Remembering Matlovich: “I Am A Homosexual”
The following guest blog is by Michael Bedwell, close friend and ally to activist Leonard Matlovich, a gay Vietnam veteran who became the first active duty member to preemptively challenge the ban on open service by gays in the U.S. military. Here, Bedwell gives background on Matlovich – formerly a USAF Technical Sergeant – including the impact he has had in life and in death.
By Michael Bedwell
The formal battle to end the military’s ban on gays was launched on March 6, 1975, by TSgt. Leonard Matlovich, a Vietnam veteran with a Bronze Star and a Purple Heart. The highly respected Race Relations Instructor gave his commanding officer a letter addressed to the Secretary of the Air Force, identifying himself as gay, and asserting he was “fully qualified for further military service. My almost twelve years of unblemished service supports this position.” When his African-American superior asked him what the letter meant, Matlovich replied, “It means Brown v. the Board of Education,” referring to the 1954 United States Supreme Court case that had resulted in the racial integration of public schools.
The New York Times and newspapers nationwide broke his story, television news reported it to their millions of viewers, and an issue of Time magazine startled the world with its cover featuring Matlovich in his uniform behind the words, “I Am a Homosexual.” One gay man said, “I remember where I was when President Kennedy was shot, and I remember where I was when I first saw that cover.” Yet, it wasn’t just the countless gay men and women inspired by his courage to accept themselves. In the words of historian Nathaniel Frank, it “began a national discussion on gay rights.” And, while Harvey Milk was still unknown outside of San Francisco, mainstream media embraced Matlovich as none before him.
Honorably discharged that October, his Constitutional arguments were obliterated the next year when the Supreme Court let stand a circuit court ruling upholding sodomy laws. Remaining was why the Air Force refused to apply to him a then-available exception clause. While his lawsuit worked its way through the courts, Matlovich helped raise money to fight Anita Bryant in Miami and John Briggs in California, and NBC broadcast an unprecedented made-for-TV movie about his challenge. The Pentagon announced the same day that gays previously kicked out could apply for an upgrade to their discharge status. The Air Force, however, ignored the Justice Department’s suggestion they hire him as a civilian adviser on gays in the military.
Tired of their delays, in 1980, a federal judge ordered him reinstated with back pay. While significant, it didn’t affect the ban, and convinced the Air Force would only trump up another reason to discharge him again, he accepted their offer of a financial settlement. His advocacy in other gay rights areas continued; he was arrested in front of the White House protesting the Reagan Administration’s AIDS policies, and dedicated a proposed memorial to Milk in Washington’s Congressional Cemetery where he’d already erected his own stone to honor all gay veterans.
Eight months later, Pennsylvania Avenue residents watched a cortege led by American and rainbow flags and an Air Force honor guard pass with his mentor Frank Kameny and other gay veterans walking beside the horse-drawn caisson carrying his body to its final rest. After various speakers, three rifle volleys cracked the summer air followed by Taps, and his Mother was presented with the American flag that had covered the coffin of the first gay recipient of the Purple Heart the world had ever known.
Since then, several gays have chosen to be buried near Matlovich, and a national LGBT veterans memorial is planned nearby.
In May 2011, while on leave from Iraq, Capt. Stephen Hill married Josh Snyder next to his searing epitaph:
“When I was in the military they gave me a medal for killing two men and a discharge for loving one.”