Technical Sergeant Leonard Matlovich was a Vietnam War veteran, race relations instructor, and recipient of the Purple Heart and the Bronze Star. He fought the US military in 1975 for the right to serve as an openly gay man.
Born in Savannah, Georgia, he was 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. By his own admission, by the time he was in his late teens, he had become a 'white racist', and a 'flag-waving patriot'. Not long after he enlisted, the United States increased military action in Vietnam. Matlovich volunteered for service in Vietnam and served three tours of duty. He was seriously wounded when he stepped on a land mine in Da Nang.
While stationed in Florida near Fort Walton Beach, he began frequenting gay bars in nearby Pensacola. He came out to his friends, but continued to conceal the fact from his commanding officer. Matlovich gradually came to believe that the discrimination faced by African Americans was similar to the persecution that homosexuals endured; it became a civil rights issue. When he was 30, Matlovich slept with another man for the first time. Unwilling to put his career on the line in the early 1970s, he would sometimes refer to himself as a 'minority' hinting at his new lifestyle. He taught race relations classes in the period of 1972-75.
It was not until he was assigned to Langley AFB in 1975 that he felt confident enough to tell his military superiors that he was gay - forcing their response. After reading a letter authored by Matlovich that declared his homosexuality, his immediate superior officer 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. For Matlovich, his test of the military's sexual orientation tolerance would be equivalent to that case. Despite his exemplary military record, tours of duty in Vietnam, and high performance evaluations, a military panel deemed Matlovich unfit for service and he was discharged from the Air Force six months after his declaration.
He sued for reinstatement, but the legal process was a long one and by the time the case was resolved, his goals and objectives had changed. When a government attorney offered to permit Matlovich to return to Air Force duty provided he would sign a document pledging to 'never practice homosexuality again', Matlovich declined. Although he lost his initial bid to stay in the Air Force, a federal judge eventually ordered his reinstatement with retroactive back pay. In 1980, Matlovich agreed to settle the case without returning to the Air Force, but did win an upgraded honourable discharge and a cash settlement of $160,000.
A converted Mormon and church elder when he lived in Hampton, Virginia, Matlovich found himself at odds with the Latter Day Saints and their conservative ideology and he was twice excommunicated by the LDS church for being homosexual. He was first excommunicated on October 7, 1975 in Norfolk, Virginia, and then again January 17, 1979 after his appearance on the Phil Donahue television show in 1978, without being rebaptised.
Perhaps the most painful aspect of the whole experience for Matlovich was his 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 have not 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. 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.'
Once fully committed to openly gay civilian life, Matlovich moved to California ending up eventually in San Francisco, the centre of the gay community in the US, and became an outspoken advocate of gay rights. Matlovich, however, gradually became disenchanted with being the lighting rod for gay activist causes. His personal and financial situation had deteriorated between 1975 and 1980 and his inherently conservative, religious leanings were often at odds with the flamboyant leaders of the gay movement, both in San Francisco and nationwide. At one point he moved from San Francisco to the Russian River area of northern California where he used the proceeds of his settlement to open a pizza restaurant. While continuing to be active in gay causes, he became increasingly less visible in terms of a symbol of the gay movement.
With the outbreak of HIV/AIDS in the US in the early 1980s, Leonard’s personal life was caught up in the virus’ hysteria that peaked in the 1980s. In the northern California town of Guerneville, he was forced to close down his newly opened pizza parlor when his heterosexual friends and clientèle abandoned him out of fear and a lack of understanding about the propagation of the disease. He returned to San Francisco to sell used cars, and eventually ended up at a Ford dealership.
During the summer of 1986, Matlovich felt fatigued, then contracted a prolonged chest cold he seemed unable to shake. When he finally saw a physician in September of that year, he was diagnosed with HIV/AIDS. Too weak to continue his work at the Ford dealership, he was among the first to receive AZT treatments, but his prognosis was not encouraging. He became a champion for HIV/AIDS research for the disease which was claiming tens of thousands of lives in the Bay Area and nationally. He announced that he had contracted the HIV virus in 1987 on Good Morning America.
On June 22, 1988, just a month before his 45th birthday, Matlovich died of complications from HIV/AIDS.
His tombstone reads:
When I was in the military, they gave me a medal for killing two men and a discharge for loving one.Matlovich's tombstone is on the same row at Congressional Cemetery as J. Edgar Hoover's.