By Pat Baillie | In September 1975, just three years before I joined the Air Force, I saw the cover of Time Magazine with a picture of Leonard Matlovich and the headline “I am a Homosexual”. This simple cover began to shape my future. Even before Harvey Milk, Matlovich was the first openly gay person to appear on the cover of a US magazine and he became a symbol for LGBT servicemembers. Initially, he didn’t win his court battle and was discharged long before Don’t Ask Don’t Tell (DADT) came into effect.
When I joined the service, the voice of LGBT servicemembers still found a way to educate and protect each other. Brave men and women shared their stories and discussed how to survive in a system that would turn against them if it were discovered that they were gay or lesbian. Imagine, no matter how well you did your job, you could never live in safety because of who you loved.
I grew in my own career to help others and “pay it forward” in my own way. I met Leonard Matlovich a couple of times at events in the 80’s and was able to thank him for his bravery and example. He always looked back to those that sparked his activism such as Frank Kameny. If you read Leonard’s history, you know he kept fighting and standing up for his right to serve. He actually could have been reinstated into the military in 1980 but chose a financial settlement since he felt the military would find another reason to discharge him or the Supreme Court wouldn’t uphold his reinstatement.
During this time, he was also kicked out of the Morman church for the fact that he was gay. Being out in the days of Anita Bryant in Florida and John Briggs in California was a time that the LGBT community was just beginning to find its voice and stand up all around the country. Leonard moved out to California. He was diagnosed with HIV/AIDS, and also spent his energy fighting the battle against HIV/AIDS. When he died in 1988, it was a blow to the community and servicemembers around the world, but he had set a standard that we all believed one day might be a reality. I didn’t make it to his funeral when he was buried at the Congressional Cemetary, near FBI Director, J. Edgar Hoover. I made it out to his grave the next year and the moving message on his tombstone kept me going.
The three investigations over my military career were difficult, stressful and made it hard to keep doing a good job. I made it through, though, and retired in 1993 at the start of DADT and have continued to advocate to stop the discharge of qualified military members. Tuesday, I will be out celebrating here in San Francisco because the end of discrimination in the military based on sexual orientation is finally here. I will wear my medals, remember my mentors and those we lost along the way, and rest for just a minute until we gear up for the next battle. We’re not done yet, but we can take one big deep breath for this step toward freedom!