Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Happy Birthday, Leonard Matlovich

Today is the birthday of one of our nation's great unsung heroes (and one of my personal idols).  Leonard Matlovich began a discourse that has culminated in recent victories for LGBT rights, and if the educators in California know what they're doing with a bill requiring the discussion of these victories in the classroom, they would do well to teach children about his sacrifices.

A Vietnam war vet and recipient of a Bronze Star and Purple Heart, Technical Sergeant Matlovich could have rested on his laurels knowing that he had done his country great service.  Instead, Leonard chose to address inequalities facing gay and lesbian servicemembers in the best way possible: on March 6th, 1975, he came out to his commanding officer, and then the world.

September 8, 1975. History is made.

Thus began a road that culminated in historic legislation passed last year freeing gay and lesbian military personnel to live their lives without fear.

My love of this great man is two-fold.  Not only was he a tireless advocate for LGBT soldiers, Leonard discovered in a doctor's visit that a lung infection was not the simple flu, but was due to AIDS complications.  Incensed by the lack of education from the White House on the topic, he then publicly came out as poz on Good Morning America in 1987 and became a champion for thousands of people who were dying of the disease.  

His most famous quote, "When I was in the military, they gave me me a medal for killing two men, and a discharge for loving one," is written on his tombstone.

I had the honor of participating in a ceremony in November when trans activist and Pam's House Blend contributor Autumn Sandeen laid a wreath on his tomb.  

Later that day, I was arrested for protesting DADT at the White House with 12 other activists, to include Sandeen, Dan Choi, and Michael Bedwell.  Michael was Leonard's roommate in Washington DC and San Francisco, and is the webmaster of  I asked him for some words on today, and the meaning of Leonard's many sacrifices for his country.  The ever-verbose (really, you should listen to this man gossip) had this to say:

"Well, he was no more perfect than any of us, but he would have been one of my heroes even if we'd never become friends. 

Bedwell helps to make history at the White House.

"We met the weekend before the Secretary of the Air Force confirmed his discharge in October of 1975 and I was one of those with him when he died on June 22nd, 1988. We were roommates in DC and SF, so I witnessed countless examples of his personal sacrifice beyond his Air Force career such as the many times he paid his own way to speak to groups who couldn't afford even his travel expenses; the times he opened our home and his heart to hurting gay strangers; the way he flew the American flag next to the rainbow flag from the balcony; his paying to have an American flag and flag pole installed in front of his restaurant in Guerneville, his giving thousands to the San Francisco Gay Men's Chorus to help fund their first nationwide tour—the first of any gay chorus; the way he didn't want his own name on his own tombstone because he wanted ALL gay veterans to finally have a permanent memorial. 

"And I know in my heart he would have been ON THAT WHITE HOUSE FENCE with us....probably in 2009 when it became clear Obama was dragging out repeal—and would be outraged at the passivity of most of the gay service member groups when it's STILL law."

I feel in my heart that I am living in my third year with HIV in part because this man spoke out about his disease and helped to insure that many Americans today have access to the drugs they need to survive.  I take my medicine every day because the government pays for it, and that is to an extent thanks to this man.  There are thousands of American that literally owe their lives to his bravery.

Leonard Matlovich died on June 22nd, 1988, just days before his 45th birthday.  He insisted that his grave not bear his name, believing instead that it should stand as a monument to all gay veterans.  

Please take a moment to reflect on his sacrifices today.  He gave so much that we could live as free Americans.  

Thank you, Leonard Matlovich.  Happy Birthday.  

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