WASHINGTON — Leonard Matlovich. Does the name ring any bells?
It didn’t for me until today. But it was his tombstone that I used to jog by a couple of times a week just to read the words on it, because he left one hell of a parting message to the world.
“A Gay Vietnam Veteran,” it reads in bold letters. And then, this: “When I was in the military they gave me a medal for killing two men and a discharge for loving one.”
There’s no name on the tombstone, which is tucked away in a quiet corner of the Congressional Cemetery in Washington, D.C., where a handful of gay veterans are buried together. It almost seemed better without a name. Like it was more of a symbolic grave for all the gay veterans who fought for their country but had to hide their true selves. I only noticed a name today, on Veterans Day, on a nearby plaque. Matlovich. So I looked him up.
It turns out Matlovich was a hero, on a couple of fronts. To the military, he was an Air Force sergeant who fought with valor and earned a Purple Heart and a Bronze Star Medal. To the gay community, he was the first U.S. service member to stand up and purposely out himself to challenge the military’s ban on LGBT people.
It was March 1975 when he walked up to his commanding officer and handed him a letter stating that he was gay. According to a Time story on the incident, when his commander asked, “What does this mean?” Matlovich replied, “It means Brown versus the Board of Education,” a reference to the landmark Supreme Court case that banned racial segregation in public schools.
Matlovich was discharged and fought for years, unsuccessfully, to end the military ban, which remained in place until 2011. But he went on to become a vocal gay rights advocate at a time when there weren’t many. He tried to create a memorial for the late Harvey Milk at the Congressional Cemetery, he forced Northwest Airlines to reverse its ban on passengers with HIV and was arrested outside the White House protesting what many viewed as President Ronald Reagan’s insufficient response to the AIDS crisis.
Today, as I watched people stroll in and out of the cemetery, some paying tribute to veterans buried here and others just letting their dogs run free on the grounds, I asked them if they had seen Matlovich’s grave. Some didn’t know him by name. But they all were aware of his epitaph. One mentioned there was even a wreath-laying ceremony at his grave earlier in the day.
“It’s a big deal,” said one woman being dragged along by her large dog. “Vietnam vets come here all the time. It pays tribute to them all.”
I used to think this tombstone was a gem that I somehow discovered and that nobody else knew about — something I could revisit from time to time and feel moved all over again by this person’s last message to the world. It turns out lots of people know about it. That’s a good thing.