equivalent to that. “I told him to sit down before he read it. He didn’t, but he sat down after he read it.” Matlovich contended that the military was full of homosexuals because he ran into them when he spent evenings in one dance club in Norfolk.

The issue of homosexuality in the military was brought to the forefront because of Matlovich’s confession. He hired David F. Addlestone of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), as his chief counsel. A military lawyer, Captain Jon Larson Jaenicke, was assistant counsel. After a series of hearings, Matlovich was offered a general discharge from the Air Force. According to Oelsner, Lieutenant Colonel Charles R. Ritchie, the Langley commander, notified Matlovich. “I am initiating action against you with a view to effecting your discharge from the United States Air Force.” A general discharge was less than an honorable discharge. Although he had hoped to stay in the military and avoid a discharge altogether, Matlovich was not content with the idea of a general discharge. “I love the military,” he told The New York Times. “The first time in the bar, I met a bank president who was petrified he’d be found out. I decided then and there I was not going to jump from job to job.” Six months after he openly admitted his homosexuality, Matlovich was out of the Air Force, considered unfit for military service by a three-member panel.

Perhaps the most painful aspect of the whole experience for Matlovich was his confrontation with his parents. He told his mother by phone. She was so stunned she refused to tell Matlovich’s father. Her first reaction was that God was punishing her for something she had done, even if her Roman Catholic faith would have not sanctioned that notion. Then, she imagined that her son had not prayed enough, had not seen enough psychiatrists. Before long she admitted that she had suspected the truth for a long time. When his father finally found out by reading it in the newspaper, Matlovich recalled, “He cried for about two hours.” After that, he told his wife that, “If he can take it, I can take it.”


Died a Hero

Matlovich soon found his way to San Francisco while his appeal was continuing. His admission had catapulted him into the role of a national hero for the cause of gay and lesbian rights. In 1979, he ran for the San Francisco Board of Supervisors, the governing body of that city and county. Midway through the campaign he discovered that his campaign manager had supported an opposing candidate. He lost the election. In November 1980, Matlovich finally received an upgraded discharge, that of honorable, and a $160,000 settlement. “That settlement vacated a Federal court ruling only two months previously ordering that he be reinstated with back pay,” according to Alfonso A. Narvaez in the obituary he wrote when Matlovich died of AIDS on June 23, 1988 at the home of a friend in West Hollywood, California.


Matlovich wrote the epitaph for his grave Washington’s Congressional Cemetery. It read, “When I was in the military they gave me a medal for killing two men, and a discharge for loving one.”

In those years before his tragic early death at the age of 44, Matlovich was satisfied that he had followed his conscience and his heart. His actions gave others the courage to do the same. The movement has progressed because of him and others like him.

The day he first saw the stone he’d designed in place. Leonard purchased two side-by-side plots, one intended for a future partner. Today, each plot would cost thousands more.


16 comments:

  1. Oh please.... Here is a man who VOLUNTARILY joined the military KNOWING AHEAD OF TIME that A) he was going to have to kill people and B) they had rules against homosexuality and clearly stated consequences for violating not only that policy but the policy against joining the military under false pretenses, which is what he did. The fact that he was not placed in a military prison for 20 years is in fact LENIENT! He had no cause to whine, and glorifying his actions to garner political sympathy is simply irrational.

    Oh, and merely implying that there is any sort of connected relationship between a soldier killing someone in the line of duty and a civilian romance does not mean that somehow such a relationship actually exists. You have to show the connection, and show how it means what you are claiming it does. Even from the perspective of general ethics and morality the claim being connected on that headstone has no foundational basis. Not even a logical one.

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    1. I have to agree with this. He wasn't given a discharge for loving another man, he was given a discharge for knowingly and deliberately violating Air Force policy. If he knew he could no longer abide by the rules, and if he truly had any respect for the military and the country, he should have finished his stretch and gone back to civilian life *before* coming out and dedicating his life to changing the policy.

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    2. So say the anonymous voices of a fearful minority. He came out while in service because it was right to do so, because he deserved to be able to love someone, and he is a hero for doing so. We should be thanking his bravery in the past, not wagging a finger at his challenge to the "policy" that thankfully we've grown beyond and now recognize as shameful.

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    3. This comment above is a perfect example of privilege at its best/worst.

      "It was the law that blacks were supposed to give up their seats and sit in the back of the bus. She chose to sit there and break the law."
      "It was the law that blacks could not eat at the same diner counters as decent white people. They chose to break the law and sit there anyway."
      "It was the law that Japanese people were rounded up, lost all of their possessions and home to be placed in concentration camps. Why are they complaining? It was the law!"

      Do you understand how stupid your argument sounds?

      And to address your erroneous dismissal of the allegory between men killing each other and loving each other as an example of our social views is spot on.
      Our books, movies and TV are filled with stories of men fighting, beating and killing one another. It is more acceptable for men to hold guns than to hold hands.
      If they show on TV two men careing for each other the religious and bigots complain.
      If they show two men hugging in and affectionate way people say "no homo".
      If they show two men kissing the religious and bigots are boycotting the company and their sponsors.
      If they show two men demonstrate the possibility of sexual activity on or off screen the religious and the bigots are rioting and protesting in the streets.
      Simply having a gay Presidential candidate is an "issue" simply because he is gay. Every single other qualification is overlooked simply because he is gay.
      They elected a misogynistic, sexually abusive, racist bigot into the Office simply because he "tells it like it is" when actually he has lied a documented 10k times.

      You have never been beaten for wanting to kiss a girl.
      You have never feared losing your job if someone caught you having beers at a sports bar.
      You have never been spit on, kicked, punched and assaulted simply becaise you were a white dude walking down the street.

      This complete lack of understanding about your place in the world compared to the lives that others are forced to live is privilege. You have the privilege to assume that a gay dude should have just suffered along with the laws. Because all of your experience has never had you marginalized because of those laws.

      Shut up and grow up.

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    4. Perfect!! Thank you for taking the time to make this comment!!! <3 <3 <3

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  2. Say the people who don't have the courage to post as anyone more specific than "Anonymous", as they miss the point entirely. At least Matlovich used his name when he voiced his position. The peanut gallery is full of "woulda, shoulda, coulda's". This is how it went down, and there are any number of indiscernible reasons why he made the choices he did: who among us can know or judge those choices? I'm not even defending him, per se (it seems to me he was a class-A ignorant prick at the time he entered the military, after all, and I am honestly sick of hearing about "heros" anyway, the vast majority of whom strike me as having been created not through the exercise of any internal virtue but through simple incidental happenstance), but rather his role in the development of the gay liberation movement. That was deeply significant, and those of us who've benefited in its wake have an obligation to appreciate the difficulties he did indeed confront by choosing to stand up for who he was in the fraught conditions and time at which he discovered that identity to be inescapable truth. Unless, of course, you simply don't care, which appears to be the likely conclusion we can draw from the previous responses: in which case, their opinions are, thank God, irrelevant.

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    1. And my name, which I thought would appear, is Dani Donatacci.

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    2. Nice collection of baseless assumptions, Dani.

      First, some people post anonymously because they don't have a Google account, or because they value their privacy. Not because they lack courage. It is also a possibility that they thought that their names would appear, just as you erroneously thought. And some people don't post their names in order to insure that their statements will not be unfairly judged because of who is saying them, but rather will be judged wholly on the content itself. In that case, the issue of anonymity is tied to credibility. (More on this at the end.)

      Second, the posts above yours claim that his reasons for doing what he did are irrelevant because he chose to do them with a priori knowledge that he would be committing enlistment fraud as well as be in violation of military policy. Why he did it at that point becomes irrelevant, as sexuality does not have any bearing on the enforcement of military policy even though it may be related to the policies themselves. Therefore, his role in the gay lib movement was itself based on fraud, i.e. an appeal for public sympathy for a man who was claiming to be suffering unfairly when in reality he was being treated with lenience and compassion given the established punishment for fraudulent enlistment and the specific violation of policy in question.
      Those of us who have benefitted in its wake are therefore no better than accessories, who have taken advantage of the gullibility and ignorance of the general public, and their willingness to accept whatever they read in Time Magazine at face value rather than analyzing it critically. A victory for gay rights it may have been, but it is surely a hollow and shameful one.

      Third, your assumption that the posters "just don't care" is also baseless. In fact, one could argue that by the virtue of them taking the time to post at all, they DO care. So that claim is not at all a "likely conclusion" as you put it.

      And finally, your dismissal of the opinions of those posters as irrelevant based on the grounds that they don't care is not logically sound. Not caring has no bearing on the truth or veracity of the comments made by a person.

      There is one more assumption in your post which is not stated outright, but is implicit. You are assuming that the posters above are not themselves gay. I see no reason to make such an assumption whatsoever. In fact, I would bet that at least one of them is not just gay but is himself either current or former military.

      Now...going back to the issue of anonymity and credibility. You posted your name. I looked it up and discovered that you are not just gay, which would naturally give you a biased viewpoint in this discussion, but working as a psychic medium as well. To most people on the planet this latter point would call your credibility into question, at the very least. As mentioned above, this would not be a fair judgment to make, as the veracity of your statements is unaffected by your personal beliefs or occupation. However, that said, people (yourself included) do make judgments using baseless criteria and anonymous posting is one way to guard against that. So do not assume that people only post anonymously when they lack courage.

      For the record, my name is Greg French, I am gay, and ex-Air Force. And I happen to agree 100% with the posters above you.

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    3. In all of this you are wrong.

      He was an American. He has full rights to defend his country as he is.

      He was denied and marginalized because of who he was, not because he couldn't do the job properly.

      USAF - Desert Storm

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  3. Dude knew what the rules were, dude broke the rules, he has no right to cry about it and sure doesn't deserve anyone's pity or defense. It doesn't matter what rules he broke. Pretty sad when journalists can influence military discipline tho.

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    1. "When ze civilians hid ze Jews, they broke ze law."

      Rules and laws are not necessarily moral nor right. It is the duty of every person, no matter the country or creed, to disobey such rules whenever possible.

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    2. If you don't agree with them, you don't join the organization that has them. If you know the rules and don't agree with them, but join anyway and promise to obey them, you have an obligation to do so or to subject yourself to the full measure of the consequences. Remember, nobody forced this guy to join the AF. He willingly and with fully informed consent volunteered to subject himself to those rules. When he had the chance to muster out, he re-upped. TWICE! There is no comparison to the Jews, as that was an IN-voluntary situation. Try again.

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    3. Bullshit.
      This is his country as much as it is anyone elses.
      He was being marginalized because of who he was, not because of his ability to do the job.

      Step off your privilege.

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    4. "Step off your "privilege""....STFU

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  4. Hell, at one time simply being gay was a crime. Think about that. Gay people violated the law just by being who they were! All throughout history people have challenged the status quo in order to change unjust laws and rules,and thank God they did. I could list off a litany of examples but I would hope you know a little history. Your arguments against this veteran ring hollow.

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  5. I am a Veteran I served in the US Navy as an officer from 1980 to 1988. Six years active duty and 2 years reserve. I am a woman and have degrees in psychology. Because I was an outsider and minority as a female officer, and because I was unconventional and approachable, many gay service men and women came out to me. I never betrayed them. This is part of my service to this country I am proud of. I celebrate Veterans day with this thought. We should honor all who answer the call to duty.

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