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Pride Month Memories

Leonard Matlovich: An Inconvenient Hero
By Denny Meyer

Jun 22, 2008
Twenty years ago today, on June 22, 1988, my friend Lenny Matlovich died from AIDS.  Air Force Tech Sgt Leonard Matlovich was a decorated Vietnam war hero, with a Purple Heart and Bronze Star and 12 years of sterling service to his country.  In 1975, he wrote a letter to the Secretary of the Air Force declaring that he was gay.  He was involuntarily discharged, as expected, and he sued for reinstatement.  After several long years he won his case; and he received a cash settlement to part ways with the Air Force.

I first met Lenny at a Pridefest in the Summer of 1979.  He was already famous and he'd come to San Francisco where he was welcomed by the gay community with open arms.  Lenny was also a most curious hero for gay folks.  Although there are a million living gay veterans who had served from World War II onward; for most gay people, a "gay man in uniform" was some sort of incongruous fantasy in those days.  Yet, there he was, an openly out war hero, a tall handsome sergeant through and through, conservative, slightly unfashionable, and a Republican from the vast hetero heartland.  For gay folks, at that time, he exemplified the amazing thought that one could truly be anything one wanted to be.

At the Castro Street fair on a balmy summer day, I saw his booth emblazoned with a hand-lettered sign saying "Leonard Matlovich For Supervisor."  My heart skipped a beat in awe that he might really be there in person; he was already nationally famous.  I went up to him and told him that he's my hero.  In characteristic humility, he asked, "Why?"  "Because I served in silence," I told him.  And then that tall handsome sergeant bent down and kissed me.  I didn't wash my lips for weeks!

In those days, the gods of gay liberation walked the Earth like ordinary mortals.  One could stand on the street corner chatting with them for hours, Matlovich, Milk, and many others, invite them over for drinks, and hang out with them when they weren't off on the front lines of the revolution leading marches and giving speeches.  And so, we became friends.  Lenny had lots of friends, of course; at least 410 of them, anyway.  That's how many people voted for him, alas (according to the account in Conduct Unbecoming by Randy Shilts).  Some called him a carpetbagger; others said he was terribly naive.  In fact, he was simply a very down-to-earth folksy ordinary guy who just wasn't part of the big bad world of politics.

Leonard Matlovich was hardly the first gay American hero, but he was the first to get major mainstream media attention and bring gay issues to the front pages of newspapers, Time Magazine, and even to network TV evening news.  Before Leonard, homosexuality as a topic was taboo and totally unfit to print in the papers and even to mention on TV.  Lenny could not be ignored because he did not fit the standard false stereotype of an outrageous effeminate; quite the contrary, he was a warrior, a Vietnam war hero.

For the United States Air Force, the Pentagon, and our American government, he was a most inconvenient hero.  The military was well aware that we were serving, but just as today, they wished it wasn't talked or told about.  Well before America's entry into World War II, our armed forces began developing psychological evaluations to weed out queer recruits.  A major secret study in the late 1950s determined that homosexuals in our armed forces did not pose a security risk.  We've been on their minds all along.  Lenny let the cat out of the bag, and there was no way they could ever stuff the truth back into silence.

I've lost a lot of friends to AIDS since Lenny died during Pride Month back in '88.  Some one hundred, gone, I lost count long ago in a sea of tears.  The love of my life, lost in what seems like a lifetime ago, also during Pride Month.  So many, in my mind echoing long ago laughter and life; workers, teachers, heroes of Gay Games; a lover, a son, a friend, a stranger, a soldier, and somebody's brother; all gone, now so many names read one after another in monotone memorials.  And yet for each, someone remembers forever; every Pride Month, every day, every year.  

Leonard Matlovich wasn't trying to be a hero.  He was just a real ordinary guy who served his country to the best of his ability and had the courage to speak up honestly about who he was.  His gravestone in the Congressional Cemetery in Washington DC reads: A Gay Vietnam Veteran; They gave me a medal for killing two men, and a discharge for loving one.  He's someone well worth remembering.

  2008  Gay Military Signal