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Sgt Denny's Rant

An Inconvenient Hero

Leonard Matlovitch was hardly the first gay American hero, but he was the first to get major mainstream media attention and bring gay issues to the front pages of newspapers, Time Magazine, and even to network TV evening news.  Before Leonard, homosexuality as a topic was taboo and totally unfit to print in the papers and even to mention on TV where hetero non-dysfunctional family situation comedies were the norm.  Lenny could not be ignored because he did not fit the standard false stereotype of an outrageous effeminate; quite the contrary, he was a warrior, a Vietnam war hero with 18 years of service as an Air Force Staff Sergeant who had earned a Purple Heart and Bronze Star in battle.  For numb brained ordinary folks, this was an amazing contradiction worth reading about.

For the United States Air Force. the Pentagon, and our American government, he was a most inconvenient hero.  The military was well aware that we were serving, but just as today, they wished it wasn't talked or told about.  Well before America's entry into World War II, our armed forces began developing psychological evaluations to weed out queer recruits.  A major secret study in the late 1950s determined that homosexuals in our armed forces did not pose a security risk.  We've been on their minds all along.  Lenny let the cat out of the bag, and there was no way they could ever stuff the truth back into silence.  Leonard Matlovitch, a decorated Vietnam hero, simply wrote a letter to the Secretary of the Air Force stating that he was gay.  It was not a whim, it was carefully thought out and planned; they discharged him promptly, he sued, the case dragged on for ten long years of incessant publicity, and he eventually won and was ordered to be reinstated.  By that time, of course, the Air Force was quite sick of him, he had a new life as a hapless gay hero, and for a considerable sum of money, they agreed to part ways forever.

Lenny was also a most curious hero for gay folks as well.  Although there were nearly a million living gay veterans who had served from World War II onward; for most gay people, a 'gay man in uniform' was some sort of incongruous fantasy.  Yet, there he was, an openly out war hero, a tall handsome sergeant through and through, conservative, slightly unfashionable, and a Republican from the vast hetero heartland.  For gay folks, he exemplified the amazing thought that one could truly be anything one wanted to be.

I met Lenny in the Summer of 1979.  He had recently come to San Francisco where he was welcomed with open arms.  Having already spent several years in demand on the speaking circuit, he decided to run for election to the Board of Supervisors in the one American city, in that era, where being openly gay was normal.  At the Castro Street fair on a balmy late summer day, I saw his booth emblazoned with a hand lettered sign saying 'Leonard Matlovitch For Supervisor.'  My heart skipped a beat in awe that he might really be there in person; he was already nationally famous.  I went up to him and told him that he's my hero.  In characteristic humility, he asked, "Why?"  "Because I served in silence," I told him.  And then that tall handsome sergeant bent down and kissed me.  I didn't wash my lips for weeks!

In those days, the gods of gay liberation walked the Earth like ordinary mortals.  One could stand on the street corner chatting with them for hours, invite them over for drinks, and hang out with them when they weren't off on the front lines of the revolution leading marches and giving speeches.  And so, we became friends.  Lenny had lots of friends, of course; at least 410 of them, anyway.  That's how many people voted for him, alas (according to the account in Conduct Unbecoming by Randy Shilts).  Some called him a carpetbagger; others said he was terribly naive.  In fact, he was simply a very down to Earth folksy ordinary guy who just wasn't part of the big bad world of politics.

He didn't win the election, but he did eventually win his case.  The Air Force gave him about $175,000 to go away.  He took that and established Stumptown Annie's, a pizza parlor in the gay resort of Guerneville on the Russian River about an hour north of San Francisco.  The menu was full of wild concoctions including a hundred thousand dollar pizza -served in a Mercedes Benz.  Lenny's sense of humor was downright corny.  He'd sit in his living room and tell a bunch of friends, for whom he'd just made a spaghetti dinner, that he was into S&M, "you know, Sneakers and Makeup..."  Oyyyy.

Leonard Matlovitch wasn't trying to be a hero.  He was just a real ordinary guy who served his country to the best of his ability and spoke up honestly about who he was.

His gravestone reads: A Gay Vietnam Veteran; They gave me a medal for killing two men, and a discharge for loving one.