Issue:  Vol. 48 / No. 3 / 18 January 2018

Friends plan plaque for gay Castro vet


Leonard Matlovich may be the only gay activist to have had his photo taken sitting at the president's desk in the Oval Office. Matlovich and his friend Michael Bedwell were given a private tour by President Carter's out assistant Midge Costanza in 1977. Photo: Courtesy Michael Bedwell.
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As the Castro braces for the release of a film on one of its most famous denizens, plans are in the works to commemorate another notable resident considered a gay rights trailblazer in his own right.

Leonard Matlovich, who served in the Air Force during the Vietnam War, became an overnight media sensation when a photo of him in uniform appeared on the cover of Time magazine in September 1975 underneath the headline "I Am A Homosexual" at a time when most LGBT people feared to come out of the closet.

The story detailed Matlovich's legal fight challenging the ban on gays in the military. He had told his commanding officers he was a homosexual but wanted to remain in the service. The Air Force kicked him out, and Matlovich sued the secretary of the Air Force.

Matlovich settled out of court and received $160,000. The lawsuit did prompt the military after 1981 to switch from giving gay service members dishonorable discharges to honorable discharges.

While the case worked its way through the courts, Matlovich took up residence in the Castro, moving in 1978 from Washington, D.C. into the apartment building at the corner of 18th and Castro streets, which houses a Starbucks and formerly was the site of Ritz Camera.

Matlovich lived in San Francisco for several years before moving to the Russian River area where he operated a pizza restaurant. He died of AIDS in 1988 one month shy of his 45th birthday and is buried in Congressional Cemetery in Washington.

His tombstone has become a sort of gay shrine and reads, "When I was in the military, they gave me a medal for killing two men and a discharge for loving one." It is located on the same row as that of FBI director J. Edgar Hoover, long rumored to be a closeted homosexual.

A Republican and member of the local Log Cabin Republicans group, Matlovich was also an AIDS activist. He marched on Washington, D.C. and was arrested outside the White House protesting a lack of funding for AIDS a year prior to his own death from the disease.

Now friends of the decorated war veteran want to recall his time spent in the Bay Area by placing a plaque on the building he called home in the Castro. With June 22 marking the 20th anniversary of Matlovich's death, the timing is right to put up a memorial, they said.

"I wanted to memorialize him both to pay respect to him and to make newer generations aware of him," said Michael Bedwell, 61, the executor of Matlovich's estate. "Mainstream society has countless examples of these which mark the people who came before, that inspire people, and reinforce people's identity themselves."

Supervisor Bevan Dufty has expressed his support for the project, having first met Matlovich at a 1976 dinner party at the D.C. home of his college friend Susan Leal.

"I thought he was impressive. I was like 21 years old and this guy was amazing. He was out and proudly gay," recalled Dufty. "Most gay men were closeted. It was kind of amazing somebody who had this military experience and all these military decorations for courage and service and bravery and he was an openly gay man."

Paul Boneberg, executive director of the GLBT Historical Society, befriended Matlovich after the war hero accepted an invitation to address the Gay Student Union at San Jose State University, which Boneberg led.

"Leonard was one of the most famous gay spokespeople in the 1970s," said Boneberg. "He was a principal political player in the city for a long time."

Boneberg, a founder of a local AIDS lobbyist group, was with Matlovich in 1987 when the two were arrested in front of the White House.

"He was quite sick at that point and he wore his uniform. The one we have here," said Boneberg, whose agency is putting on an exhibit about gays in the military with Matlovich's old military items, such as his full dress uniform, dog tags, Bronze Star medal and footlocker, a central feature. "I was shocked to walk in and see this uniform. I remember him standing in front of the White House, and we are all being arrested and he was holding the American flag."

Bedwell first met Matlovich in 1975 when he came to give a speech before his gay student group at Indiana University. Upon graduation, Bedwell moved to D.C. to live with Matlovich, and then in 1979, moved in with Matlovich as his roommate in the Castro.

"I lived with him in apartment 22 then we moved into apartment 32," recalled Bedwell, adding that the two men had a strictly platonic relationship.

This spring Bedwell approached the longtime owner of the building, Mike Dotterweich, about erecting a memorial to his famous tenant. Dotterweich quickly signed on, and the two are splitting the $3,000 cost of the bronze plaque.

"Clearly, his statement on his tombstone ... is so profound in terms of a statement that affects everybody, straight or gay," said Dotterweich, who never personally met Matlovich. "It is an incredible statement and I think it should be out there."

They had wanted to install it during Pride Month, but now plan to unveil it in the fall in order for Matlovich's friends and former colleagues to attend the ceremony. The plaque will be installed on the building's 18th Street facade to the left of a wrought-iron entrance gate.

Bedwell said he is hopeful they can have the ceremony "possibly in September, since that will be the anniversary of his being discharged from the Air Force."

The historical society is also working on a map of gay historical sites to coincide with the release of the movie Milk, the biopic on the late San Francisco Supervisor Harvey Milk, set for release this November. Milk became the first out gay man elected to public office in the U.S. in 1977 and owned a camera shop down the street from Matlovich's apartment building.

A historical marker can be found out front marking the site of the old shop, now home to gift store Given. There are currently six markers denoting gay history in the Castro, with several others scattered around the Tenderloin and North Beach neighborhoods. Both Boneberg and Dufty would like to see more installed.

Dufty is working on placing a plaque outside a South of Market gay bar to commemorate famous gay poet Thom Gunn, who was active in the city's leather community. Gunn's most famous book of poems is entitled The Man with the Night Sweats, about people with AIDS.

"It is good for the LGBT community and for the city so tourists can find these spots," said Boneberg. "One of the great assets San Francisco has as a cultural destination point for gay tourism is our history."

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