This Day in History

Leonard Matlovich was a highly decorated sergeant in the U.S. Air Force. He received decorations for his valorous conduct in the Vietnam War, but on Oct. 22, 1975, he was "generally" discharged from the Air Force following a public declaration that he was homosexual.

Matlovich was already a 12-year veteran of the Air Force when he wrote a letter addressed to his commanding officer on March 6, 1975. In the letter, he admitted to being gay. He was soon discharged from military service, and thus ensued a multi-year legal battle over whether it was right for such a decorated servicemen to be discharged just because he was homosexual.

Felt Homosexuals Were Discriminated Against Like Blacks

Matlovich wrote the letter to his commanding officer after he began to see the discrimination faced by homosexuals to be similar to the discrimination faced by African Americans. As a part of his Air Force training in Pensacola, Florida, Matlovich completed a race relations program and soon became an instructor on the topic. In Pensacola, he also began spending time in gay bars. Although he revealed his homosexuality to friends, Matlovich had continued to keep the matter a secret from commanding officers because of the dire effects it would have on his career. However, with time Matlovich began to see the issue of homosexuality in the military as a civil rights matter.

He wrote the controversial letter to his commanding officer to test the military's tolerance of gay servicemen, and was discharged as a result. In 1975, the gay rights movement was extremely young, and Matlovich's admission quickly exploded into a national debate.

Featured on the Cover of Time Magazine

Time magazine soon featured a cover photo of Matlovich in full Air Force uniform with a headline that read, "I Am a Homosexual." The issue spurred a national debate about whether it was right to ban homosexuals from being in the U.S. military.

Later, Matlovich pursued a legal case against the air force relating to his discharge and succeeded in having it upgraded from "general" to "honorable." About nine years later, in 1988, he passed away at the young age of 44 due to complications relating to AIDS. He received a military burial with full honors in Washington, D.C., where his tombstone at the Congressional Cemetery reads, "A gay Vietnam veteran. When I was in the military they gave me a medal for killing two men and a discharge for loving one."