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
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
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.