'His tombstone simply reads: When I was in the military, they gave me a medal for killing two men and a discharge for loving one.'

Leonard Matlovich (1943-1988)
Recorded by Lt. Gen. Leah Lauderback
Story by The AIDS Memorial and Irwin M. Rappaport
A version of this story first appeared on The AIDS Memorial on Instagram
Photo by Ted Thai, Time magazine

Leonard Matlovich was a decorated Vietnam War veteran who came out as gay to challenge the U.S. military’s ban on gays and lesbians.

Following in the footsteps of his Air Force veteran father, Matlovich voluntarily enlisted in the Air Force in 1963 at the age of 19 and served three tours of duty. He received a Bronze Star for heroism under fire, and a Purple Heart after he was seriously wounded by a land mine.

I’m Air Force Lieutenant General Leah Lauderback. Openly LGBTQ servicemembers like me owe a debt of gratitude to the courage of Leonard Matlovich and I’m deeply honored to tell his story.

After serving in Vietnam, Sgt. Matlovich was posted at an air base near Pensacola. There, he started visiting gay bars and, at the age of 30, had his first relationship with a man but stayed in the closet in the military for over another year.

The Air Force assigned Matlovich to teach race relations, and he traveled the country to coach other instructors. That experience helped him to understand the similarities between discrimination on the basis of race, and discrimination against the gay and lesbian community.

After reading an article by gay rights activist Frank Kameny in the newspaper The Air Force Times, he contacted Kameny and they devised a plan with the ACLU to challenge the ban on gays and lesbians in the military. On March 6, 1975, he hand-delivered a letter to his commanding officer announcing that he was gay. His brave pronouncement landed him on the cover of Time magazine in September of

When he refused to promise never again to engage in homosexual conduct, he was
discharged from the Air Force in October of that year. He sued for reinstatement and, after a long court battle, a federal judge ordered the Air Force to reinstate and promote him. Rather than risk discharge for a made-up reason or an appeal of the court decision by the military, Matlovich accepted a financial settlement and dropped the case.

Leonard’s activism continued with his fundraising and advocacy efforts against Anita Bryant’s campaign to overturn a non-discrimination ordinance in Florida and against an attempt to ban gays and lesbians from teaching in California.

He moved to Guerneville, California on the Russian River, where he opened up a pizza restaurant. Later he moved to San Francisco and worked as a car salesman. In 1986, after fatigue and a prolonged chest cold, he tested positive for HIV. In 1987, Leonard came out as HIV positive on “Good Morning America.” He continued his advocacy and later that year he was arrested in front of the White House protesting the Reagan Administration’s inattention to HIV and AIDS.

Leonard Matlovich died on June 22, 1988. He chose to be buried in Congressional Cemetery in Washington D.C. where, unlike Arlington National Cemetery, he could have a tombstone which omits his name. His tombstone simply reads: “When I was in the military, they gave me a medal for killing two men and a discharge for loving one.”

As a final joke, Leonard chose a grave site in the same row as J. Edgar Hoover, the infamous FBI Director who is widely believed to have been a closeted gay man.

Matlovich was one of the 50 people first selected for inclusion in the National LGBTQ Wall of Honor at the Stonewall National Monument in New York City. Leonard’s courage paved the way for service members like me to openly serve.

Thank you, Leonard “Mat” Matlovich, for your tenaciousness and your leadership. And lastly, I thank you for your service to this nation.