Gay Military Hero Buried

views updated

Gay Military Hero Buried


By: Ira Schwartz

Date: 1988

Source: AP Worldwide Images

About the Photographer: This picture was taken in the Congressional Cemetery in Washington, D.C. on July 2, 1988, by Ira Schwartz, a staff photographer for the Associated Press.


This photograph shows the burial of Leonard Matlovich (1943–1988), a former Air Force sergeant and Vietnam War veteran. His burial in the Congressional Cemetery in Washington, D.C. was an historic event, being the first burial of an openly homosexual person in an official government/military cemetery. The large print on his tombstone, legible in the photograph, conveys the message: "A GAY VIETNAM VETERAN." The text below, composed by Matlovich himself, reads: "When I was in the military they gave me a medal for killing two men and a discharge for loving one."

Matlovich was born into an Air Force family. From about the age of twelve, he was conscious of homosexual tendencies, but was not sexually active. He enlisted in the Air Force a year after he graduated from high school and volunteered for a tour of duty in Vietnam. While there he won a Bronze Star (1965), Purple Heart (1970), and Air Force Commendation Medal (1974). In later years he described his motivation for Vietnam service as wanting to "kill a Commie for Mommy," but also reflected that "I was so dissatisfied with being gay that in some ways, volunteering for duty in Vietnam was like a death wish or a suicide pact." Upon returning from Vietnam, Matlovich conducted racial sensitivity classes for enlisted personnel. While conducting research for his classes, he visited a gay bar in Pensacola, Florida. There he met another gay man and became sexually active with him. In doing so, he violated U.S. military policy, which then barred homosexual men and women from service.

Matlovich decided that given his distinguished record, he was well-positioned to challenge the military ban on homosexual personnel, so in 1975 he wrote a letter to Air Force Secretary John McLucas declaring that he, Matlovich, was a homosexual and asking for a waiver of the ban on homosexuals in the service. He was recommended by the Air Force's Office of Special Investigations for a general discharge, which is a form of separation from military service reserved for personnel who have established a record of poor conduct.

Matlovich fought the ruling. He became nationally known and appeared on the Sep. 8, 1975 cover of Time with the headline, "I am a homosexual." He was excommunicated by the Mormon Church in November 1975. In 1980, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia ruled that his discharge was illegal and ordered him reinstated with back pay; however, the Air Force persuaded Matlovich to take a $160,000 payment and an honorable discharge in exchange for not taking the case to the Supreme Court, which Matlovich considered would rule against him.

Matlovich publicly announced in 1987 that he had been diagnosed with acquired human immunodeficiency syndrome (AIDS). He died in 1988.



See primary source image.


Matlovich's story illustrates the troubled history of homosexuality and the U.S. military. Homosexuality has been grounds for dishonorable discharge from the U.S. military since Revolutionary times. The reason appears to be a general social abhorrence of homosexuality, rather than any specific set of experiences, which would establish that homosexual personnel are less able or willing to carry out their duties. In the post-World-War-II era, the military has sometimes argued that homosexuals are a higher security risk because they can be blackmailed, but as homosexuality has become socially more acceptable this argument has gradually lost force. Internal studies by the armed forces have not found, moreover, that homosexual personnel are more likely to constitute a security risk than heterosexual personnel. Another argument, still frequently adduced against acceptance of homosexual personnel in the military, is that their presence will diminish unit coherence by disturbing fellow service members.

During his campaign for the Presidency, Bill Clinton promised that if elected, he would change the gay-exclusion policy of the military, and that all Americans regardless of sexual orientation would be welcome to serve. However, once in office he modified this policy under political pressure. The resulting compromise was the policy known as "Don't ask, don't tell." Under the policy, which is U.S. law, a person who reveals that they have had "any bodily contact, actively undertaken or passively permitted, between members of the same sex for the purpose of satisfying sexual desires" may be discharged dishonorably from the U.S. military. On the other hand, military commanders are barred from investigating the sexuality of individual members. Servicemembers will not be asked about their sexuality, and homosexual members may be discharged if they tell about their sexuality. Persons who have "married or attempted to marry a person known to be of the same biological sex" are also deemed unfit for service. As of 2006, the policy remained in effect, although widely criticized both by equal-rights advocates who say that it continues to discriminate against homosexuals and by social and religious conservatives who say that it compromises with a fundamentally pathological or sinful form of behavior that should be strictly barred from the armed forces.


Web sites

U.S. Code. "Policy Concerning Homsexuality in the Armed Forces." 10 U.S.C. Sec. 654. 〈―000-.html〉 (accessed April 4, 2006).

Advocate. Kronenberg, Gail. "Leonard Matlovich September 1975." November 12, 2002. 〈〉 (accessed April 4, 2006).