The headstone belonging to a gay Vietnam veteran still today remains a poignant reminder of the homophobia faced by the LGBTQ+ community on a daily basis.
Leonard Matlovich was 30 years old when he made the decision to come out. Not just to his friends and family, but to the entire world.
A Vietnam War veteran, Leonard had known for a long time that he was gay, but up until 1974 he hadn’t told anyone – instead choosing to follow in his father’s footsteps in the Air Force.
Then he heard a pioneering gay rights activist was looking for a case study to test the military’s ban on gay service members, and the course of history was changed forever.
Responding to Frank Kameny’s advert, Leonard let down his guard and in 1975 became the face of TIME magazine – and of gay rights. Appearing on the cover in the September issue of the magazine, the veteran wore his Air Force uniform alongside the words, ‘I Am a Homosexual’.
Earlier that year, Leonard made the decision to come out to his commanding officer at the Langley Air Force Base in Virginia, handing him a letter. In shock, the officer asked him, ‘what the hell does this mean?’
The veteran responded, ‘It means Brown v. the Board of Education’ – a direct reference to the 1954 landmark Supreme Court case outlawing racial segregation. For Leonard, the military’s ban on gay service members was the equivalent to that.
Leonard Matlovich (1943-88) was a Vietnam War veteran, race relations instructor & highly decorated warrior (Purple Heart & Bronze Star). He outed himself on the front cover of Time Magazine on this day in 1975. He was a critical activist for LGBTQI rights pic.twitter.com/xtGk51AbZv
— Dr Robert Bohan (@RobertBohan) September 7, 2018
When the Air Force gave him a general discharge (lower than an honourable one), Leonard argued he wanted the decision to be reviewed. The Air Force refused, and he was discharged. Simply because of his sexual orientation.
And the rest is history. Leonard went on to become a dedicated advocate for gay rights, and even in his death is a hugely important figure for LGBTQ+ rights.
The veteran died in 1988 at the age of 44, but before he died he designed his now internationally-known headstone to read: ‘When I was in the military they gave me a medal for killing two men and a discharge for loving one’.
Serving as a reminder of the completely unfair and unjustified homophobia the LGBTQ+ community faces on a daily basis, the headstone is now a memorial to all gay veterans.
As per a website dedicated to Leonard Matlovitch’s memory, the veteran didn’t want his name inscribed on the headstone because he wanted it to serve as a memorial to all gay veterans – not just himself.
Made with the same kind of reflective black granite that was used in the construction of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Wall, the headstone is a place where the LGBTQ+ community can remember and honour their own – as Leonard wanted.
In recent years, the place where Leonard is buried – Washington DC’s Congressional Cemetery – is now the chosen graveyard for many other gay people, including gay rights pioneers Randy Wicker, Barbara Gittings, and Kay Lahusen.
— Eric Alper 🎧 (@ThatEricAlper) May 29, 2018
Today, on the International Day Against Homophobia, Biphobia, and Transphobia, Leonard’s message is more important than ever.
Restrictions on service by gay, lesbian, and bisexual personnel only ended in September 2011, and with Trump’s transgender military ban being enforced earlier this year, it’s clear more needs to be done to end this blatant homophobia and transphobia.
If you’ve been affected by any of these issues, and want to speak to someone in confidence contact the LGBT Foundation on 0345 330 3030, 9am until 9pm Monday to Friday, and 10am until 6pm Saturday, Or email [email protected]
If you have a story you want to tell send it to UNILAD via [email protected]
A Broadcast Journalism Masters graduate who went on to achieve an NCTJ level 3 Diploma in Journalism, Lucy has done stints at ITV, BBC Inside Out and Key 103. While working as a journalist for UNILAD, Lucy has reported on breaking news stories while also writing features about mental health, cervical screening awareness, and Little Mix (who she is unapologetically obsessed with).