Leonard Matlovich was, next to Harvey Milk, the best-known gay man in America in the 1970s. Unlike Milk, though, Matlovich's name has sadly been largely forgotten over the decades. He graced the cover of September 8, 1975 issue of Time magazine with the headline "I am a homosexual," making him the first openly gay person to appear on the cover of an American newsmagazine. Matlovich was also the first man to purposely out himself in the U.S. military, an action which led to his Time cover.
Matlovich was born in Georgia in 1943, the son of a career Air Force sergeant who spent his childhood living on military bases. It was never a question that he would join the armed forces, which he did at 19, soon deploying to Vietnam for three tours. He came out to his friends in the 1960s but kept his sexuality hidden from the Air Force. He frequented gay bars and came to understand the discrimination against gays as similar to what African Americans faced. In 1974, Matlovich contacted gay activist Frank Kameny, and, together with the ACLU, they planned a test of the military's ban on gay members. Matlovich came out to his commanding officer on March 6, 1975, and his challenge to the military became public two months later when The New York Times wrote about it; this article would be how Matlovich's father discovered his son's sexuality. His discharge hearing was held in September, at which time the Air Force asked Matlovich to sign a contract pledging to never practice homosexuality again in exchange for keeping his position. He refused and was discharged in October, despite being the recipient of a Bronze Star and a Purple Heart. He sued for reinstatement, which was granted in 1980. Still unwilling to accept a gay servicemember, the Air Force offered him a settlement instead; Matlovich accepted, assuming they would find some other reason to discharge him later on.
Throughout the 70s, Matlovich advocated for several gay organizations, leading campaigns against Anita Bryant and John Briggs. In the 80s, he fought for AIDS education and treatment. He died of the disease in 1988. His tombstone, now a site of pilgrimage for many gay veterans, does not bear his name. It 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."