War hero Leonard Matlovich, who battled the Air Force after he was discharged for declaring his homosexuality in 1975 and then fought for gay rights, died of AIDS Wednesday night at the home of a friend in Hollywood. He was 44.
Matlovich moved to Hollywood in April from San Francisco. The former technical sergeant at Langley Air Force Base, Va., was diagnosed with AIDS in 1986.
“He saw the gay rights struggles of the 1980s as the equivalent of black civil rights struggles of ‘50s and ‘60s,” said Mike Erickson, former owner of a Guerneville radio station where Matlovich was host of a weekly discussion program.
“He was a man of a great many ethics, and very intense about his human rights beliefs, causes he could never put down.”
Matlovich won the Bronze Star and Purple Heart during the Vietnam War, following his enlistment in 1963. Erickson said Matlovich told him one of the medals was awarded after he killed two Viet Cong fighters while on sentry duty.
“His post was overrun in a VC attack in which several of his men were wounded,” he said.
Matlovich’s declaration of homosexuality spurred the then-fledgling gay rights movement, which made his fight a cause celebre. Matlovich was pictured on the cover of Time magazine in 1975, next to the words, “I am a homosexual.”
The Air Force responded by giving him a general discharge, but Matlovich sued and in 1980 received an honorable discharge along with a $160,000 settlement.
In recent years, Matlovich, a Republican, spent his time lobbying on behalf of AIDS victims as well as speaking on behalf of numerous other gay-related issues.
He and another gay rights activist, Ken McPherson, recently formed the Never Forget Foundation, which erects monuments to gay community leaders.
Matlovich is to be buried in Congressional Cemetery in Washington, D.C.
His survivors said they hope his tombstone serves as an enduring monument to his beliefs. Already erected, it quotes him: “When I was in the military they gave me a medal for killing two men, and a discharge for loving one.”