Gay Activist Leonard Matlovich, 44, Dies

Times Staff Writer

When I was in the military they gave me a medal for killing two men and a discharge for loving one.

--Inscription on tombstone that will mark the grave of Leonard Matlovich.

Leonard Matlovich, a decorated war hero in Vietnam who later fought a battle in the courtrooms of America for his right to remain in the military as a homosexual, died Wednesday night of AIDS at the home of a friend in Hollywood.


The Air Force veteran with an exemplary service record was forcibly discharged after he professed his homosexuality. He was 44.

Matlovich, who won the Bronze Star and the Purple Heart for wounds suffered in Vietnam, had been diagnosed with AIDS in September, 1986, and had lived in San Francisco until the end of April, when he moved to Hollywood.

Matlovich had moved to Los Angeles, said his longtime friend Michael Bedwell, “because the hills made it too difficult for him to get around in his deteriorating condition.”

A political conservative with a lifelong faith in God, duty and country, Matlovich was a career serviceman, as was his father. He had volunteered for three tours of duty in Vietnam and was decorated when he killed two attacking Viet Cong guerrillas while on sentry duty. He was considered an outstanding technical sergeant when, on March 8, 1975, he wrote a letter to his commanding officer at Langley Air Force Base in Virginia, confessing his homosexuality but asking that he be permitted to remain in the service.

He thus embarked on a path that propelled him into a symbol for the gay community throughout America, placed him on the cover of Time magazine and made him the focus of a praised 1978 TV docudrama, “Sgt. Matlovich vs. the Air Force.”

“I would never have chosen this life style,” Matlovich said of his homosexuality when pleading with an Air Force board to let him remain in service. “But I don’t have that choice. I have to live with myself,” the then-12-year veteran said in September, 1975.

He had come out of the closet originally, he explained, “because closets smother you.”

Ultimately he abandoned his campaign for reinstatement in exchange for a $160,000 settlement.

In November, 1980, U.S. District Judge Gerhard A. Gessell in Washington had ordered the Air Force to reinstate Matlovich with back pay at the rank and salary he would have obtained had he not been discharged. Gessell ruled that Matlovich’s discharge was unlawful because the Air Force had failed to explain its policy on the retention and discharge of homosexuals in the service.

But an out-of-court settlement, filed with the U.S. Court of Appeals in Washington, vacated Gesell’s order to take Matlovich back in the Air Force. It gave him $98,000 in compensation beyond the $62,000 in back pay he had accumulated since his discharge which then was upgraded from general to honorable.

Since then Matlovich had been at the forefront of the struggle for civil liberties, running for public office, lecturing and counseling gays on their rights.

“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, Calif., radio station for which Matlovich hosted 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 was particularly sympathetic to blacks and liked to relate how a contingent of black servicemen at Langley had been his only supporters when he first went public with his homosexuality.

“He was the average American, but he took the Constitution a little more seriously than most people, and that’s why he sacrificed his Air Force job for the sake of rights for gay and lesbian people,” Bedwell said.

In the intervening years his name continued to surface. Last year he forced Northwest Airlines to change its guidelines which prevented AIDS patients from flying unless they could present physicians’ statements that they were “non-infectious.” Recently, he and another gay rights activist, Ken McPherson, formed the Never Forget Foundation, which erects monuments to gay community leaders.

A meticulous person, Matlovich started making arrangements for his funeral shortly after his AIDS was diagnosed nearly two years ago. It was then he arranged for the monument with its poignant statement to be placed on his grave in the Congressional Cemetery in Washington.

And then last month, said Morris Kight, longtime spokesman for the gay community and president of the Los Angeles County Commission on Human Relations, Matlovich said his public goodbys.

“At a rally for gay and lesbian rights in Sacramento, Leonard told us all very simply we ‘should be in love with ourselves and with one another.’ ”

A requiem Mass will be said at 7 p.m. today at Divine Redeemer Metropolitan Community Church, 346 Riverdale Drive, Glendale.