by Danny Ingram
Near a quiet intersection in Washington’s Congressional Cemetery, in a plot of land commonly known as the “gay corner,” the gravesite of Leonard Matlovich rests beneath a small tree providing shade to the black granite memorial to one of America’s most prominent LGBT activists. Memorial Day, 2015, marks the 40th anniversary that United States Air Force Technical Sergeant Leonard Matlovich came out in the national press to challenge the military’s policy of discrimination against LGBT service members. A Vietnam veteran and recipient of the Bronze Star and the Purple Heart, Leonard Matlovich did more to open the door to LGBT service than perhaps any other individual.
The famous image of Tech Sergeant Leonard Matlovich in uniform on the cover of the September 8, 1975, issue of Time magazine marked a dramatic shift in the way America saw homosexual people. The face of Leonard Matlovich, an attractive, honored member of the military, shattered the false stereotyped image of gay men as something sinister and totally “other.” Leonard Matlovich was not only “normal,” but a decorated Vietnam veteran who had sacrificed for his country. The common images of gay men so often represented in the media at that time as devious and depraved were broken by this very famous magazine cover, the very first to feature an image of an openly gay individual. Leonard Matlovich’s courage in coming out at a time when it was dangerous to do so created lasting change for LGBT Americans.
Leonard Matlovich did not live to see the change he created. He became one of the many, many victims of the AIDS pandemic which devastated our community in the 1980s. In his last public speech on May 7, 1988, in front of the California State Capitol during the March on Sacramento for Gay and Lesbian Rights he shared the following words:
…And I want you to look at our flag, our rainbow flag, and I want you to look at it with pride in your heart, because we too have a dream. And what is our dream? Ours is more than an American dream. It’s a universal dream. Because in South Africa, we’re black and white, and in Northern Ireland, we’re Protestant and Catholic, and in Israel we’re Jew and Muslim. And our mission is to reach out and teach people to love, and not to hate. And you know the reality of the situation is that before we as an individual meet, the only thing we have in common is our sexuality. And in the AIDS crisis – and I have AIDS – and in the AIDS crisis, if there is any one word that describes our community’s reaction to AIDS, that word is love, love, love.
Matlovich died on June 22, 1988, less than a month before his 45th birthday, and was buried in Washington’s Congressional Cemetery where he rests today. His marker has the following famous inscription:
A Gay Vietnam Veteran. When I was in the military, they gave me a medal for killing two men and a discharge for loving one.
On this 40th anniversary of Matlovich’s heroic act of coming out as a gay member of the military, American Veterans for Equal Rights chose to honor this great leader with a taps and wreath placing ceremony at his gravesite. Members of the Georgia Chapter of AVER were joined by representatives of Military Partners and Families Coalition (MPFC) and others to pay our respect and gratitude for his service to our country and his enduring efforts on behalf of LGBT Americans. We placed the rainbow flag which he mentioned in his final speech across his resting place and sounded taps which echoed across the quiet cemetery.
While we were in Washington DC for the Memorial Day Weekend we participated in official events at Arlington National Cemetery. We carried the rainbow flag in the Parade of Colors of the nation’s Veterans and Military Service Organizations. We have done this for the past three years, and once again we were thanked by individuals including active duty military members for having “our” flag present at this important ceremony. We placed a wreath at the Tomb of the Unknowns along with members of MPFC, including a same-sex couple of Navy officers. We visited the gravesite of Major Alan G. Rogers, an AVER member who became the first widely acknowledged gay casualty of any war in US history when he was killed in Baghdad, Iraq on January 27, 2008. We placed photos of AVER members at the Vietnam, Korean, and World War II memorials, and we played taps at all three sites. Honoring our fallen is one of AVER’s most important missions, and we performed this honor fully with dignity and pride in our nation’s capital on Memorial Day, 2015. It is what we do. Our fallen are not forgotten.
In a few weeks America will take a major step forward in its understanding of equality and freedom when the Supreme Court upholds the 14th Amendment of the United States Constitution and grants marriage equality to same-gender couples nationwide. This historic change would not have been possible without the courage and dedication of Leonard Matlovich. It is a fact of history that one minority group after another has had to prove itself worthy through military service before obtaining equality under the law, and that is true for LGBT Americans as it was for women and racial minorities. US Air Force Tech Sergeant Leonard Matlovich opened the closet door to help bring about this change. Thank you, Airman Matlovich, for your courage and commitment, and your enduring legacy to the freedom of LGBT Americans. Rest in peace, honored warrior.