The Servicemembers Legal Defense
Network (SLDN), a pro-gay group against the military's policy barring
gay & lesbian members from serving openly, is honoring the 20th
anniversary of the death of Leonard Matlovich with a pledge to
redouble efforts to overturn “Don't Ask, Don't Tell.”
“In Leonard's memory, and in the
honor of all gay veterans and service members, we must redouble our
efforts to overturn 'Don't Ask, Don't Tell',” said SLDN Executive
Director Aubrey Sarvis.
Matlovich quickly became a symbol in
the fight against a pre-”Don't Ask, Don't Tell” outright ban
against homosexuals serving in the military when he declared “I am
a homosexual” on the cover of Time magazine in 1975.
The only son of a career Air Force
sergeant, Matlovich spent his childhood living on military bases. A
devout patriot, he served three tours of duty in Vietnam and erected
an 18-foot flagpole in his front yard. The Technical Sergeant was
awarded the Purple Heart and the Bronze Star during his distinguished
Air Force career.
In the early 1970's Matlovich started
questioning his sexuality. At the young age of 32 - angered by the
ban - he wrote to Air Force Secretary John McLucas saying that he was
gay. The Air Force quickly responded with a dishonorable discharge.
Matlovich lost a bid to remain in the
Air Force, but in a subsequent civil trial the Air Force was ordered
to reinstate him with back pay. Eventually, after more litigation,
he accepted a financial settlement and an upgrade to honorable
Matlovich became an outspoken gay
rights leader at a time when few dared to speak up. He announced he
had AIDS during an interview with Charlie Gibson on Good Morning
America in 1987 and died of the disease on June 22nd,
1988. He was 44 at the time of his death.
His tombstone in Washington, DC's
Congressional Cemetery reads, “When I was in the military they gave
me a medal for killing two men and a discharge for loving one.”
“Leonard Matlovich's extraordinary
courage in a time when gays and lesbians faced extreme prejudice is
an example for us all. He was a brave pioneer and set off a struggle
that we can finally envision winning. The debt that gay veterans –
and the entire gay community – owe to Sergeant Matlovich cannot be
overstated,” said Sarvis in a press release.
Matlovich's military career and lawsuit
are documented in the Out Ranks exhibit currently on display
at the GLBT Historical Society in San Francisco. Installation of a
memorial plaque on the site of Matlovich's former San Francisco
residence in the Castro neighborhood is planned for later this year.