Had Leonard Matlovich (1943-1988) never publicly admitted his homosexuality to Air Force officials in 1975 he might have retired from the military and slipped quietly into oblivion. Instead, on March 6, 1975 with 12 years of exemplary military service, he wrote and delivered a letter to his commanding officer in which he openly admitted his homosexuality. By May of that year, this unlikely celebrity became the focus of attention that would not fade for five years.
For thousands of gay and lesbian Americans, particularly during the 25 years following World War II, expressing their homosexuality publicly remained unthinkable. That changed one warm June night in 1969 when a routine police raid against the Stonewall Inn, a private gay club in New York's Greenwich Village, met with unexpected opposition. The men who had always been easily targeted for their homosexuality decided to fight back. If their identities became public, they were willing to take the risk even if that meant losing their jobs, becoming estranged from families, or meeting with further violence.
The movement for gay rights was still young in 1975 when Leonard Matlovich revealed his sexual orientation in a letter to his commanding officer. That admission would lead to a place on the cover of Time, magazine. Embla-zoned across his chest in bold black letters, according to The New York Times, on September 19, 1975, was the caption, "I Am a Homosexual."
Born into the Military
Leonard Philip Matlovich was born on July 6, 1943 in Savannah, Georgia, the only son of a career Air Force sergeant. He spent his childhood living on military bases, primarily throughout the southern United States. Matlovich and his sister were raised in the Roman Catholic Church. In an article for The New York Times, on May 25, 1975, Lesley Oelsner wrote that, "Technically, the sergeant's case is just beginning. To Sergeant Matlovich, though, the case is really much older, going back at least to his youth, when he was, as he puts it, an 'Air Force brat' growing up on bases from Georgia to Guam, wanting to be in the military himself and worrying about his sexual inclinations."
Despite a deep inner conflict, Matlovich decided at the age of 19 that he wanted to follow in his father's footsteps. By his own admission, he had become a "white racist," and a "flag-waving patriot." Not long after he enlisted, the United States increased military action in Vietnam, about ten years after the French had abandoned active colonial rule there. Matlovich volunteered for service in Vietnam with a sense of patriotic pride firmly entrenched. He served three tours of duty and was seriously wounded when he stepped on a land mine in Da Nang. His military service in Vietnam earned him both a Purple Heart and a Bronze Star. By 1975, Matlovich was already in his 12th year of service. As a technical sergeant stationed at Langley Air Force Base in Hampton, Virginia, Matlovich was also a race-relations and drug abuse counselor. His exemplary work earned additional awards. Trying to suppress the sexual inclinations he considered aberrant behavior, Matlovich joined fellow soldiers who mocked homosexuals. Oelsner noted that, "What changed everything, he said, was a change that started, slowly, at first, in his attitude toward black people. He was in the service with blacks; then, on one assignment, a black man was his supervising officer. One stereotype after another stereotype started to crumble," Matlovich said.
Matlovich had enrolled in the race relations program while he was stationed in Pensacola, Florida, and became an instructor. That was when he began frequenting gay bars. "I met a bank president, a gas station attendant—they were all homosexual," Matlovich recalled for Oelsner. He "came out" to his friends, but continued to conceal the fact from his commanding officers. Matlovich gradually came to believe that the discrimination faced by African Americans was similar to the persecution that homosexuals endured. For him, it became a civil rights issue.
Letter Changed His Life
Matlovich described the way he delivered the letter he wrote about his sexual orientation for The New York Times, in the September 19, 1975 article on his case. He said that he handed his "coming-out" statement to his superior. His captain asked, "What does this mean?" Matlovich said, "It means Brown v. the Board of Education" a reference to the 1954 landmark Supreme Court case outlawing racial segregation. For Matlovich, his test of the sexual-preference tolerance the military system would allow him was the equivalent to that. "I told him to sit down before he read it. He didn't, but he sat down after he read it." Matlovich contended that the military was full of homosexuals because he ran into them when he spent evenings in one dance club in Norfolk.
The issue of homosexuality in the military was brought to the forefront because of Matlovich's confession. He hired David F. Addlestone of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), as his chief counsel. A military lawyer, Captain Jon Larson Jaenicke, was assistant counsel. After a series of hearings, Matlovich was offered a general discharge from the Air Force. According to Oelsner, Lieutenant Colonel Charles R. Ritchie, the Langley commander, notified Matlovich. "I am initiating action against you with a view to effecting your discharge from the United States Air Force." A general discharge was less than an honorable discharge. Although he had hoped to stay in the military and avoid a discharge altogether, Matlovich was not content with the idea of a general discharge. "I love the military," he told The New York Times. "The first time in the bar, I met a bank president who was petrified he'd be found out. I decided then and there I was not going to jump from job to job." Six months after he openly admitted his homosexuality, Matlovich was out of the Air Force, considered unfit for military service by a three-member panel.
Perhaps the most painful aspect of the whole experience for Matlovich was his confrontation with his parents. He told his mother by phone. 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 have not sanctioned that notion. Then, she imagined that her son had not prayed enough, had not seen enough psychiatrists. Before long she admitted that she had suspected the truth for a long time. When his father finally found out by reading it in the newspaper, Matlovich recalled, "He cried for about two hours." After that, he told his wife that, "If he can take it, I can take it."
Died a Hero
Matlovich soon found his way to San Francisco while his appeal was continuing. His admission had catapulted him into the role of a national hero for the cause of gay and lesbian rights. In 1979, he ran for the San Francisco Board of Supervisors, the governing body of that city and county. Midway through the campaign he discovered that his campaign manager had supported an opposing candidate. He lost the election. In November 1980, Matlovich finally received an upgraded discharge, that of honorable, and a $160,000 settlement. "That settlement vacated a Federal court ruling only two months previously ordering that he be reinstated with back pay," according to Alfonso A. Narvaez in the obituary he wrote when Matlovich died of AIDS on June 23, 1988 at the home of a friend in West Hollywood, California.
Matlovich wrote the epitaph for his grave Washington's Congressional Cemetery. It read, "When I was in the military they gave me a medal for killing two men, and a discharge for loving one." In those years before his tragic early death at the age of 44, Matlovich was satisfied that he had followed his conscience and his heart. His actions gave others the courage to do the same. The movement has progressed because of him and others like him.
Further Reading on Leonard Matlovich
The New York Times, May 26, 1975; September 20, 1975; June 24, 1988.
Time, July 4, 1988.
Matlovich, Leonard. Find a Grave, website. Available at: http://www.findagrave.org. 1999.