by Bob Roehr
Washington, DC was awash on Veteran’s Day with the 25th anniversary of the dedication of the Vietnam Veteran’s Memorial. The LGBT community honored their veterans in a small corner of Congressional Cemetery on Capitol Hill.
“When I was in the military, they gave me a medal for killing two men and a discharge for loving one,” reads the inscription carved into the black granite marker set with two pink triangles.
Leonard Matlovich had intended the stone to stand in for all gay vets who had served their country but were denied recognition. He erected it while he was still alive, and had no plans for his name to be on the site; it was added years later by his family.
The Air Force Sergeant and decorated combat vet of Vietnam had told his commander in 1975 that he was gay, which started the process that expelled him from the service. Matlovich thought the regulations that excluded gays from the military were unfair and un-American.
He fought his expulsion, first through administrative procedures and then in the courts. Throughout the process he appeared on television and even made the cover of Time magazine, raising the visibility of a community that was so marginalized that perhaps a few thousand people in the entire nation had the strength to publicly proclaim that they were gay. He lost that fight, but not for lack of courage.
Matlovich died of AIDS in 1988 and was interred in the crypt he had built. Other gay vets were inspired by his actions and purchased plots nearby. Two markers of gay vets stand just across the cemetery roadway, while a few plots north, a pink granite stone marks the burial site of Clyde Tolson, the long-time companion and purported lover of FBI director J. Edgar Hoover, who lies in a family plot a bit further north up the hillside.
“We have gathered to honor our fallen, those who served and died to defend our nation and our freedoms, even if those freedoms were not always granted to them, and to us,” said retired Navy Captain Michael Rankin, MD, who organized the event.
“Some like Harvey Milk and Leonard Matlovich, were famous, the glory of their times. Others–perhaps most–were known only to those who lover them. We honor them all.”
Gay and lesbian soldiers, named and unnamed, have been there from Valley Forge at the founding of the nation, through the blood-drenched battles of the Civil War that threatened to tear it apart, to the beaches of Normandy, the jungles of Vietnam, and the sands of Iraq.
Rankin took special note of the women who have served, earlier as nurses, “and now they fight alongside us.” He said they seldom have received the appreciation they deserve.
Later, Michael Bedwell spoke lovingly of his departed friend Leonard. He and Matlovich first met when the sergeant was fighting his dismissal, they later shared houses in Washington and San Francisco.
Bedwell recalled how one day they were wandering through the famous Pere Lachaise Cemetery in Paris when they stumbled upon the tombstone of Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas. Matlovich was struck by it.
Years later he would discover the historic Congressional Cemetery, then in great disrepair and now only partially rehabilitated. “He decided to do the stone as a memorial to gay veterans in general, not just to himself,” said Bedwell.
Matlovich purchased the double plot in 1984, one for a hoped for lover who never materialized, with $800 of the settlement money from the Air Force. He erected the stone marker years before he learned he had AIDS.
Bedwell remembers Matlovich most for his passionate belief in the American ideals of equality embodied in the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. He continued to fight for those principles even after he left the service.