Soon after moving to Capitol Hill, I visited Congressional Cemetery. It was quite run down back then. And I came across this gravestone. It reads, “When I was in the military, they gave me a medal for killing two men and a discharge for loving one.”
It’s the grave of Leonard Matlovich. Matlovich was born on an Air Force base and was the son of an Air Force sergeant. When he was 19, he joined the Air Force. He volunteered to go Vietnam where he served three tours of duty. While there he was seriously wounded when stepping on a land mind. His decorations included the Bronze Star, Purple Heart, and the Air Force Commendation Medal.
Matlovich was gay. He could have returned home continued his successful Air Force career in a closeted manner. But he saw the injustice of that. Instead, he wanted to be a test case for what the military would do to a member with an exemplary record who told his superior that he was gay.
Matlovich surely know what would happen next. He was discharged, albeit honorably. Matlovich sued for reinstatement and ultimately won. But believing the Air Force would find some way to harass him, he settled for a cash settlement.
After his discharge Matlovich traveled, opened a restaurant, sold cars, but came back to being an advocate for gay rights and HIV/AIDS education.
He died at age 44. He didn’t live to see LGB people serve openly in the military, gay marriage legalization, or the military lift the transgender ban. But he helped all that happen.
Interestingly, he’s buried close to J Edgar Hoover and Clyde Tolson. Hoover was director of the FBI for 48 years. He was obsessed with all things gay. Tolson was Hoover’s longtime colleague, friend, heir and, according to many, romantic partner. I’m sure Matlovich enjoyed the irony of being buried so close to Hoover and his special friend.
Matlovich carefully designed his marker. It’s made from stone like that of the Vietnam Veterans’ Memorial. And it doesn’t include his name. Rather, he wanted it to be a memorial for all gay service members. Today, the US military is stronger because of Matlovich and all those this marker remembers.