Saturday, September 17, 2011

The honor of Leonard Matlovich

Leonard Matlovich's tombstone in Congressional Cemetery.

Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell is on track to end its 18-year run Tuesday --- despite last ditch efforts by a couple of Republican congressmen to derail it. I’m sure there will be a few celebrations, but most likely --- in the military at least --- just business as usual.

Best-estimate calculations place the number of gay and lesbian troops discharged under DADT since 1993 at around 14,000; Between the end of World War II and 1993, when the gay ban was more stringent, perhaps 100,000.

No one has a count on how many gay troops have died in service to their country, since in order to lay down a queer life it has been necessary to dodge the bullet of bias first and that required silence.

Best guesses place the number of LGBT troops in the military now at somewhere near 65,000 --- but no one really knows.


The Associated Press on Friday moved an exclusive, reporting that 89-year-old Melvin Dwork finally has received an honorable discharge from the U.S. Navy --- 68 years after he was jack-booted out in the midst of World War II as an “undesirable” because he was gay.

The former corpsman now will be eligible for benefits previously denied, including medical care and, should he choose, a military burial.

Dwork, who went on to build a career as a successful interior designer in New York and still works, had spent decades struggling to remove that “undesirable” blot from his record.

The decision to amend his discharge was made by the Board of Corrections of Naval Records, which noted Dwork’s “exemplary period of active duty” and the fact the military’s current policies are “a radical departure” from those in effect during World War II.

Dwork discovered, when the Navy finally released his records last year, that he had been betrayed to authorities as gay by his then boyfriend.


But I’ve been thinking more about Leonard Matlovich, on whose shoulders the repeal of DADT and the formal end to bias in the military was built. He was the first, and perhaps the bravest of all, to stand up and challenge. A hero, if you will, in this day and age when we use that term carelessly.

Look at the tombstone in Washington’s Congressional Cemetery that he ordered for himself before dying of complications from AIDS during 1988. His name is not on it, instead the line, “a gay Vietnam veteran.” He intended the stone as a memorial to all gay veterans.

His chosen epitaph: “When I was in the military, they gave me a medal for killing two men and a discharge for loving one.”

Matlovich was born during 1944 in Savannah, Georgia, a military brat --- son of a career Air Force non-commissioned officer. He grew up as self-described “flag-waving patriot” but also absorbed the racist attitudes then prevailing in the South and elsewhere, something he very much regretted.

Not long after he enlisted himself in the Air Force, the war in Vietnam escalated and he volunteered for duty there, serving three tours and advancing to the rank of technical sergeant.

He earned a Bronze Star Medal for valor and, after accidentally triggering a land mine in a heavily mined field near Da Nang that he had volunteered to clear, a Purple Heart.

In part because of regrets involving his own early racist attitudes, Matlovich later volunteered to teach Air Force race relations classes, instituted after several racist incidents in the military during the late 1960s and early 1970s. He was so effective an instructor that the Air Force sent him around the country to coach others.

In 1973, Matlovich first became aware of the emerging gay rights movement and in 1975, volunteered to put his career on the line in order to create a test case challenging the military gay ban. That challenge drew intense and widespread coverage in the media and his photo appeared on the front cover of the Sept. 8, 1975, edition of Time magazine, a major turning point for the gay rights movement both in the military and out.

Matlovich eventually received an honorable discharge during October of 1975 after his base commander recommended an upgrade from the less-than-honorable “general” discharge a military panel had recommended.

He sued for reinstatement, and eventually was successful during 1980 in large part because the Air Force at that time had an “exception” clause, later removed, that allowed gays to serve under extraordinary circumstances. He accepted, instead, a financial settlement --- roughly $160,000 --- offered by the military.

Matlovich devoted the rest of his life to advocacy involving gay rights issues, shifting the emphasis to HIV/AIDS after his own diagnosis during 1986. He died on June 22, 1988, just before his 45th birthday and was buried, with military honors, in Congressional Cemetery.

It’s been 33 years since that death and many brave men and women, gay, straight and otherwise, have finally brought this battle to a just conclusion. But it all rests on the honor of Leonard Matlovich.

1 comment:

MIchaelBedwell@LeonardMatlovich.coom said...

Thank you for your moving remembrance of my late friend, Leonard. If your readers would like to learn more about him, including vintage videos of his story, some of his speeches and interviews, they can go to

"Maybe not in my lifetime, but we will win in the end." - Leonard Matlovich, 1975.