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Erik Visits an American Grave, Part 1,448

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This is the grave of Leonard Matlovich.

Born in Savannah, Georgia in 1943, Matlovich grew up in a military family. He was born on a base and moved around with his parents as a child. By the time he was a teenager, the father was retired and the family lived in Charleston, South Carolina. As was expected, Matlovich enlisted in the military in 1962. That meant Vietnam. He served three tours of duty in the Vietnam War and nearly died after stepping on a landmine. He won the Bronze Star and the Purple Heart. This was a committed, professional soldier who risked his life again and again.

It took Matlovich awhile to be comfortable with his sexuality to do something about it. It was 1973 before he slept with a man. He started visiting gay bars while stationed in Florida, saw that there were a lot more people like him than he assumed and that they were from all walks of life. He wondered why he couldn’t be openly gay and in the military. Now, Matlovich was not just one of these guys (and they are far from uncommon) who held all the other prejudice of the time but realized he was gay and so was just committed to his own personal freedom. Having spent most of his growing up in the South, he saw tons of racism and he thought it was awful. Unlike most people, he acted on it. He was active in creating dialogue between white and Black soldiers and was part of a program in the Air Force to teach about race relations. He volunteered to teach those classes. So what he realized is that the discrimination he faced as a gay man wasn’t really all that different than the discrimination that African-Americans faced.

So Matlovich didn’t do much to hide his sexuality. He came out to his friends in the military. But he did try to hide this from his commanding officer, worried about the consequences. In 1974, he read a story in Air Force Times about Frank Kameny, the gay rights activist. It’s amazing to me that Kameny would be featured in that publication, but then it is also important to remember that oppression of gay Americans is not something that is linear. It’s certainly true that the modern gay rights movement is something from the last half century or so. But there have been times when being gay was seen more as a curiosity and other times when it was just generally ignored and other times when it was actively repressed. So Kameny being featured and noting that he had counseled a lot of gay soldiers may be more surprising to you than it should be. Matlovich contacted Kameny and told him his story. Kameny was excited. He was looking for a soldier with an absolutely spotless service record to come out publicly and challenge the military’s ban on gays. Matlovich was willing to do this. At this point, he was at Langley and he hand delivered his coming out statement and legal challenge to the ban to the base commander, who to say the least was confused. But Matlovich told him this was his version of Brown v. Board of Education.

This was a very public process. Matlovich soon became the first openly gay person on the cover of Time magazine. But this was hard. His family was very Catholic. He told his mother, who asked why God was punishing her. Then neither he nor she told his father, who discovered his son was gay when he read a New York Times story about it. Somewhere along the line, Matlovich had actually become a Mormon.

Now, the Air Force did not want to discharge Matlovich. In fact, it took a pretty flexible stance on homosexuality if you could explain it away, and they wanted you to explain it away, even if you basically lied to them. Were you drunk? Fine, just forget about it. How about young and stupid? Did you have a bad night? Were you just such a good soldier that we aren’t going to bother prosecuting? Might work. The military really did not want to purge its numbers of anyone who had sex with a guy once. Too many people and many generals really didn’t care either way. Hell, probably lots of them had. But Matlovich threw it in their face. So they felt they had to prosecute. But they still didn’t want to. They offered him a deal–don’t have more gay sex (or more exactly don’t tell us about it) and we will forget the whole thing. But of course that is not what Matlovich wanted. He wanted to overturn the law. So he was recommended for a General Discharge. His commander overruled this and gave him an Honorable Discharge, noting his incredibly brave service in Vietnam. Matlovich kept fighting. He wanted that damn rule overturned and he wanted back in the Air Force. So this went to the courts for years and finally ended in late 1980. A federal judge ordered the Air Force to take him back. So the Air Force just decided to pay off Matlovich, giving him $160,000 to cover lost salary through all this. Since Matlovich was sure the Air Force would have gotten rid of him for some made up reason, he took the deal.

Oh and naturally enough the Mormons excommunicated Matlovich.

Now, Matlovich was not really that liberal. He was a military guy. So when he was called on to support all sorts of other gay rights causes, he was pretty choosy because there were parts of contemporary liberal politics he didn’t care for much. He was criticized by leftist gay groups for this. He eventually moved to northern California and opened a pizza restaurant. It was the AIDS crisis that got him back involved in gay politics and he used his relative fame to raise money for both a memorial to gays in America and for HIV prevention and treatment.

Matlovich himself was diagnosed as HIV positive in 1986. Wanting to use his remaining time for good, he went on Good Morning America in early 1987 to announce his disease publicly and urge fighting for him and others doomed to death. He was involved in protests against the Reagan administration’s open hostility to their lives and to funding any research to find a cure. He was arrested that year in one protest. He made his last public speech at a rally in Sacramento in May 1988 and died the next month. He was 44 years old.

Matlovich is buried in Congressional Cemetery, Washington, D.C. He is there instead of Arlington (where he qualified for burial) because he wanted his grave to be a political statement. As for the precise location? He chose it because it is the same row as J. Edgar Hoover and his today Clyde Tolson and he thought it would be funny, which in fact it is.

If you would like this series to visit other gay rights pioneers, you can donate to cover the required expenses here. In 2019, Maltovich was named one of the 50 first people on the National LGBTQ Wall of Honor at the Stonewall National Monument in New York. Other people honored such include E. Lynn Harris, buried in Little Rock, Arkansas, and Chuck Renslow, buried in Chicago. Previous posts in this series are archived here and here.

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