Gay History Veterans Day Tribute: Technical Sgt. Leonard P. Matlovich America’s 1st Out Gay Serviceman
One man who must be honored for his bravery by our country and our community is Sergeant Leonard P. Matlovich
Technical Sergeant Leonard P. Matlovich was a Vietnam War veteran, race relations instructor, and recipient of the Purple Heart and the Bronze Star. He was also the first gay service member to fight the ban of gays in the military. His fight to stay in the United States Air Force after coming out of the closet resulted in articles in newspapers and magazines throughout the country, numerous television interviews, and a television movie on NBC. His photograph appeared on the cover of the September 8, 1975, issue of Time magazine, making him a symbol for thousands of gay and lesbian service members and the gay community.
In March 1974, previously unaware of the organized gay movement, 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, D.C. 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. Four months later, he met with Kameny at the longtime activist’s Washington, D.C. home. 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” – a reference to the 1954 landmark Supreme Court case outlawing racial segregation in public schools.
Perhaps the most painful aspect of the whole experience for Matlovich was the revelation to his parents. 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. She later admitted that she had suspected the truth for a long time. His father finally found out by reading it in the newspaper, after his challenge became public knowledge on Memorial Day 1975 through an article on the front page of The New York Times and that evening’s CBS Evening News with Walter Cronkite. Matlovich recalled, “He cried for about two hours.” After that, he told his wife that, “If he can take it, I can take it.”
During his September 1975 administrative discharge hearing, an Air Force attorney asked him if he would sign a document pledging to “never practice homosexuality again” in exchange for being allowed to remain in the Air Force. Matlovich refused. Despite his exemplary military record, tours of duty in Vietnam, and high performance evaluations, the panel ruled Matlovich unfit for service and he was recommended for a General, or Less than Honorable, discharge. The base commander, Alton J. Thogersen, citing his service record, recommended that it be upgraded to Honorable. The Secretary of the Air Force agreed, confirming Matlovich’s discharge in October 1975. He 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.
Leonard Matlovich did not live to see the day when gay men and women could openly serve in the military. He died on June 22, 1988, less than a month before his 45th birthday, of complications from HIV/AIDS
His tombstone, meant to be a memorial to all gay veterans, does not bear his name. It simply reads:
“When I was in the military, they gave me a medal for killing two men and a discharge for loving one.”
Below is the first TV interview with Sgt. Leonard Matlovich from 1975.