Even in the 1970s, when the gay-rights movement picking up steam, the cause of gays in the military was fairly low on the totem pole—thanks in part to the Left’s disagreement with the war in Vietnam. Matlovich, who received a Purple Heart and Bronze Star for his brave efforts in Southeast Asia, put the issue on the front page—literally—when he appeared on the cover of Time magazine with the headline “I am a Homosexual.”
Matlovich worked with gay activist Frank Kameny to be a test case for challenging the ban on gays in the military. After Matlovich notified his superiors of his sexuality in 1975, his cause was reported nationwide—in many cases the first time an openly gay person had appeared on the front page of a newspaper.
Matlovich was given the option of signing a document pledging to “never practice homosexuality again” in exchange for being allowed to remain in the Air Force, but he refused. Despite his exemplary military record, multiple tours of duty in Vietnam and high performance evaluations, he was recommended for a less-than-honorable discharge (which as finally upgraded to honorable).
Matlovich sued for reinstatement but the case languished in the courts for five years before the U.S. District Court finally demanded he be reinstated. Instead, the Air Force offered Matlovich a financial settlement. Realizing they would concoct another reason to discharge him if he returned to service, he accepted.
In 1987, Matlovich announced on Good Morning America that he had contracted HIV and became an AIDS activist before succumbing to illness in 1988 at age 44. His tombstone in the Congressional cemetery (in the same row as J. Edgar Hoover) bears the following inscription:
“A Gay Vietnam Veteran:
When I was in the military, they gave me a medal
for killing two men and a discharge for loving one.”
NEXT: Serving in silence no more