Jay Bell

Leonard Matlovich on the cover of Time magazine, 8 September 1975

Matlovich's grave in the District of Columbia’s Congressional Cemetery
Sgt. Leonard P. Matlovich:
Patriot, Mormon, and Activist

By Jay Bell
© Jay Bell 6 September 2003

“I Am a Homosexual: The Gay Drive for Acceptance,” screamed the cover of Time for 8 September 1975. It pictured Air Force Sgt. Leonard P. Matlovich, Jr. in full Air Force dress uniform, hurling the ex-Catholic/Mormon into celebrity status. This was the first time a picture of an openly gay person was featured in the magazine’s cover, not to mention an immediate “press following in almost every city’s daily newspaper.” Matlovich sued the US Armed Force for discharging him because he was gay. The sergeant served three tours of duty in Vietnam, where he received the Bronze Star, a Purple Heart, and an Air Force Meritorious Service Medal. Reflecting on his life for an intimate 1978 Advocate interview lead story, he admitted that at the time he volunteered for duty in Vietnam, he felt it was his patriotic duty to “kill a Commie for Mommy.” However, in retrospect, he wondered about his real intentions in enlisting. “I was so dissatisfied with being gay,” he later recalled, “that in some ways, volunteering for duty in Vietnam was like a death wish or a suicide pact.” However, Leonard also noted that he signed up looking for male companionship.

Matlovich discussed his former Roman Catholic or Mormon religious affiliations during the Advocate’s 1978 interview. He grew up Roman Catholic and became disenchanted with its liberalization processes of the 1960s. Vatican II convinced him to leave. “I eventually joined the Mormon religion and became an Elder... I was initially attracted to it because it was so conservative--very rigid and controlled--but when I came out of the closet I came out of the Mormon Church, too, mentally, because they were just not comparable.”

Though the Time article made no mention of Leonard’s Mormon or Catholic affiliation, when the publicity on is case broke, the Mormon Church threw him out. In November 1975, he was excommunicated from the LDS Church in Virginia. Though Matlovich was never reinstated, as he was becoming public in gay politics in California the Mormons felt they needed to do something again. Therefore, in January 1979, both the California Sentinel and the Bay Area Reporter published stories of how the LDS church was shortly going to excommunicate Matlovich. Metropolitan Community Church Elder Jim Sandmire, an excommunicated Mormon “high official,” said he had “had seen or heard of hundreds of these cases where gays have either been ‘disfellowshipped’ or ‘excommunicated’” once, but not twice.

Jonahs Heaton, a California stake president, told a reporter that there “is a move to drop the upfront Gay activist because of ‘conduct in violation of the law and order of the church’--namely his homosexuality.” When a reporter told Heaton that Matlovich intended to bring witnesses to the trial, the Mormon representative stated that they have to be church members. Leonard promised, “that the attempt to remove him from Mormon rolls will be a media event.” Leonard admitted he "[was] confused on how he [could] be removed from twice from the same church. When Heaton was asked about the double excommunication, the official said, ‘This is a private matter within the church I know a great deal about Mr. Matlovich that I am not going to discuss.’” There was no immediate word on what eventually happened. Nevertheless, Matlovich was definitely excommunicated from the Mormon Church. As of 1978, he considered himself “between an agnostic and an atheist.”

The LDS church wasn’t the only one that wanted to cut ties with Matlovich. When Matlovich launched his suit in March 1975 against the Air Force, he “didn’t even know there was such a thing as the National Gay [and Lesbian] Task Force.” He did it alone, shocking his few close gay friends into abandoning him. “They were afraid of me,” he later said in a 1975 Advocate interview. “Afraid of the investigation. Afraid they would be implicated. I was completely alone.” That changed on 28 August 1975 when the New York Times published his story and “citizen Matlovich became media fad Matlovich.” Both the media and gay activists recognized that Leonard had the uncanny ability of “convincing heterosexual, middle-class conservatives, [and] even redneck audiences that it is ‘ok to be gay’--that gay people are human beings, too.” Reporters and gay activists wanted to make the most of it.

Demands from both gay groups and the media increased. “Schedules were upset. Agreements were ignored or forgotten. It seemed impossible to make sense out of what had become the ‘Matlovich mess.’” However the pressure for his time continued. Sasia Gregory-Lewis’ 1975 Advocate article observed, “No one it seemed noticed that he was becoming a shell of a person--worn out, and confused. Anyone could see it, but no one looked. He was after all, a property, an object, a tool, a machine, a media feast for publicity-starved activists.” By the end of 1975, Leonard was “growing sour” of the gay movement and felt “used.” He told The Advocate that he felt the movement no longer represented, ”the man on the street; I didn’t want to lose touch with him.” The article observed, “Matlovich accepts his share of the responsibility for the ritual slaughter of citizen Matlovich, but only his share. He has concluded, he told The Advocate, that the further away from the gay ‘movement’ he stays, the happier everyone will be.” Though needing money to live on, Leonard was interested in raising funds for gay causes and legal cases.

Throughout 1975, Leonard only found one person he could trust, who would stand by him--Al Secere, a disabled serviceman. Leonard clung to him for support.

Five years later in 1980, a federal judge ordered the Air Force to reinstate Matlovich. The Air Force offered the former sergeant a $160,000 settlement instead, which was gladly accepted. The rulings paved the way for other such challenges to the military policy, including a sailor named Keith Meinhold in the 1990s. As a result, Matlovich was again shoved into the public’s eye, this time wiser and better prepared. A TV docudrama was made about his military experience. Though used for advice, Leonard felt that it only caught “the flavor of the story,” but wished it were more accurate. Leonard admitted before coming out, “I was a living example of bigotry, not only against race, but against gay people too.” To the 1978 Defense Department decision to expunge dishonorably discharged status for who’d “sacked” for being gay in the military, he responded, “It’s about time.”

When Matlovich was asked by The Advocate in 1978 what his “type” of man is, Leonard responded, “You know, it’s very difficult to talk about love and relationships. I have never been in a relationship. When it comes to falling in love, I have no idea what the person is going to be like.”

Still considering himself a political conservative in 1978, Leonard admitted, “I think many gays are forced into liberal camps only because that’s where they can find the kind of support they need to function in society.” He expressed his admiration for Harvey Milk being elected to the San Francisco Board of Directors, though he didn’t agree with him politically. Matlovich felt that maybe he’d like to try politics in the future. No doubt, that thought was shattered with Milk’s murder.

After learning from his 1975 gay rights burnout, Leonard championed gay rights causes such as the unsuccessful fight against Anita Bryant as co-chair of the Dave County Coalition for Human rights and the successful defeat of California’s 1978 Briggs Imitative. He also was the featured guest and speaker at the 1977 Utah Gay Pride celebration (then called the “Human Rights Convention”) in Salt Lake City, where the Mormon-owned Hotel Utah canceled all activities when they found out it was gay-related. In 1985, he worked for AIDS-prevention by launching a petition to ban sex in Washington DC bathhouses. Two years later, he was arrested along with President Jimmy Carter’s aid Dan Bradley at a protest against the federal government’s inaction on AIDS.

In his ‘78 interview, Leonard believed he was a “role model for gay people, and I try to be as positive as possible. I don’t smoke. I don’t drink. I have never used an illegal drug of any kind. I have never even taken a toke off a joint.”

With the outbreak of AIDS, Leonard’s personal life was caught up in the virus’ hysteria of the 1980s. In the northern California town of Guerneville, he was forced to close down his newly opened pizza parlor when his heterosexual friends and clientele abandoned him because of fear. He returned to San Francisco to sell used cars, and eventually ended up at a Ford dealership.

During the summer of 1986, Leonard felt fatigued, then contracted a prolonged chest cold; when he finally went to see a doctor in September, was diagnosed with AIDS. Too weak to continue his work at the Ford dealership, he was among the first to receive AZT treatments. Leonard went on disability and became an AIDS activist. He announced that he had contracted the AIDS virus on a 1987 Good Morning America show. A year later, because of AIDS complications, he transitioned from this life on 22 June 1988--a few days before the LA Gay Freedom (Pride) Parade that he wanted to participate in.

The epitaph carved in his tombstone in the District of Columbia’s Congressional Cemetery reads “When I was in the military, they gave me a medal for killing two men and a discharge for loving one.” A biography was written in 1989 titled Matlovich: The Good Soldier by Mike Hippler (Hardcover, August 1989). Leonard is one of the few people both to have a quilt panel on the national and Affirmation AIDS quilt projects. A friend of mine, Lowry S., who went on a few dates with Leonard, reflected that he was one of the sweetest men he ever knew.

See also:

Leonard Matlovich's panel in the Affirmation AIDS Quilt

Leonard Matlovich Makes Time

Historical Events Surrounding the Founding of Affirmation: Gay Mormons United


Long Road to Freedom: The Advocate History of the Gay and Lesbian Novement, Mark Thompson ed. (New York, NY: St. Martin’s Press 1994), Sasia Gregory-Lewis, “1975 Timeline,” 1197; “Cannibalization of a Hero,” 124-125, “1976 Timeline,” 132; “1977 Timeline,” 147; Malcolm Boyd, “[1978] Entrances and Exits,” 161; “1985 Timeline,” 277; “1987 Timeline,” 310; Leonard Matlovich, “[1987] A Piece of My Mind,” 318; “1988 Timeline,” 218, Alan Bérubé, “[1989] Tribulations,” 341;

John Gallagher, “Are Best and Brightest Activists: Take a Wild Ride From Oscar Wilde to the Rev. Jimmy Creech, A Selective History of Gay and Lesbian Activism,” The Advocate, 17 August 1999, 9-10, 12, 14, 16.

“Mormon Church May Bounce Matlovich,” The Advocate, 12 January 1979, 8.

“People,” The Advocate, 4 October 1978, 7.

“Gay Pride Ball,” The Open Door, 1/6 (June 1977): 1.

“Utah Pride Events Have Been Around At Least 22 Years,” Salt Lake Tribune, June 12, 2000, B2.

“Mormons Dropping Matlovich?” Bay Area Reporter (B.A.R.), 18 January 1979, 14.

Gali Cronenbery, “Leonard Matlovich: November 1975,” The Advocate, 12 November 2002, 100.

David Bianco, “The Vietnam War and Gay Men, “ PlanetOut Internet site http://www.planetout.com/pno/news/history/archive/08301999.html as of January 2002.

“Find A Grave,” URL Internet site www.findagrave.com/cgi-bin/fg.cgi?page=gr&GRid;=2660 as of February 2002.

“Sgt. Leonard P. Matlovich, USAF. Block number 2784. 7/6/43 - 6/22/88.” The Quilt Names Project Foundation at URL Internet site www.aidsquilt.org/matlovich.html as of February 2002.

Todd Richmond, Leonard Matlovich, 1943-1988.

Randy Shilts, Conduct Unbecoming: Gays and Lesbians in the U.S. Military (New York, NY: St. Martin’s Press, 1991), pp. 76-77, 79, 94-97, 148-149, 163, 165-166, 171, 176-177, 191-192, 194-195, 199-200, 202, 207-208, 210-211, 212, 216-217, 226, 228, 234-240, 242-244, 245-247, 251-252, 277-278, 179-281, 285-286, 298-300, 319-321, 363, 365, 406-407.

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