The first to volunteer to fight the military's ban on gays, a universal soldier in the fight against AIDS and for full LGBT equality, a loving son, brother, uncle, friend, and inspiration for untold numbers of lives lived out and proud. Upon his discharge in 1975 he said:
"Maybe not in my lifetime, but we are going
to win in the end."
Correction to the video biography below.
Leonard received an Honorable not Dishonorable Discharge.
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"He was the Charles Lindbergh of the Gay Movement." - Author & civil rights activist Malcolm Boyd
"The American Revolution continued in the fight of Sergeant Leonard Matlovich." - Rear Admiral Jamie Barnett (Ret)
"When Leonard Matlovich was on a magazine cover as a war hero, challenging the policy in the military, it began a national discussion
on gay rights." - Unfriendly Fire author Nathaniel Frank
"He had the knack for taking your heart and making it catch for a moment. He seemed to make people want to be braver than perhaps they were." - Neely Tucker, The
"He will never receive the Presidential Medal of Freedom although he
has earned it. If I were in charge of these things, I'd give it to him." - Aubrey Sarvis, Executive Director, SLDN, The Huffington Post "The epitaph he chose is still as fresh as today's headlines: When I was in the military they gave me a medal for killing two men and a discharge for loving one." - The Associated Press
Leonard's internationally known gravestone in Historic Congressional Cemetery in Washington DC. See Story of His Stone page.
How Leonard Made History
IN 1975, Tech. Sgt. Leonard Matlovich, United States Air Force, with the guidance of Gay Movement Pioneer Frank Kameny, became the first to bring the government's decades of discrimination against gays and lesbians to national consciousness when he volunteered to tell his superiors that he was gay in order to create a test case. From the front page of The New York Times to the cover of Time magazine, from every major network news program, talk show, and podiums everywhere, he exposed the military's naked bigotry. For despite his 12 years of exemplary service, despite his extraordinary performance ratings, despite the admiration and affection of over a thousand of his Race Relations Class students,
despite his Bronze Star, his Purple Heart, and his shrapnel wounds,the Air Force demanded his discharge simply because he was gay. He fought them in court for years, securing a ruling that the Air Force had failed to justify their discrimination. NBC dramatized his challenge in the first made-for-TV movie about a living gay person, and his example inspired many others to join the fight against Pentagon prejudice and countless people to come out. Wherever he went, he told audiences: "I'm intensely proud to be gay and you should be, too. Unless we state our case, we'll continue to be robbed of our role models, our heritage, our history, and our future."
AFTER BEING ONE of the leaders in Miami's anti-Anita Bryant campaign, he moved to San Francisco where, from his apartment overlooking 18th & Castro, he repeatedly answered the community's call to help fight for LGBT rights once again. He crisscrossed America raising money to defeat Proposition 6, the Briggs Initiative, which would have banned gay teachers in California schools, and Proposition 64 that threatened to quarantine people with AIDS.
HE WAS ONE of the leaders of the protests during homophobic Pope John Paul's San Francisco visit, declaring:
"The Pope is wrong. I am not 'intrinsically evil'. We are a moral people! We will do everything we can to make this world a better place. We are letting our love and voices be heard."
He helped force Northwest Airlines to end their refusal to fly people such as himself with AIDS, and tried to establish a permanent memorial to Harvey Milk in Washington DC. He was arrested at San Francisco's Federal Building and in front of the White House itself denouncing the
Reagan Administration's passive genocide by AIDS, and was still speaking out for equality in the rain falling on a Sacramento gay rights demonstration just six weeks before he died on June 22nd, 1988.
REMARKABLY, A GROWING NUMBER of other out gays, particularly veterans, have since chosen to be buried near him in Congressional Cemetery, while others have been married there. His name and example were echoed again and again in the struggle to overturn Don't Ask, Don't Tell which was essentially nothing but "old wine in new bottles." Both The Advocate and Philadelphia's Equality Forum have honored him as one of the Movement's great heroes. On the 20th anniversary of his death then-San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom declared it Leonard Matlovich Day in San Francisco, and a bronze plaque marking where he once lived in the Castro was dedicated. In 2009, four generations of gay rights activists honoredhim in Washington DC, and he is memorialized in Chicago's "outdoor museum" of LGBT history, the Legacy Walk.
Photo by Leonard's close friend, Brandon Wolf.
Remarks About Leonard by Rear Adm. Jamie Barnett, USNR [Ret] at the 2009 SLDN Dinner
“I WOULD LIKE TO START WITH A STORY, a piece of history. The story starts with a young Catholic man who loved his country so passionately that he enlisted in the Air Force during the Vietnam War, served 3 tours in Vietnam, won a Bronze Star and was awarded the Purple Heart for wounds he received in Da Nang. If you walk through the Congressional Cemetery in D.C. you will find the end of this story. Or is it the end? The tombstone reads: 'WHEN I WAS IN THE MILITARY THEY GAVE ME A MEDAL FOR KILLING TWO MEN AND A DISCHARGE FOR LOVING ONE'.”
Technical Sergeant Leonard Matlovich was probably the most famous gay man in the country in the 1970s. His face was on the cover of Time magazine, and NBC made a movie of his story. He declared his orientation in 1975, long before “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” and despite his exemplary service, combat tours, and medals, he was discharged six months later with a general discharge. But the bravery which had served him so well in Vietnam served him in a fight with the Air Force for his civil rights, a fight which resulted in dignity, an honorable discharge and a ray of hope for gay service members. So the tombstone was not the end of the story. Sergeant Matlovich’s fight still continues.
So with that story from history, let me ask you a historical question: when did the American Revolution end? It hasn't ended. It is still going on. The American Revolution continued with the Emancipation Proclamation and with the 13th Amendment ending slavery. It continued with Susan B. Anthony and the fight for the right for women to vote. The American Revolution continued with Rosa Parks, Thurgood Marshall and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. . . . And the American Revolution continued in the fight of Sergeant Leonard Matlovich. And it continued in the fight of Sergeant Darren Manzella, and CDR Zoe Dunning, and in the fight of so many of you here, including the fight of Major Margaret Witt.
And that is why I am so pleased to give this keynote address. I want to serve my country in this continuing American Revolution. I am proud to stand before you because I am proud to stand with you, the new patriots of the American Revolution, a revolution that exists wherever freedom and dignity are expanded with equanimity and justice. . . .”
REAR ADMIRAL JAMIE BARNETT, USNR (Retired)
After visiting Leonard's grave in November 2010, 13 LGBT activists and veterans were arrested after handcuffing themselves to the White House fence to protest Don't Ask, Don't Tell, the 1993 federal law banning lesbians, gay men, and bisexuals from serving in the United States military; a codification of the policy ban that dated to World War II which Leonard purposely outed himself in 1975 to challenge. See Ban Protests Videos page.