When T/Sgt. Leonard Matlovich handed his coming-out letter to his superior officer, a black captain at Langley Air Force Base, Va., the officer said: "What the hell does this mean?" Replied Matlovich: "It means Brown v. the Board of Education."
Matlovich, now 32, was deliberately provoking a discharge from the Air Force in order to challenge the military's long-standing ban on homosexuals (TIME, June 9). Indeed, his lawyers hope the case will reach the Supreme Court and produce a landmark decision on homosexual rights comparable to the court's historic school integration decision of 1954. It is a perfect test case. The tall, red-haired sergeant has an impeccable twelve-year military record, no known psychiatric problems, and a Bronze Star and Purple Heart won on one of his three tours in Viet Nam. A five-man Air Force review board begins hearings Sept. 16 at Langley.
Matlovich is the son of an Air Force sergeant, and was raised at airbases in the U.S. and England. Though he says he knew he was homosexual at the age of twelve, he did not act upon that knowledge till he was 30, when he finally got up the nerve to go to a gay bar in Pensacola, Fla. Though Matlovich feared he would be raped by frenzied homosexuals, the bar turned out to be a civilized place filled with airmen, blue-collar workers and middle-class professional men. He lost his virginity that night to a government civil servant. Says Matlovich: "I had never held another person in my arms, never kissed another person since I was a child except for family."
Though only dimly aware of the gay liberation movement, he ran across the name of Gay Activist Frank Kameny in a military magazine's article on homosexuals. He flew to Washington, met with Kameny and Addlestone, and enthusiastically offered to challenge the military ban on homosexuals. The two men urged him to slow down and think about it. Matlovich didfor nine monthsbefore writing his letter last March.
Since then, Matlovich has become one of the best-known gays in the country. (His parents prefer to think he is more interested in homosexuality as a cause than as a way of life.) Addressing a Gay Pride Week rally in New York in June, he broke down and cried. Says he: "I found myself, little nobody me, standing up in front of tens of thousands of gay people. And just two years ago I thought I was the only gay in the world. It was a mixture of joy and sadness. It was just great pride to be an American, to know I'm oppressed but able to stand up there and say so. They were very beautiful people out there."