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

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

In 1973 Technical Sargent 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 gay men. 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.  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.

9 thoughts on “Memorial Day: Remembering Technical Sergeant Leonard Matlovich America’s First Openly Gay Soldier

  1. … Was fortunate to have known “Lenny” via “Affirmation: Gay & Lesbian Mormons” L.A. Chapter. (’79) When I was West Coast Editor of Radio/TV for “Billboard Magazine.” (BB) Was the 1st. ever openly-Gay employee in their History, so we had that in common too. Len already had been Excommunicated twice by the LDS “Church,” I wasn’t ’til ’83. A friendly intense person, we “But it Off” immediately, sharing a mutual/sarcastic humor. Last saw Lenny at the 1st. “March in Washington” (’87) Still that hour-long individual, his game hasn’t changed him. Was shocked when he died a yr. later from AIDS. Still love & miss him!

  2. Will, thanks for adding the explanatory part about Matlovich’s missing name on his headstone!! I like to think that absence both represents all queer veterans and will move others to either add the names of those they know; or seek it out!!
    Thanks again for keeping our history present!

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