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He Told
Before "Don't Ask"

He Told
Before "Don't Ask"


Time magazine's infamous "homosexual" finally gets his due -- after making gay rights his life's work.

Raised in a conservative Catholic family during the Eisenhower era, Leonard Matlovich had never even dared to touch a man before he was 30. When the Air Force technical sergeant and decorated war hero learned about gay rights pioneer Frank Kameny, he found his number and called Kameny to speak about his "gay friend" in the armed forces and ask what it would take to successfully challenge the military's antigay policies.

The ideal candidate for the job would have to be squeaky-clean, Kameny told the young man. Not someone in disgrace, but someone respected. Matlovich -- when he got up the nerve to confess that he was the "friend" -- proved to be the perfect choice.

When he outed himself to his military supervisors in March of 1975 he was given a general, or less honorable, discharge. He appealed to the secretary of the Air Force, who upheld the discharge but changed it to an honorable one.

Gay rights became Leonard Matlovich's life work.

"He had the passion of the convert," friend and former roommate Michael Bedwell recalls. Matlovich was convinced Americans' minds could be transformed to accept gay service people; he had made a transformation of his own, from Southern-born racist to military race relations instructor, a position he held in the Air Force. Both his enthusiasm and his masculinity caught the media's attention, inspiring a groundbreaking Time cover in September 1975 (with the memorable cover line "I Am a Homosexual"), an interview with Walter Cronkite, and a TV movie based on his life.

"He had a natural charisma," says Bedwell. "Combined with the medals, the mainstream media totally embraced him."

Bedwell has now honored his friend by commissioning and installing a plaque on their former home at what's often called "the gayest four corners in America:" 18th and Castro streets in San Francisco. The memorial has the full support of the apartment building's elderly straight owner, who spoke about Matlovich at its dedication in November. A ceremony with California assemblyman Mark Leno took place at City Hall, while chants from a Proposition 8 protest could be heard from outside, and Mayor Gavin Newsom declared November 15 Leonard Matlovich Memorial Day.

That same month over 100 retired generals and admirals called for the government to end "don't ask, don't tell," and Barack Obama, who has pledged to repeal the ban on openly gay soldiers, was elected president. Twenty years after his death from AIDS, Matlovich's dream of a fully integrated military is closer than ever to reality.

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