Tech. Sgt. Leonard Matlovich was reading Air Force Times when he came across an article about gay people serving in the military.
It was March 1974, and Matlovich was serving as a race relations official helping to run sensitivity and integration training for the armed forces.
Reading the article, though, he started wondering why those lessons on race he was teaching other airmen weren’t being applied to gays as well. He was instructing that people of all colors could serve together in the military, so why couldn’t gays and straights serve together too?
Matlovich decided to come out.
He was under no disillusion about what that meant. Matlovich had served three volunteer combat tours in Vietnam. He had been awarded the Bronze Star and the Purple Heart. But announcing he was gay would likely mean a dishonorable discharge.
So Matlovich called up Frank Kameny, a World War II veteran who was a tireless advocate for gay rights and had been interviewed in the article. After leaving active duty, Kameny – an astronomer – had served in a civilian job with the Army Map Service. But he was fired when his bosses discovered he was gay.
Now Kameny was looking for a test case – a highly decorated service member who would be willing to publicly out himself and legally challenge the military’s ban on gay troops.
After an introductory conversation between the two men, Matlovich called back a few days later.
“He said ‘Well, maybe I’m the person you’re looking for,’” said Michael Bedwell, a gay rights advocate and long-time friend of both men. “He began driving to Washington to meet with Frank. From roughly June of 1974 they began planning over the months. The final decision was he would out himself in a letter addressed to the Secretary of the Air Force, but delivered to his commanding officers so it could go up the chain the right way.”
As expected Matlovich was bounced out of the armed forces – but he was given an honorable discharge.
In September 1975, he appeared on the cover of TIME Magazine – in uniform – with the headline “I am a homosexual.” Bedwell said it changed the conversation on gay people serving in the military, and would help lead to a 1981 Defense Department directive that said gay troops couldn’t be dishonorably discharged simply for being gay.
“The ironic thing is, the week [the 1974 Air Force Times issue] came out, Frank was in Indiana speaking at a conference that year that I was organizing,” Bedwell said. “I picked him up at the airport in Indianapolis and at that moment he did not know, and I did not know, that less than two weeks later, Technical Sergeant Leonard Matlovich would call him and they’d change history together.”
Matlovich died in June 1988. Buried at the Congressional Cemetery on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C., his gravestone bears the now-famous inscription “When I was in the military, they gave me a medal for killing two men - and a discharge for loving one.”
A memorial marker for Kameny is next to him. Bedwell said Kameny got his last wish – seeing the decision to allow gays to serve openly in the military. He died in 2011, just a few weeks after the repeal of "Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell."
On Veterans Day Wednesday, crowds gathered to honor both men, laying wreaths and unveiling a Veterans Affairs Department marker honoring Kameny.
Bedwell said he wants people to remember how both men changed history – how Matlovich fought and won a series of lawsuits with the Pentagon over his discharge, back pay and pension; how Kameny led the charge to get the American Psychiatric Association to stop classifying being gay as a mental disorder.
“I believe it is important for everybody to know on whose shoulders we stand,” Bedwell said. “In public schools we learn about George Washington, Abraham Lincoln and Betsy Ross, but virtually no schools are teaching Americans, whatever their orientation, about the contributions of LGBT people.”
For some, the chance to stand at the graves of two gay veterans is a personal reminder about service.
Prejudice against gays in the military was what caused Tony Smith to decide to leave the Air Force.
“The challenge was always living a lie, because you always had to live a lie and to be someone you’re not. That was in direct contrast with the ethics that the military taught you,” Smith said.
Smith served from 1990 to 1995 – including during the implementation of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell – before separating as a senior airman.
“It was very difficult for me and I left a career that I would have loved to have stayed in until retirement, for 20 years, but I left because the policy was just too much to deal with,” he said. “So I dedicated myself to ensuring that those that come after me didn’t have to leave a career they love and have to step away from the military. They could serve honorably and openly.”
Smith ended up meeting Kameny and working with him on many issues pertaining to gay rights and gays in the military. But he still laments having to leave the armed forces.
“If I hadn’t left because of the policy I would have stayed there and I’d still be in,” he said.
But where Smith had to become an advocate from the outside of the military, the repeal of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell and wider acceptance of gays serving in the armed forces means being lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender is no longer the automatic discharge it once was.
It’s why Trish Rose is not only a gay person serving in the Air Force – but a two-star general.
“We have to remember, we have to be visible, we have to have a voice,” said Rose, a member of the Air Force Reserve in charge of mobility and logistics at the Pentagon.
Rose said she wanted to attend the ceremony on Veterans Day to “honor those folks who helped me stand in uniform and say I’m gay.”
“Any leader has to be authentic, if you’re going to lead troops,” she said. “They have to test you, they have to know you. You need to be an authentic person to them, and so to be able to be openly gay to acknowledge who I am, to let them know who my family is, my spouse, makes a difference in a leadership role. People know you and trust you. Because then they’ll follow you.”
Speaking at the ceremony, Gordon Tanner, Air Force general counsel and chief legal officer, said the gay rights movement needs to remember how far it’s come, and how far it still has to go.
“It’s wonderful to be here to remember, to reflect on history, to think about where we’ve come. But that’s not enough. That is simply not enough. That was not enough for these two leaders, it’s not enough for us today,” he said.
Tanner pointed to the recent vote in Houston that repealed an anti-discrimination law designed to prevent bias against LGBT people in housing and government jobs.
“We have to be visible,” he told the crowd. “We cannot pretend that we have already gotten where we need to be, that we have every right, every benefit, every recognition we deserve. Folks, that is simply untrue. You can be visible in your own way. Each person has their own path, but you must be visible.”
Echoing Martin Luther King Jr., Tanner said, “We must never fail to lead our brothers and sisters in that arc of moral justice.”
“My husband and I never dreamed that we would be married at the National Cathedral. We never dreamed that our marriage would be legally recognized in America,” he said. “These things we take for granted now, we should not. We have to be vigilant, we have to be strong, we have to be alert, and we have to be out there leading the way to ensure that these rights are not only protected but are enhanced.”
Looking at the graves of the two men, Smith said he hopes current service members are inspired by people like Kameny and Matlovich.
“It’s seeing the history honored and the younger generation learning their history, learning where they’ve come from, where the movement has come from and where it needs to go,” Smith said. “The contributions and sacrifices they’re making today by living out and open in the military and serving honorably in any branch of service, they’re contributing to that legacy of history and they’re contributing to a greater nation and their sacrifice and their service will be honored.”