In 1963 a young man by the name of Leonard Matlovich entered the United States Air Force enlisted ranks. He had grown up in a family with a career Air Force Sergeant father. Leonard Matlovich would volunteer to serve three tours in Vietnam. During his service he received multiple awards including a Bronze Star, an Air Force Meritorious Service Medal, and a Purple Heart. He eventually served as a Race Relations Counselor under a new Civil Rights Program for supporting African Americans in the armed forces. He was commended for his work, and he was promoted to instruct other Race Relations Counselors (Bateman).
It was during his time stationed on the east coast that he began to frequent LGBTQ establishments. During this time he met other LGBTQ service members of the armed forces. These positive relationships coupled with his training in civil rights issues led him to believe he had a responsibility towards changing the military views on homosexuals (Kottoor). In 1974 he read an article in the Air Force Times that led him to a historical match up with Frank Kameny and ACLU attorney, David Addlestone.
Kameny and Addlestone were looking for an esteemed gay servicemember to challenge the Armed Forces stance on denying LGBTQ service members the right to serve openly. At that time, LGBTQ community members who were caught or accused could recant the incident, or present mitigating factors. This would enable them to continue serving in the military (Bateman). Leonard Matlovich became a symbol for the LGBTQ civil rights movement in 1975. This culminated through various national news sources to a historic front page of the September 8 issue of Time magazine “I Am a Homosexual” (“Gays”).
In March 1975, after months of preparation, Leonard Matlovich hand delivered a letter to his commanding officer declaring three points. First, that he is a homosexual. Second, that he intended to continue his service in the Air Force. Finally, that he would be serving openly. His officer asked him what this meant. Matlovich said “It means Brown v Board of Education” (Bedwell, “Remembering”). The commanding officer offered to throw away the letter if Matlovich would continue serving discretely. Matlovich refused, and the U.S. Air Force began discharge procedures (Bateman). The National attention on TSgt. Matlovich, and the issue of the LGBTQ community serving openly in the U.S. Military began over Memorial Day weekend in 1975.
TSgt. Matlovich gave an interview about his goals to the New York Times on Memorial Day. Starting with an article, by Oelsner, Matlovich was thrown into the media limelight. He would become the most recognizable spokesperson for the civil rights movement of the LGBTQ community in 1975. Oelsner commented that this was just the beginning for Matlovich (Oelsner). CBS Evening News picked up the story as a result of the national buzz created by the Oelsner article. CBS reporters flew out to Virginia, and went to the Air Force base to conduct an interview with Matlovich. His story was introduced to American television viewers from CBS broadcasting studios by news icon Walter Cronkite. Matlovich summed up his reasoning for coming out to the military by saying, “It just tears me apart on the inside. My conscience just wouldn’t let me do it anymore. I had to come forward and say: No more, America!” (Cronkite).
In the summer of 1975 Matlovich would speak out for the LGBTQ community on numerous occasions, and through various interviews. His primary focus was to gain support for servicemembers to serve openly in the armed forces. However, he became a figurehead for the LGBTQ community’s fight for civil rights as a whole (Kottoor). Matlovich would be quoted saying many times,“I’m intensely proud to be gay and you should be, too. Unless we state our case, we’ll continue to be robbed of our role models, our heritage, our history, and our future” (Bedwell, “TSgt”).
Finally, he achieved what no other open homosexual had achieved before. He was granted the front page of TIME magazine. This national media source had given Matlovich an opportunity, and a platform to promote his fight for the liberties of the American LGBTQ community. In particular, he represented the LGBTQ service members of the armed forces (Bateman). On September 8, 1975 the front cover of TIME magazine had the following: a picture of TSgt. Matlovich dressed in his uniform with a large quote in bold print “I Am a Homosexual” (“Gays”). The importance of this moment in LGBTQ history is best said by a gay man, “I remember where I was when President Kennedy was shot, and I remember where I was when I first saw that cover” (Bedwell, “Remembering”).
Leonard Matlovich became a historic symbol for LGBTQ Pride. He served as an icon in the fight for the LGBTQ community’s civil rights. This happened as a result of Matlovich putting himself on the front line in the fight for LGBTQ civil rights in 1975. His willingness to accept himself and others, to be a source of national attention, and his declaration of a part of his truth influences many others to this day. His success was a direct result of a national media, sources and individuals, that was willing to recognize and champion the liberties of the LGBTQ community in 1975.
Bateman, Geoffrey W. “Matlovich, Leonard P., Jr.” GLBTQ: An Encyclopedia of Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, Transgender, and Queer Culture. 2004. 1130 West Adams, Chicago, Illinois, 60607. Web. April 26, 2013.
Bedwell, Michael. “Remembering Matlovich: “I Am a Homosexual”.” OUTSERVE Magazine. Outserve-SLDN, 12 November 2012. Web. 23 April 2013. http://outservemag.com/2012/11/remembering-matlovich-i-am-a-homosexual
— “TSgt. Leonard Matlovich USAF.” Leonard Matlovich. LeonardMatlovich.com___to inform & inspire, 2009. Web. 15 April 2013. http://www.leonardmatlovich.com
Cronkite, Walter. Gay Pioneer Leonard Matlovich First TV Interview. CBS Evening News. 26 May 1975. YouTube. YouTube 2009. Web. 23 April 2013. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kUIt_ZUfkqE
“Gays on the March.” Time (September 8, 1975): 32-43. Web. 26 April 2013.
Kottoor, Naveena. “The gay airmen who took on the US military.” BBC News Magazine. BBC World Service, 24 March 2013. Web. 12 April 2013. http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/magazine-21896925
Oelsner, Leslie. The New York Times, 25 May 1975. Web. 13 April 2013.
Alex is a student in the Creative Writing (Fiction) program at Southern New Hampshire University. She is a regular contributor on Wattpad as Apogee711, and her own personal blog The Autumn Writings of Apogee711 at http://apogee711.blogspot.com/