Leonard Matlovich – Remembering a War Hero and Gay Rights Activist

  • Published
  • By Tech. Sgt. Robert Cyr
  • 104th Fighter Wing Equal Opportunity Office

June is Pride month, a time to commemorate the struggles and achievements of the LGBTQ+ community.

These celebrations are two fold - both marking those obstacles that have been overcome in the past, as well as providing a symbol of hope for those who are still currently facing oppression and discrimination today. 

Our military history contains multiple examples of LGBTQ+ individuals who have furthered the cause of our common defense – often while having to hide that part of who they were.

One such individual was Tech. Sgt. Leonard Matlovich, a Purple Heart and Bronze Star recipient and champion for gay rights in the military.

Matlovich was born into a military family and spent his childhood among multiple bases. His sense of patriotism inspired him to enlist in the U.S. Air Force at the age of 19 where he volunteered to serve in the Vietnam conflict. He would ultimately serve three tours of duty until, in Da Nang, he was seriously injured by an enemy landmine.

After returning home, he went on to become one of the first race relations instructors in the Department of Defense. He was such an esteemed teacher, that the Air Force would often send him to multiple units across the county to train new instructors.

Matlovich was in his early 30’s when he first started being open about his sexuality. At that time, there was still a ban in place on homosexuals serving in the U.S. military and when his commanding officer was informed Matlovich knew it likely meant he would face disciplinary action.

During his administrative discharge hearing, Matlovich was asked by an attorney if he would be willing sign a document pledging to ‘never practice homosexuality again’ in order to remain in the military. Matlovich, protesting the ban, refused. The panel ultimately found him unfit for service and he was given a general, later upgraded to honorable, discharge.

While Matlovich did sue for reinstatement, finally appearing before Judge Gerhard Gesell in District Court. Judge Gesell determined that Matlovich should be reinstated and promoted with all military benefits. Ultimately, he would accept a sizable financial settlement instead of returning to service.

He confided to his friends that we was concerned about reprisal once back in service and thought his efforts might be better spent on promoting equal treatment to the general public. 

To that end, he spent the rest of his life advocating against anti-gay discrimination – working with multiple groups across the country until his death in 1988.  His tombstone, in Congressional Cemetery, reads: “When I was in the military, they gave me a medal for killing two men and a discharge for loving one”. 

It was not until 2011 that LGBTQ+ individuals were allowed to openly serve in the military without fear of repercussion – but it is important to recognize and honor their history of contribution goes back much further.

Matlovich’s story serves as a reminder to us all that as a society we are always evolving. And through honoring and accepting our unique diversity, we enable ourselves to grow into a stronger, more enduring nation.