US Air Force Technical Sergeant Leonard P. Matlovich was born in Savannah, Georgia on July 6, 1943. He was the son of career Air Force sergeant and spent most of his early life living on military bases primarily in the Southern United States. Matlovich as well as his sister were raised in the Roman Catholic faith, in the segregated south. “He described himself as an ”Air Force brat” who was born in a military hospital in Savannah, Ga., and moved with his parents – his father was a master sergeant in the Air Force -from base to base around the world. He said he wanted to follow in his father’s footsteps and enlisted in the Air Force in May 1963, when he was 19. He volunteered for assignment to Vietnam and served three tours of duty there” (Narvaez).
It was after returning to the states as a result of this injury that he was stationed at Fort Walton Beach in Florida. During this time he began to visit gay bars in the nearby city of Pensacola. In a later interview Matlovich would mention that, “I met a bank president, a gas station attendant – they were all homosexual” (Wikipedia). Matlovich was beginning the discovery that homosexuals were everywhere, and that the community and life was abundant even if in the closet. It was when he turned 30 that he slept with another man for the first time, shortly after; he would come out to his friends but would remain closeted to the Air Force, his commanding officer in particular. “Throughout much of his military career, Sergeant Matlovich said, he lived in fear that his homosexual leanings would be discovered. But after visiting [that] gay bar in Florida and later becoming a practicing homosexual, he decided to test the military’s regulations banning homosexuality” (Naravez).
Due to his experiences with staying in the closet combined with growing up in the segregated south where racism was abundant, Matlovich soon found himself volunteering to teach Air Force Relations classes. These were a set of classes which were created in the late 1960’s/early 1970’s which were directly related to racial incidents within the military. Matlovich soon became so successful at teaching these classes that the Air Force soon sent him around the country to coach other instructors. During this time Matlovich began to develop his understanding that the discrimination he and other gay servicemen faced within the military was similar to those prejudices felt by African American servicemen.
Until 1974 Matlovich was unaware of any form of organized gay rights movement, it was during March of that year that he read an interview with gay activist Frank Kameny which was published in the Air Force times. Kameny was an activist who had counseled several gay military members over the years. After reading this interview Matlovich was so moved that he contacted Kameny, who until this time had been looking, “for a gay service member with a perfect record to create a test case to challenge the military’s ban on gays” (Wikipedia). Months later Matlovich would travel to Washington D.C. and meet with Kameny at his home. For many months following that original meeting the two would work alongside ACLU attorney David Addlestone to formulate a plan to kick start their fight against the LGBT military policy.
After those months of planning it was decided that on March 6, 1975 Matlovich would deliver a letter to his commanding officer explaining his sexuality. When Matlovich delivered the letter his commanding officer read it and then asked him, “”What does this mean?” Matlovich replied, “It means Brown versus the Board of Education” – a reference to the 1954 landmark Supreme Court case outlawing racial segregation in public schools” (Wikipedia). This was the beginning of Matlovich’s fight towards LGBT equality in the military, and the first step in what would make him a torch in the history of the LGBT rights movement.
Soon after this moment Matlovich would face the hardest experience with his coming out and becoming an advocate for the gay rights movement. He would have to tell his parents about his homosexuality. “He told his mother by telephone. 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 not have sanctioned that notion. Then, she imagined that her son had not prayed enough or had not seen enough psychiatrists” (Wikipedia). Matlovich’s father would eventually also find out about his son’s homosexuality as it quickly became public knowledge due to an article on the front page of The New York Times as well as a Walter Cronkite report. “Matlovich recalled, “He cried for about two hours. After that, he told his wife that, If he can take it, I can take it” (Wikipedia).
By September of 1975 Matlovich who had previously been vehemently protective of his personal life and sexuality was on the cover of TIME magazine with a picture under a banner headline which read, “I am a Homosexual.” Matlovich had become a face of a still infantile gay-rights movement. “TIME readers responded to the cover with letters that ranged from calling him “a disgrace to the uniform of an honorable service” to noting the irony of a world where you can “be highly decorated for killing thousands of your fellow men and be drummed out of the corps if you dare to love one” (Rothman).
During this time Matlovich also began his hearings for administrative discharge from the air force. It was during this time that an Air Force attorney asked him if he would sign a document pledging to never practice homosexuality again in exchanged for being allowed to remain in the Air Force. Matlovich refused. Despite all of the work Matlovich had made in his career including his tours of Vietnam, his perfect record as a serviceman, and his training’s with the relations classes the panel ruled that Matlovich was unfit for service and recommended him for general discharge. His base commander would then argue for this to be upgraded to an honorable discharge noting his successes and service. The secretary of the Air Force agreed, and in October of 1975 Matlovich was discharged from the United States Air Force.
Matlovich then began the long process of suing for reinstatement and over the next five years the case moved back and forth between District and circuit courts. “When, by September 1980, the Air Force had failed to provide U.S. District Court Judge Gerhard Gesell an explanation of why Matlovich did not meet its criteria for exception (which by then had been eliminated but still could have applied to him), Gesell ordered him reinstated into the Air Force and promoted” (Wikipedia). Instead the Air Force offered Matlovich a settlement. Convinced that the Air Force would just find another reason to discharge him if he fought to be reinstated, he instead accepted the settlement. This settlement was a figure, based on back pay, future pay, and pension which amounted to the total of $160,000.
Once the case became public activist groups called upon Matlovich to help with fundraising and advocating against discrimination; the two biggest causes being the fight against Anita Bryant in Miami and John Briggs in California. Over this time Matlovich was a dedicated advocate for gay rights, even “running for the San Francisco public office that had once [belonged to] Harvey Milk” (Rothman). In 1981 Matlovich found himself moving to the Russian River town of Guerneville, where he used the proceeds of his settlement to open a pizza restaurant. During the height of the HIV/AIDS outbreak in the US Leonard found his personal life being swept up in the hysteria of the virus and h soon sold his restaurant, and moved to Europe for a few months. While living in Europe the grave of the joint lovers Gertrude Stein and Alice B Toklas as well as Oscar Wilde and it was then that Matlovich had the idea that the United States needed a gay memorial of some form.
After this realization he moved back to the United States briefly living in D.C. before moving to San Francisco where he would begin selling Ford Cars and eventually be again heavily involved in gay rights causes and fighting for adequate HIV-AIDS education and treatment. In 1986 Matlovich fell ill with a cold he could not seem to shake, when he finally visited a physician in September of that year he was diagnosed with HIV/AIDS. He became too weak to continue his work with the Ford dealership, and would eventually become one of the first to receive AZT treatments; however, his prognosis was poor. He became a great champion for HIV/AIDS research, and was even arrested protesting at the White House for their inadequate response to the epidemic. In May of 1988 he made what would be his last public speech, despite his deteriorating health, tearfully on the steps of the California State Capitol during the March on Sacramento for Gay and Lesbian rights he said the following:
…And I want you to look at the flag, our rainbow flag, and I want you to look at it with pride in your heart, because we too have a dream. And what is our dream? Ours is more than an American dream. It’s a universal dream. Because in South Africa, we’re black and white, and in Northern Ireland, we’re Protestant and Catholic, and in Israel we’re Jew and Muslim. And our mission is to reach out and teach people to love, and not to hate. And you know the reality of the situation is that before we as an individual meet, the only thing we have in common is our sexuality. And in the AIDS crisis – and I have AIDS – and in the AIDS crisis, if there is any one word that describes our community’s reaction to AIDS, that word is love, love, love. (Wikipedia).
Less than a month before his 45th birthday on June 22, 1988 Matlovich died due to complications from HIV/AIDS. Jeff Dupre, a longtime friend of Matlovich, didn’t even know his friend was sick, until it was too late. Dupre says this of Matlovich, “He … was the epitome of a perfect soldier, one of those people that stuck his neck out, and he was proud to be the person to challenge that law” (NPR). Matlovich is buried at Congressional Cemetery in Washington, D.C. His grave is in the same row of graves that houses former FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover. The epitaph, which Matlovich himself wrote, reads: ”When I was in the military they gave me a medal for killing two men, and a discharge for loving one.” It was the hope of Matlovich that his grave would serve as a memorial to all LGBT servicemen for future generations. This has held true to current day, numerous LGBT rights activists have used his grave site for ceremonies. This includes the wedding of gay Iraq veteran Capt. Stephen Hill and his partner Josh Snyder.
Matlovich donated all of his personal papers and memorabilia to the GLBT historical society which is a museum, archival and research center in San Francisco. The Society has featured Matlovich’s story in two separate exhibits, he is also memorialized in Chicago’s outdoor museum known as the Legacy walk. On the 20th anniversary of his death, the then mayor of San Francisco, Gavin Newsom declared it Leonard Matlovich day in the city. Additionally, there is a bronze plaque in his memory installed near the entrance of an apartment he once lived in in the Castro. A close friend of Matlovich, Michael Bedwell, has created and curated the website in honor of Matlovich and other LGBT U.S. veterans; this website includes a detailed history of the bans in the military as well as the fights for equality.
“He had the knack for taking your heart and making it catch for a moment. He seemed to make people want to be braver than perhaps they were.”
– Neely Tucker, Washington Post
Leonard Matlovich. (2017, June 04). Retrieved June 5, 2017, from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Leonard_Matlovich
Narvaez, Alfonso A. “Gay Airman Who Fought Ouster Dies From AIDS.” The New York Times, The New York Times, 23 June 1988, www.nytimes.com/1988/06/24/us/gay-airman-who-fought-ouster-dies-from-aids.html. Accessed 5 June 2017.
Rothman, Lily. “LGBT Military History: Remembering Leonard Matlovich.” Time, Time, 8 Sept. 2015, time.com/4019076/40-years-leonard-matlovich/. Accessed 5 June 2017.
Staff, NPR. “’A Perfect Soldier’: Remembering A Warrior In The Battle Against Homophobia.” NPR, NPR, 30 Oct. 2015, www.npr.org/2015/10/30/452849153/a-perfect-soldier-remembering-a-warrior-in-the-battle-against-homophobia. Accessed 5 June 2017.
Tsgt. Leonard Matlovich, USAF. (2009). Retrieved June 5, 2017, from http://www.leonardmatlovich.com/