06/23/2008 11:18 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

A Medal for Sergeant Matlovich?

Since Congressional Cemetery was established in 1807, more than 55,000 men and women have found their last resting place in those thirty acres on the West bank of the Anacostia River in Southeast Washington. A number of them were members of the United States Congress, one was a Choctaw chief, another was a signer of the Declaration of Independence, and one was the famous Civil War photographer Matthew Brady. The list of the illustrious is long, but the list of ordinary citizens from all walks of life is longer.

Some of the monuments are very grand but to my mind none is more impressive or more stirring than the simple stone of black granite that shows the years of birth -- 1943 -- and death -- 1988 -- but bears no name. There is only this, carved in large Roman capitals on its face: "A GAY AMERICAN VETERAN," and below it the unforgettable epitaph that remains as fresh today as it was then:




The granite came from the same quarry as the Vietnam Memorial and it marks the grave of Leonard Matlovich, who died 20 years ago, on June 22, 1988, during the height of the AIDS epidemic and a month before his 45th birthday.

For a time, Technical Sergeant Leonard Matlovich, USAF, was famous. Very famous, actually, probably the most famous gay man in the country. He was the subject of numerous articles in the New York Times, the Washington Post, and many other newspapers and magazines. NBC made a television movie of his story. Time Magazine put the handsome, mustachioed Matlovich on its cover on September 8, 1975, in uniform and with four rows of ribbons on his chest. Emblazoned across the cover in large black type, just above his military nametag, are the words: "I Am a Homosexual."

You can hardly get more famous than the cover of Time.

All because, in 1973, he slept with another man and, because he was an honest man, he eventually told his superiors, who of course moved to discharge him. Matlovich fought back. In 1975, Matlovich's declaration of his sexuality on every newsstand in the country -- on a cover seen by millions -- was truly daring, and shocking to many. Today the story itself seems almost quaint.

Matlovich was an unlikely hero in the history of gay rights. He was born in Savannah, GA, in 1943 into a very conservative Roman Catholic family, and in regard to both politics and religion he followed his parents' example. He voted for Barry Goldwater and at one point had an 18-foot flagpole in his front yard. By the time he reached his late teens he said he was a "white racist" and a "flag-waving patriot." He would have been described, and he might well have described himself, as a typical redneck -- which just goes to show that we ought to be very, very careful with stereotyping of any kind.

Leonard enlisted in the Air Force at the age of 19, just before the Vietnam War began in earnest. He served three tours in Vietnam. He was awarded a Bronze Star for his valor and a Purple Heart for his wounds, plus various commendations. His career in the Air Force was exemplary. And then, at the age of 30, he slept with another man for the first time. It changed his life profoundly. After a two-year struggle within himself, he wrote his superiors at Langley Air Force Base outside of Washington informing them that he was gay.

"What does this mean," his superior officer asked him.

"It means Brown versus Board of Education," Matlovich replied, referring to the famous 1954 Supreme Court case that ended segregation in the public schools. He was discharged six months later. He sued for reinstatement. A government attorney said he could return if he signed a statement "never to practice homosexuality again." Matlovich refused.

And so began the saga that put Sergeant Matlovich, a man of great conscience and great courage, on the cover of Time.

It would be nice to think that Leonard's battle ended the struggle. Instead, it started it. By law, men and women are still being discharged today if they declare that they are gay -- even in a private e-mail to a friend that someone happens to find and passes to a superior. It is nothing short of astonishing, as well as appalling, that on the twentieth anniversary of Leonard's death the fight for basic rights most Americans take for granted is still going on. It is the reason why my organization, the Servicemembers Legal Defense Network, exists. It is the reason why we defend service members affected by the law now known as "Don't Ask, Don't Tell," and why we work for its repeal.

That's our way of honoring a very brave and principled man, Air Force Technical Sergeant Leonard Matlovich. He will never receive the Presidential Medal of Freedom although he has earned it. If I were in charge of these things, I'd give it to him, not to General Peter Pace who declared Leonard Matlovich's love "immoral."