VANCE AIR FORCE BASE, Okla. — With his father, a 30 year Air Force veteran by his side, Leonard Matlovich was just another scared but excited 19 year old taking the oath of enlistment in 1962. He couldn’t predict then that his presence in the Air Force would ignite a national debate.
Shortly after his enlistment, the war in Vietnam began to escalate. After his first tour in Vietnam he volunteered for a second, then a third. It was during his third tour of duty in Vietnam that Matlovich was seriously injured while clearing landmines.
After his recovery, the Air Force retrained him into a new career field, Race Relations. Created in response to the growing need to address discriminatory behaviors and attitudes, Matlovich excelled as a Race Relations instructor. The Air Force recognized his skills and began to send him to other bases to train other Race Relations instructors.
Matlovich was a model Airman, excelling in his career field and putting service before himself. He did however, have a secret — a secret that was creating an internal battle of integrity.
He had known from an early age that he was different from others, but raised as a devout Catholic, his parents taught him many negative stereotypes of gay men.
It wasn’t until he was 30 years old that he began to meet positive gay role models who did not live up to the stereotypes that he had learned. He also came to terms with his own homosexuality.
After a stellar 13-year career, Matlovich wrote a letter to his commander revealing his homosexuality. Reportedly, his commander said, “Just tear it up, and we will forget it.”
Matlovich refused and the Air Force began discharge procedures.
Taking his case public, Matlovich was interviewed by The New York Times in May 1975. And, by September he was the first openly gay person to be on the cover of Time magazine. None of this swayed the Air Force, and Matlovich was discharged by the end of 1975.
Matlovich appealed and after a five-year legal battle the Air Force was ordered to reinstate him. The Air Force counteroffered with a financial settlement, and convinced the Air Force would find another reason to discharge him, he took the settlement.
Matlovich continued to fight for gay rights until his death in 1988, which ended the first serious attack on the military’s policy against homosexuals openly serving.
However, the question of gays and lesbians in the armed forces did not end with the death of Matlovich. Congress debated the issue until a compromise was reached; “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” was signed into law in 1993.
Under DADT, homosexual individuals could serve in the armed forces as long as they hid their sexuality.
In 2010, President Barrack Obama began working with Congress to repeal DADT. After a long review, the Department of Defense determined that national security would not be diminished if DADT was repealed.
Mirroring those who opposed integrating the armed forces in the late 1940s, opponents argued that repeal would harm morale, retention and recruitment.
DADT was repealed by the end of 2010 and took effect in September 2011. A year after the repeal, the Palm Center released a report that looked into the effects of the repeal. Their report determined that the repeal “had no effect on recruiting, retention or readiness” and was described as “40 pages of ‘nothing happened.’”
The national debate started by Leonard Matlovich is now closed, gay men and women can serve their country without hiding who they are.
In June 2013, the DoD added its first Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Pride Month as an annual observance to be recognized by military and civilian members of the armed forces.
Special observance months aim to promote diversity and combat stereotypes while enhancing respect, teamwork and esprit de corps.
LGBT Pride Month kicked off June 1. All DoD personnel are encouraged to recognize the accomplishments of all members of its workforce and what this group of individuals has helped achieve by their service to the nation.