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First domino to fall

By A1C Robert Repetti | Joint Base Charleston Multi Cultural Committee | June 27, 2016

JOINT BASE CHARLESTON, S.C. — "When I was in the military, they gave me a medal for killing two men and a discharge for loving one."

Those words are the only inscription on a headstone located in a corner of the Congressional Cemetery in the nation's capital where a small collection of graves remain as monuments to the lives and accomplishments of a few brave men. These men fought, bled and died for us. They were needed and answered our nation's call, only to be discharged due to their sexuality. In today's Air Force, it's hard to imagine only a few years ago it was common place to be celebrated as a hero one moment and investigated for being gay the next. That leads me to the life story of Technical Sergeant Leonard Matlovich, of the United States Air Force.

TSgt. Leonard Matlovich served from 1963 to 1975.  During his tenure, he volunteered for multiple tours to Vietnam, each time endangering his life to clear landmines in Da Nang.  By the time he had completed his service in Vietnam, he had earned a Purple Heart, a Bronze Star and the Air Force Commendation Medal. He continued to serve after his tours and was eventually stationed in Pensacola, Florida.  He decided to take courses in race relations to better understand his own biases and misgivings.  Matlovich had come to acknowledge he had racist beliefs and attitudes early in his military career. However, after serving with many accomplished African Americans and witnessing substantial racism during the '60s and '70s, he sought to make a change. His education was life-altering and inspired him to become a passionate civil rights advocate and educator on race relations. His expertise in the subject become so advanced the Air Force sent him on a nationwide tour to host lectures and classes.

It was during this time Matlovich also began addressing issues within himself. Growing up in a conservative family, he had long repressed his sexuality, even engaging in homophobic taunts and harassment to mask his insecurities. Through unraveling his own misgivings about race, he began questioning his attitudes about himself and his sexuality.  He started visiting local gay establishments in Pensacola and discovered positive role models such as a successful lesbian bank executive and a gay service attendant, both of whom demonstrated anyone could be gay and still live normal lives. These individuals introduced him to many new and accepting friends and colleagues.  Through these experiences, Matlovich came to accept himself and his sexuality. He also realized, much like the discrimination faced by African Americans, the persecution plaguing the gay community was a civil rights issue.

With the help of David Addlestone, a lawyer from the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and gay rights advocate, Matlovich decided it was time to bring a test case against the military's ban on gays.  In 1975, he handed a letter to his commanding officer in which he acknowledged his sexuality, but it failed to become a letter of resignation.  The officer asked what it meant, to which the sergeant responded, "Brown v. Board of Education," referring to the Supreme Court ruling ending segregation in public schools. Shortly after, he and Addlestone went public with their challenge. Their announcement made them famous in newspapers and magazines across the country, to include Time magazine and the New York Times newspaper.  Matlovich became the second most well-known gay man after Harvey Milk, the first publicly gay man to be elected to office.

Matlovich argued that his sexuality did not hinder his ability to serve or lead in a professional capacity.  The American Psychiatric association had removed homosexuality from their list of mental illnesses in 1971 and the American Psychology Association came to the same conclusion in 1975.  Six years earlier, the Stonewall riots brought the Gay Rights Movement to the mainstream, highlighting the discrimination and hostility many had suffered up to that point.  Matlovich argued the ban was no longer substantiated and was a hindrance to the armed services at large.  Unfortunately, the leadership at the time was not swayed and he received a general discharge, stripping him of his honors and pension.  He managed to get reinstated five years later under a court order but it was far short of the Supreme Court ruling he and Addlestone had hoped to receive.  Rather than risk his superiors finding other reasons to discharge him, he settled out of court and received an honorable discharge.

By this time, Matlovich was heavily involved with the rest of the Gay Rights Movement.  He took on attempts at overturning county and city ordinances offering some protections for gays and lesbians in Florida and halted bans on gay teachers in California.  By the 1980s, however, all such efforts were eclipsed by an epidemic erupting in the gay community. Previously healthy young men were falling gravely ill. Initially dubbed GRID, or Gay-Related Immune Deficiency, this affliction claimed hundreds and eventually thousands of lives.  Government agencies and elected officials were slow to act. Reluctant, I believe, to take on a disease that seemed to only be killing gay and bisexual men.  By the time the disease had been renamed HIV/AIDS, it had penetrated the rest of the American populous.  In 1985, Matlovich found himself fatigued with a persistent chest cold which he soon learned to be HIV/AIDS.  He spent the final three years of his life fighting for funding and research to combat the epidemic. In June 1988, Matlovich succumbed to his illness like so many leaders of the early gay right movement. He is buried in the nation's capital, his tombstone designed as a memorial to other fallen gay and lesbian service members.

Leonard Matlovich left a legacy. He was the first man to challenge the ban on gays in the military. He strove to help make this nation a more perfect union and, in many ways, he succeeded. His challenge to the status quo created a domino effect, forcing much of the country to grapple with their biases and misgivings. Had Matlovich never tried, such changes may have never come. While he was not able to live to see it, I can only imagine the pride he would have in our military today, to see wrongs made right and numerous attempts to recognize the lives and accomplishments of all those who served. This Airman, in particular, is grateful for what Matlovich achieved. During the month of June, we honor our gay and lesbian service members, past and present, by recalling their struggles, honoring their achievements and striving to further improve the most powerful nation in the world.

Gay America by Linas Alsenas