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The Launch of the
National LGBT Veterans Memorial
at the Congressional Cemetery
Washington D.C.

by Denny Meyer

It all began many years ago in the early 1980s when Air Force TSgt. Leonard Matlovich, discharged for being gay, still walked the Earth like an ordinary mortal.  He wrote, "I believe we must be the same activists in our deaths that we are in our lives.  I urge those of you who are facing death to find a method of leaving a lasting record of your accomplishments-including the acknowledgement that you were lesbian or gay."  He was a genuine American hero, with over a decade of sterling service, a Purple Heart, and Bronze Star for his sacrifice and valor in Vietnam.  He arranged for his own burial at Congressional Cemetery, and designed his tombstone which 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."  There will be more on Matlovich later.

This past August, nearly a quarter century after Matlovich's death, the National LGBT Veterans Memorial (NLGBTVM) issued a press release announcing the launch, by military veterans, of the project in Washington DC to create "a visible and lasting testament to the contribution gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender service members have made to the security of the United States."

"A National LGBT Veterans Memorial Is Being Built At Historical Congressional Cemetery Located In Washington, DC

The Board of Directors of NLGBTVM has entered into an agreement with the Board of Directors of Historic Congressional Cemetery to establish the Memorial there and has purchased cemetery plots for the project. The plan includes the option to inter cremains for those veterans who wish to be memorialized on site. For those who want to have their service recognized but who do not want to bury their ashes, there is an option to buy a brick engraved with their service information.

The plan includes accepting designs for the Memorial/Monument submitted by artists nationwide. A committee will select from the designs submitted those that best meet the requirements and then those will be juried by a committee of professionals to select the winner of the design contest.

Nancy Russell, a retired Army LTC and Chair of the NLGBTVM Board of Directors said, “The time has come for those of us who were forced to serve in silence  to honor our fellow veterans with a dignified and impressive memorial in our national capitol.  The National LGBT Veterans Memorial will provide a fitting resting place where our veterans may, as Leonard Matlovich urged us to do, ‘leave a lasting record of our accomplishments’.”

NLGBTVM is targeting Memorial Day 2014 for a dedication ceremony. Those who want more information or to donate should go to the website at www.nlgbtvm.org"

According to LTC Russell (USA Ret.), the project was conceptualized ten long years ago with the idea of a memorial monument, at Congressional Cemetery in the nation's capitol, that would represent LGBT veterans from across the entire country and provide them with a proper and prominent place to memorialize their service.  At that time she and Patrick Crowley, then a volunteer worker at the Congressional Cemetery and later its chairman, got approval for their concept and began to work out the details.  Naturally, the devil is always in the details; and it took a decade of determination and stamina to make it a reality.  Among many problems was the flooding of the Anacostia River onto the lower section of Cemetery originally selected as the site for the monument and funding delays in planned landscaping; along with a right-of-way ownership issue of a road through that section.  Finally, in September of 2011, coincidentally coinciding with the repeal of Don't Ask Don't Tell, all was ready for the project to begin at long last.  With fundraising proceeding, in May of 2012 a deposit was made for the initial plots with planned room for further expansion.  Nothing is ever easy, is it.

The project has begun with payment for six of ten planned plots, with additional plots available as fundraising and demand for space progresses.  Depending on the outcome of a planned monument design competition, there will initially be room for up to sixty cremains and eighty to one hundred memorial bricks.  Each plot will hold four to six urns.

At present, according to LTC Russell, participation is possible in three ways:
-Those wishing to simply support the project may make a donation by visiting the monument's official website at www.nlgbtvm.org
-LGBT vets wishing to inter all or part of their cremains may reserve a space, for a donation of $2,500 which may be given in installments.
-LGBT vets wishing to be memorialized may have a brick for a donation of $500 which also may be given in a few installments.

Obviously, donations are essential for this project, which was envisioned by Leonard Matlovich, who challenged us to leave a lasting legacy of our accomplishments.

"The memorial will be a visible and lasting testament to the contribution that gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender service members have made to the security of the United States. The monument's design is envisioned as being impressive yet dignified, suitable to the patriotic service that we have given over the years.  For those asking why the memorial will not be at Arlington National Cemetery in Washington, the answer is that they do not put any memorials there, except for a very few such as for The Unknown Soldier, and President Kennedy who served in World War II.  Memorials on the Capitol Mall require Congressional approval, which is unlikely anytime soon," said Russell.

Interestingly, those very thoughts were on the mind of Leonard Matlovich, some thirty years ago, as he began thinking of where and how to park himself for eternity in a lasting memorial to LGBT service.  His longtime friend and the chronicler of his legacy, Michael Bedwell, recounted how Matlovich's monument came to be at Congressional Cemetery:

"Although it was a few years before the AIDS crisis hit, and his own diagnosis, Leonard first began thinking of being buried someday in Congressional Cemetery when he discovered it on one of his frequent walks near the duplex we shared just a few blocks away. In addition to appreciating its overall history, more than half-a-century older than Arlington National Cemetery, he was intrigued by some of its residents.  They include Peter Doyle, considered by many to have been the man that gay American poet Walt Whitman loved most; and possible lovers, infamous FBI director J. Edgar Hoover and his closest friend and heir, Clyde Tolson. Then, when we visited Père Lachaise Cemetery in Paris in 1984, he was moved by the constant stream of visitors to the grave of gay icon Oscar Wilde, and the shared gravesite of famous lesbian couple Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas, and decided that gays in America also needed memorials to those who’d come before. Knowing that only huge public figures such as the Kennedy brothers are allowed by Arlington to install any tombstone there other than the generic-inscribed 42 x 13 x 4 inches version issued by the Veterans Administration, he purchased two plots in Congressional Cemetery, numbers 161 and 162 in row 20, one for himself and the other for a hoped-for future lover. As a kind of last laugh on Hoover and Tolson who were known to have used the Bureau to harass gays, he chose the same row they are buried in; Tolson's is plot number 156 with its ironic pink granite marker while Hoover's is number 117 in a family plot further down.

He designed a headstone that would also serve as a memorial to gay veterans using the same kind of reflective black granite that formed the capital’s Vietnam Veterans Memorial Wall, and adding two pink granite triangles in memory of gay victims of the Nazi Holocaust. It would not bear his own name; his last name alone was to be engraved at the foot of the grave on its granite coving. In 1987, he and a friend proposed a memorial in Congressional Cemetery for slain gay supervisor Harvey Milk. In an op ed in "The Advocate" prior to the dedication ceremony during that year's gay march on Washington, he recalled:

“Even after I returned to the United States, I couldn't seem to get the images [in Paris] out of my mind. The knowledge that I could never have had that experience in my own country made me increasingly frustrated and angry. I knew, for example, that when Americans went to the Vietnam Memorial to remember and honor those who gave their lives fighting in that horrible war, it never occurred to them that some of those who were the strongest, bravest, and most heroic were also gay. ... When confronted with our own mortality, it has become common in our community to have our bodies cremated and our ashes thrown to the four winds. But with the wind goes an important part of our history. And also an important part of our future.  I ask you to consider the
 ramifications of this action on tomorrow’s generation of lesbians and gays as they search for self-esteem. I believe that we must be the same activists in our deaths that we were in our lives. I urge those of you who are facing death to find a method of leaving a lasting record of our accomplishments—including the acknowledgment that you were lesbian or gay.”  (http://www.advocate.com/health/aids-30-years-war/2011/05/05/30-voices-past-30-years)

Directions to Leonard Matlovich's grave:

As a gay Vietnam Era veteran of ten years service in silence, the establishment of the National LGBT Veterans Memorial means a lot to me personally.  As I recounted in a CBC radio interview in August, I could never have imagined, when I served, that someday we would be able to serve openly in pride of both our service and who we are.  I told the story of how I first met and became friends with Leonard Matlovich at the Castro Street Fair in San Francisco in 1979.  "Lenny had just recently arrived and been welcomed as a hero by the gay community.  At the fair, he set up a booth with a hand lettered sign reading 'Leonard Matlovich for Board of Supervisors.' My eyes popped out and I ran over and said to him, "You are my hero, because I served in silence."  And that tall handsome moustacheod Air Force sergeant bent down and kissed me.  I didn't wash my lips for weeks!"  My lover and I would visit 'Stumptown Annie's', the pizza parlor he opened in the gay resort an hour north of San Francisco, and spent evenings at his home, there, listening to him tell corny jokes ("I'm into S&M, you know, sneakers and makeup...") and his stories about his frequent trips to the front lines of the battle for our rights, leading parades and giving speeches.  This was in the days when the gods of the gay revolution walked the Earth like ordinary mortals.

Many years later, in 2004, I was told that I had three months to live due to terminal cancer.  It was my sudden desire to be buried near my hero and have my grave, too, marked, "A Gay Veteran."  I spoke with the director of Congressional Cemetery.  After explaining that I had been a friend of Lenny's and that I had been a rights activist for fifty years, I was told that I could, indeed, be buried there near Leonard Matlovich.  People seemed to be shocked by my morbid sense of humor when I e-mailed everyone I knew, saying, "I've been accepted by the Congressional Cemetery, I'm so excited, I can hardly wait to die!"  OK, maybe it was a bit perverse.  In any case, I survived the eight years since then and am still alive making as much trouble as possible.  And now I have the opportunity to become a part of the monument being established near the grave of Leonard Matlovich.  That means a great deal to me.

-Denny Meyer, A Gay Veteran

©  2012 Gay Military Signal