Hero of the Month: Leonard Matlovich

Posted on 08 Jan 2011 at 4:14pm

Bigotry is often accomodated as a civil rights cause advances. Redundant parallel institutions like civil unions emerge and misguided policies like DADT are enacted. Sometimes the accomodations are temporary measures that can incubate further change. Sometimes they wind up perpetuating the status quo. Half-measures like these are taken because people are slow or unable to come to grips with the simple truth that equality means equality for everyone.

DADT, instituted in 1993, will go down as an accomodation that did little or nothing to advance the cause of equality. Prior to DADT, gays were formally banned from serving in the U.S. military regardless of whether they were open or closeted. DADT may have been intended to end witch hunts, provided that LGB soldiers remained closeted. But the military failed to hold up its end of the bargain, and DADT looks like a feeble attempt by a beleagured Clinton administration to save face, not a potentially useful half-measure to further civil rights.

Leonard Matlovich, the first person to challenge the ban on LGBs serving in the military, had the foresight to reject a DADT-type compromise eighteen years prior to the enactment of DADT. Matlovich was an Air Force technical sergeant who had been the recipient of a purple heart and a bronze star and taught classes on race relations. In 1973, he got in touch with gay activist Frank Kameny, who was looking for a soldier with an exemplary record to help bring a test case against the ban. Matlovich agreed to be that soldier, and in March, 1975, he came out to his commanding officer in a letter. He was promptly discharged.

Matlovich fought the discharge. In the process, he was offered an accomodation that would have allowed him to remain in the Air Force provided that he promise never to practice homosexuality again. In effect, he could remain in the service if agreed to live a lie.

Matlovich rejected the lie and became a national LGBT rights activist instead. He helped combat and the Briggs initiative in California and Anita Bryant’s attempt to overturn an anti-discrimination clause in Miami. In his day, Matlovich was as well-known as Harvey Milk, if not more so, and appeared on the cover of Time magazine. He later campaigned for adequate HIV and AIDS education and treatment, and was arrested at a protest at the White House. He himself died of complications from HIV / AIDS in 1987.

Matlovich possessed a foresight and clarity of purpose that served him and the movement well, as he demonstrated in this interview broadcast on Good Morning America in 1987. The famous inscription he created for his gravestone eloquently expresses the injustice of the military ban:

When I was in the military, they gave me a medal for killing two men and a discharge for loving one.

People are often slow to recognize injustice. Some always refuse to see it, while others need time and half-measures. It has taken a long time for the country to allow open service — much too long for Matlovich, unfortunately. But by sharing his clarity of vision, he helped bring it about.




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