Memorial Day: Remembering Technical Sergeant Leonard Matlovich America’s First Openly Gay Soldier

Everyone today knows who Dan Choi is and even most “twinks” know that Reichen “vapid quuen” Lehmenkul was in the Air Force.  But how many of them know who Technical Sergeant Leonard Matlovich is and that he was the first openly gay service member to ever fight the ban on gays in the military? In the 1970’s!

In 1973 Leonard Matlovich read an interview in the Air Force Times with gay activist Frank Kameny who had counseled several gays in the military over the years. He called Kameny in Washington DC and learned that Kameny had long been looking for a gay service member with a perfect record to create a test case to challenge the military’s ban on gays. About a year later, he called Kameny again, telling him that he might be the person. After several months of discussion with Kameny and ACLU attorney David Addlestone during which they formulated a plan, he hand-delivered a letter to his Langley AFB commanding officer on March 6, 1975. When his commander asked, “What does this mean?” Matlovich replied, “It means Brown versus the Board of Education” because for Matlovich, his test of the military’s ban on homosexuals would be equivalent to that case.

At that time, the Air Force had a unique exception clause that technically could allow gays to continue to serve under undefined circumstances. (Remember this was LONG before DADT a time where if someone whispered you were gay you’d be discharged without any defense) An Air Force attorney asked  Maltovich if he would sign a document pledging to “never practice homosexuality again” in exchange for being allowed to stay in the Air Force. Matlovich refused.  And so despite the fact that Maltovich had an unblemished military record, tours of duty in Vietnam, was a recipient of the Purple Heart and the Bronze Star, the military ruled Leonard Matlovich unfit to serve and he was recommended for a General, or Less than Honorable, discharge. The base commander recommended that it be upgraded to Honorable and the Secretary of the Air Force agreed, confirming Matlovich’s discharge in October 1975.

Maltovich sued for reinstatement, but the legal process was a long one, with the case moving back and forth between United States District and Circuit Courts. When, by September 1980, the Air Force had failed to provide US District Court Judge Gerhard Gesell an explanation of why Matlovich did not meet their 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. The Air Force offered Matlovich a financial settlement instead, and convinced they would find some other reason to discharge him if he reentered the service, or the conservative US Supreme Court would rule against him should the Air Force appeal, Matlovich accepted. The figure, based on back pay, future pay, and pension was $160,000.

His case resulted in articles in newspapers and magazines throughout the country, numerous television interviews, and a television movie on NBC. He was repeatedly called upon by gay groups to help them with fund raising and advocating against anti-gay discrimination, helping lead campaigns against Anita Bryant’s effort in Miami, Florida, to overturn a gay nondiscrimination ordinance and John Briggs’ attempt to ban gay teachers in California and also later the fight for adequate HIV-AIDS education and treatment.

On June 22, 1988, less than a month before his 45th birthday, Matlovich died of complications from HIV/AIDS beneath a large photo of Martin Luther King, Jr. His tombstone, meant to be a memorial to all gay veterans, does not bear his name. It reads, “When I was in the military, they gave me a medal for killing two men and a discharge for loving one.


Will Kohler

Will Kohler is a noted LGBT historian, journalist and owner of A longtime gay activist, Will fought on the front lines of the AIDS epidemic with ACT-UP and continues fighting today for LGBT acceptance and full equality. Will’s work has been referenced in notable media venues as MSNBC and BBC News, The Washington Post, The Daily Beast, Hollywood Reporter, and Raw Story,

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