How a Closeted Air Force Sergeant Became the Face of Gay Rights

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It was early 1974 when Leonard Matlovich stumbled across a story in Air Force Times that would change his life—and alter the course of gay rights in America. The piece mentioned that Frank Kameny, a pioneering gay rights activist, was looking for a case to test the military’s ban on gay service members. Matlovich had long known he was gay, but had lived his life firmly in the closet as he followed his father’s footsteps into the Air Force and served in Vietnam, earning a Bronze Star and a Purple Heart. After returning to the states, Matlovich, who was raised in the segregated South, worked as a counselor easing racial tension in the service.

It was exactly the sort of resume that Kameny was looking for. By Sept. 8, 1975, Matlovich, who had long been intensely guarded about his personal life, was on the cover of TIME under the banner headline, “I Am a Homosexual.”

Matlovich had become one of the most visible faces of the still-nascent gay-rights movement. TIME readers responded to the cover with letters that ranged from calling him “a disgrace to the uniform of an honorable service” to noting the irony of a world where you can “be highly decorated for killing thousands of your fellow men and be drummed out of the corps if you dare to love one.”




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