Gay History Month: Pioneers

By |2018-01-16T11:34:05-05:00October 5th, 2006|News|

By Jason Villemez

Sergeant Leonard Matlovich

When Leonard Matlovich became the first openly gay man to grace the cover of TIME on September 8, 1975, his story had enlivened both the anti-gay military climate and the gay civil rights struggle. After coming out in March 1975, Matlovich was discharged from the Air Force after 12 years of impressive service, including three tours in Vietnam which resulted in a Bronze Star, Purple Heart and Air Force Commendation Medal. The 32-year-old fought against the ruling, taking the case up to the U.S. Court of Appeals, which began a firestorm in press and political circles. A program about his case, Sergeant Matlovich vs. the U.S. Air Force, was aired by NBC as one of the first gay feature stories on broadcast television. Matlovich also graced the covers of multiple national media outlets, including TIME. The Court of Appeals eventually overturned the lower court decision to uphold the discharge, and subsequent proceedings led to ordering the SergeantÕs reinstatement and $62,000 back pay. However, the court ruled not on the constitutionality of the discharge itself, but the Air ForceÕs failure to clarify its reasoning. Rather than return to military service, Matlovich decided to accept an honorable discharge and a $160,000 tax-free settlement. He entered the civilian world and moved to San Francisco, where he lived as ensuing events unfolded. He took a strong conservative stance during the AIDS epidemic, campaigning against bathhouse culture and creating a gay conservative organization in Washington, D.C. In 1986, Matlovich was diagnosed with AIDS, and spent his remaining years as an activist until his death at 45 in 1988. He was given full military honors and a 21-gun salute at the Congressional Cemetery in Washington. His tombstone sits as a memorial to all gay and lesbian service members, reading ÒA Gay Vietnam VeteranÓ in place of his name. Another famous line adorns the stone, one that echoes in the gay and military communities still today; ÒWhen I was in the military they gave me a medal for killing two men and a discharge for loving one.Ó

Troy Perry

Troy Perry founded the Universal Fellowship of Metropolitan Community Churches as an outlet for gay and lesbian individuals who wanted to maintain and expand their faith. The first, 12-member congregation of the MCC met in PerryÕs Los Angeles living room in 1968, expanding to over 300 congregations across the world today with a message of unconditional salvation. The church addresses the needs of LGBT Christians and has served as a beacon for Perry to become one of the worldÕs leading gay activists. A religious individual all his life, Perry felt that despite being excommunicated from the Church of God and other Pentecostal denominations due to his sexuality, God still loved him. He became inspired to start his own sect after a rejuvenation period of his faith, including divorce, estrangement, and a failed suicide attempt. The unique idea of gays and lesbians sharing their religious faith has been covered by a plethora of media outlets across the world, launching Perry as a spiritual leader in the 16 countries with MCC congregations. Along with leading the church, he served as an official delegate to the White House Conference on Hate Crimes and the White House Conference on AIDS during Bill Clinton’s administration, and was among the first group of individuals to be invited to the White House to discuss LGBT civil rights in 1977 under Jimmy Carter. He also protested against the Los Angeles Police Department harassment of gays, and helped organize marches on Washington in 1979 and 1987. The 1987 march called upon President Reagan to change his lackluster response to the AIDS epidemic, which had caused the deaths of many church members. Perry retired as moderator of the church in 2005, but continues to speak on the gay rights movement, HIV/AIDS and equality, all the while maintaining his faith and encouraging others to embrace their own. He has written three books, including his autobiography The Lord Is My Shepherd and He Knows I’m Gay.

Matthew Shepard

When Aaron McKinney was awaiting sentencing for the murder of 21-year-old Matthew Shepard in Laramie, Wyoming, ShepardÕs father, Dennis, asked the court to spare McKinney the death penalty and instead impose a double-life sentence without parole. The elder Shepard said in his statement to the court: ÒMr. McKinney, I give you life in the memory of one who no longer lives. May you have a long life, and may you thank Matthew every day for it.Ó In the same spirit of compassion, Dennis and Judy Shepard have become noteworthy allies of the LGBT community, rallying behind hate-crimes legislation across the country, and establishing the Matthew Shepard Foundation, which educates and informs the public on discrimination and on promoting diversity. The foundation also serves as the vehicle for Judy ShepardÕs public speaking program, which educates individuals about the development and elimination of hate speech and behavior. Her son has become an icon for the worldwide LGBT community and a symbol of how discrimination can undermine the very fabric which brings humanity together. Matthew Shepard cared about people, and strove for equal judgment and equality with everyone he met. According to his father, ÒHe didnÕt see size, race, intelligence, sex, religion, or the hundred other things that people use to make choices about people. All he saw was the person.Ó Indeed, ShepardÕs story has inspired communities of all kinds, and along with his parents, several notable individuals have commended the youthÕs ideas and created numerous tributes to him. Melissa Etheridge wrote the song ÒScarecrow,Ó a reference to the jogger who originally found the beaten Shepard tied to a fence, thinking the young man a scarecrow at first. Playwright Moises Kaufman wrote ÒThe Laramie Project,Ó which has become a staple of American theater and spawned an HBO movie. And MTV released the film ÒAnatomy of a Hate CrimeÓ followed by 18 hours of dead air, a tribute to the time Shepard spent on the fence, suffering from brain trauma, head fractures, and hypothermia. The image of the fair Shepard has become ingrained in gay history, and the tragedy of his promising life cut short by such brutality has inspired not just a nation but a world toward hope and tolerance.

About the Author:

BTL Staff
Between The Lines has been publishing LGBTQ-related content in Southeast Michigan since the early '90s. This year marks the publication's 27th anniversary.