Leonard Matlovich Makes Time
Leonard Matlovich on the cover of Time magazine, 8 Spetember
Matlovich's grave in the District of Columbia’s Congressional Cemetery
Leonard at Affirmation's 1979 Russian River Retreat
by Connell O'Donovan
Matlovich's panel at the Affirmation
Sgt. Leonard P. Matlovich: Patriot, Mormon, and Activist
On September 8, 1975, Latter-day Saint Air Force Sgt. Leonard P.
Matlovich Jr. appeared on the cover of Time magazine, declaring
"I am a Homosexual" to the nation and hurling him into the national
spotlight as "poster boy" for Gay rights. In a watershed moment for
the Gay rights movement, the Gay Mormon was the first openly Gay person
ever to appear on the cover of Time or any other major US news magazine.
Matlovich was featured in the magazine because he was suing the US
Armed Force for discharging him for being Gay, despite the fact that
he had an impeccable record, having served three tours of duty in
Vietnam, where he received the Bronze Star, a Purple Heart, and an
Air Force Meritorious Service Medal. Matlovich, initially raised Catholic,
had apparently converted to the LDS Church during his tour of duty
in Vietnam. He was ordained a Mormon Priest in 1970 and then an Elder
on January 19, 1971 while in Vietnam, by W. Brent Hardy.
Although the Time article did not mention that Matlovich was LDS, when the publicity on his case against the Air Force broke, the Mormon Church conducted a series of trials against him. On August 1, 1975, the Norfolk Virginia Stake High Council met with Matlovich to investigate "alleged wrongdoing on [his] part involving infraction of the standards and rules of the Church". During this meeting, Matlovich "made a strong and convincing plea for time to think and consider the course of action [he was] pursuing, and to decide whether or not to abandon it and to seek professional help", which the Stake Presidency had "offered to help arrange". Matlovich was disfellowshipped at that time, meaning he could attend church meetings but was not "entitled to speak, offer public prayer, partake of the sacrament, or otherwise participate in these meetings". Of course his first charge was to "continue to pay [his] tithes and offerings" to the Church. Matlovich stopped attending church services and declined further "invitations" to meet with the Stake Presidency.
Then after his appearance on the cover of Time a month later, the Norfolk Stake leaders decided a more severe punishment was warranted. Stake President W. Boyd Lee and his two counselors, Kirk T. Waldron and Mark J. Rowe wrote him on September 12, 1975, requesting another appearance before the Stake High Council on September 27, because of his "expressed decision to make no effort to change or correct" his homosexual activism. Matlovich was unable to make that meeting because of "the demands on [his] time by the United States Air Force". However, the High Council ignored his plea to reschedule. They met without him on October 7, 1975 and "took action to excommunicate [him] from the Church". They cited his "intention to continue activism in a practice which is abhorrent to and in direct violation of the laws of our Heavenly Father. We cannot accept that you cannot change or be helped. It is our prayer that you may come to realize that you can indeed be changed and that you will seek such help as is necessary to accomplish it." They informed him that excommunication meant "complete severance from the Church and denial of all Church priveliges [sic] and rights". He was welcome to attend public meetings as a guest but he was "not to pay tithes or other contributions, but [was] encouraged to keep them on deposit until such time as [he] might be readmitted to the Church." (Apparently getting money from even ex-members is a priority for the Church!) They concluded in their letter to him that they urged him "to study the scriptures and pray, that [he might] come to know the truth, and to ignore the rising popular clamor for liberal practices in conflict with God's laws and eternal purposes".
After his court victory against the Air Force (which ultimately ended
in Matlovich resigning with a large settlement in hand) he moved to
San Francisco, and then appeared on the Phil Donahue television show
in 1978. On October 12, 1978, "Mat" Matlovich received yet another
summons from the Church, this time from the San Francisco Stake President,
Jonas J. Heaton of Daly City, to investigate "conduct in violation
of the law and order of the Church". Matlovich was unable to make
that trial date and Heaton wrote an identical letter on November 20,
1978, requesting a trial on January 17, 1979. 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 yet again. Metropolitan Community Church Elder James Sandmire,
an excommunicated Mormon "high official" said in the media interviews
that he had "had seen or heard of hundreds of these cases where gays
have either been 'disfellowshipped' or 'excommunicated'" once, but
Jonas Heaton also told the reporters 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." Leonard in turn vowed, "that the attempt to remove him from Mormon rolls will be a media event." Matlovich also admitted he "[was] confused on how he [could] be removed 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.'" Matlovich was then excommunicated a second time from the Mormon Church in January 1979. As early as 1978, due to the unethical treatment he received by the Mormon Church, his faith and spirituality were crushed and he considered himself somewhere "between an agnostic and an atheist."
The publicity surrounding him was enormous, and he received thousands of letters from all over the nation and even Europe, praising his courage and bravery for coming out. Of the many letters I read in his archived collection, only two were negative; the rest were heart-wrenching expressions of gratitude and support. For example, Joseph Allen, a native of Vienna, Austria, wrote him to say, "I saw your picture on the front cover of Time and cried. It is, indeed, a new awakening for us....I feel it happening because of people such as you who are unafraid."
Matlovich also befriended and corresponded with several other Gay Mormons. For example, C.R. "Joe" Smith, corresponded regularly with "Mat" in 1978 and 1979, encouraging him in his activism, and frequently mentioning their bond as ex-Mormon Gays. Smith had been raised in Utah but was excommunicated. He then had moved to Yucca Valley, California where he and his partner lived for many years together, running an animal shelter in the high desert.
Eventually the media circus around Matlovich exhausted him and he grew weary of being at the brunt of the Gay rights movement. However, he did continue to speak out against homophobic crusader Anita Bryant, and in June 1977 was a featured speaker at a large Gay rights convention held in Salt Lake City, during which Affirmation: Gay Mormons United was founded.
In 1980, a federal judge ordered the Air Force to reinstate Matlovich with back pay. The Air Force, disgruntled that their policy was found to be discriminatory and illegal, pressed Matlovich to drop his case and settle out of court, or they would appeal to the US Supreme Court. Finally Matlovich gave in and accepted $160,000 tax free, and explained to angered Gay rights advocates that "he believed it to be less likely to win a government appeal in front of an increasingly conservative U.S. Supreme Court."
Leonard Matlovich announced that he had HIV on "Good Morning America" television show in July of 1987 and died from AIDS in West Hollywood at the home of a friend on June 22, 1988. His famous epitaph at the Congressional Cemetery in Washington DC reads, "When I was in the military they gave me a medal for killing two men and a discharge for loving one".