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Matlovich, Leonard P., Jr. (1943-1988)  
 
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Although considered by many to have been an unlikely spokesperson for gay and lesbian civil rights, Leonard Matlovich became one of the glbtq community's most visible activists in the 1970s after he challenged the United States Air Force's ban on gay and lesbian service members.

Born on July 6, 1943 in Savannah, Georgia, Matlovich grew up in a conservative, religious family. He became accustomed to military life as a child. His father served for 32 years in the Air Force and retired as a chief master sergeant in 1971. Moreover, his parents' strict Catholicism deeply influenced his personal and political values.

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In 1963 Matlovich enlisted in the Air Force, hoping to serve in Vietnam. Yet after his initial training, he was assigned to Travis Air Force Base in Fairfield, California. There, in spite of his Southern Democratic roots, he became involved in Republican Party politics, campaigning for Barry Goldwater in the 1964 presidential election.

Determined to serve his country in the controversial conflict in Vietnam, Matlovich continued to press for a tour of duty. Eventually the Air Force approved his request, and Matlovich arrived in Vietnam on Thanksgiving 1965.

All told, Matlovich served three tours of duty in Vietnam. Among other medals and commendations, he earned both a Bronze Star for meritorious service and a Purple Heart for being seriously wounded in a mine explosion during his second tour.

During his service in Vietnam, Matlovich also became much more aware of, if not exactly comfortable with, his homosexuality. Through his working relationships and friendships with African Americans, he also found himself unlearning many of the racial prejudices he had inherited from his upbringing in the South. Yet he remained conflicted. He even converted to Mormonism in an attempt to reconcile his conservative values with his need for a new direction in his life.

Matlovich's third tour of duty ended in 1971. He returned to the United States and was assigned to head an electric shop at Eglin Air Force Base in Ft. Walton Beach, Florida. He also began working as an alcohol and drug abuse counselor, and this training ultimately led him to become a race-relations instructor.

Teaching race relations courses to Air Force service members not only transformed Matlovich politically, but also helped him develop greater self-acceptance. Applying the lessons of equality and social acceptance of racial minorities to his own experience as a gay man, Matlovich began to explore local gay culture and take the initial steps of coming out to himself and accepting himself as a homosexual.

After four years of teaching racial equality in the classroom, Matlovich could no longer bear the hypocrisy and injustice of living in the closet. He decided to come out publicly, even though he knew it meant his likely dismissal from the military.

Matlovich's excellent service record convinced gay activist Frank Kameny that he might make the perfect candidate to challenge the military's anti-gay policy on constitutional grounds. Kameny invited ACLU attorney David Addlestone to help them mount a legal battle with the hope of ending the exclusion of homosexuals from service in the United States military.

To do so, Kameny and Addlestone built their challenge to Matlovich's likely dismissal around an exception rule included in the Air Force's policy on homosexuality, which stated that the Air Force could retain a homosexual service member under unusual circumstances. In addition to arguing that the exclusionary policy was unconstitutional, Addlestone planned to argue that Matlovich's exemplary record itself constituted the unusual circumstance that should permit him to remain in the Air Force.

In March 1975, Matlovich wrote a letter to his commander revealing his homosexuality. This letter initiated an investigation and discharge proceedings against him. His case began to generate a great deal of media attention, and in September of that year, he found himself in uniform on the cover of Time magazine, the poster boy for an article on the emergent gay rights movement.

Matlovich's administrative hearing was held a week later. On September 16, 1975, the members of the Administrative Discharge Board recommended a general, or less than honorable, discharge. His commander upgraded it to an honorable discharge, and on October 21, Matlovich's discharge became official.

Addlestone filed for a temporary restraining order to bar the discharge, but Judge Gerhard Gesell of the U. S. District Court in Washington, D. C. declined to issue one. He initially seemed sympathetic to Matlovich, but on July 16, 1976, after reviewing the case, upheld the administrative board's decision. Yet his decision contained within it language that gave many gay activists some hope that change might be forthcoming.

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