Showing posts with label Gay AirForce. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Gay AirForce. Show all posts

September 9, 2015

“IAM a Homosexual” and Closeted-40 Yrs Ago in the Air Force


It was exactly 40 years ago that Leonard Matlovich tested the Air Force's ban on gay service members

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.”
Today, 40 years after the cover first appeared, it serves as a striking reminder of how much has changed in a few short decades (although a billthat would push the upgrading of discharges of those who were in Matlovich’s shoes to “honorable” status is currently stuck in Congress).
“I’m pretty old and have been involved in gay rights for quite a while,” says Michael Bedwell, a close friend of Matlovich’s and the executor of his estate, “I never imagined simultaneously how far we had to go and how long it would take.”
Matlovich took his first steps toward becoming a public figure that June, shortly after he came out in a letter to his commanding officer. As TIME reported in the September cover story: “When T/Sgt. Leonard Matlovichhanded 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.'”
That letter, which is now held along with the rest of Matlovich’s papers at the GLBT Historical Society in San Francisco, can be read here (roll over to zoom):

Courtesy of Leonard Matlovich Papers, Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual and Transgender Historical Society

Unlike Brown v. Board, Matlovich’s case did not go to the Supreme Court. After the Air Force began the proceedings to give him a general (not honorable) discharge, Matlovich announced that he wanted the decision to be reviewed. Although the review board had the option to overturn decisions in “most unusual circumstances,” they refused to do so.
Matlovich went on to become a dedicated advocate for gay rights, running for the San Francisco public office that had once been Harvey Milk’s. In 1980, a judge ordered the Air Force to reinstate Matlovich and to give him five years’ worth of back pay on the grounds that the “most unusual circumstances” rule was too vague. The two sides eventually settled, but the story didn’t end there.
“He had a gift, peculiar to someone who really only had a high-school education and knew nothing about the gay rights movement before he became one of its leaders, of appreciating historical perspective,” Bedwell says.
Matlovich died of AIDS in 1988. He was 44. His tombstone, which does not bear his name, echoes the sentiments of that TIME reader from 40 years ago: WHEN I WAS IN THE MILITARY THEY GAVE ME A MEDAL FOR KILLING TWO MEN AND A DISCHARGE FOR LOVING ONE.

Margaret Witt
Courtesy Margaret WittMargaret Witt at Leonard Matlovich’s gravesite

Matlovich’s influence was particularly strong on one case. Margaret Witt, a retired major in the Air Force Reserves, was a flight nurse who was discharged from the service after being outed against her will during the “don’t ask, don’t tell” era. After suing, Witt settled shortly after that law was repealed in 2010.
She recalls that, as a closeted member of the military, she often thought of Matlovich’s story as proof that it was possible to be proud of one’s service and proud of one’s sexuality.
“I never thought I’d be in that position, but I think we all thought it couldhappen to us,” Witt says. “We all kept our own hidden libraries if you will, even of books, and grabbed for any articles we could find on what was happening. We silently followed very closely anything that was happening. The visibility of all of those folks was a huge influence whether they were aware of it or not.”
These days, as the military begins to accept not only gay people but also transgender service members, Bedwell often recalls something Matlovich told the reporters who swarmed his discharge hearing back in 1975: “Maybe not in my lifetime, but we are going to win in the end.”
Read the full 1975 cover story, here in the TIME Vault: The Sergeant v. The Air Force

September 22, 2014

Democratic Senate Confirms Top Gay Lawyer for Air Force

Four days before the third anniversary of the end to “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” the U.S. Senate confirmed an openly gay attorney as the top lawyer for the Air Force.
On Sept. 16, the Senate confirmed Gordon Tanner, whom President Obama nominated in April, by voice vote to the position of general counsel to the Air Force.
Tanner is the first-ever presidential appointee confirmed by the Senate who’s not only openly gay and married to a same-sex spouse, but also a military veteran. Although he served in the civilian side of the Air Force for more than a decade, he had served on the uniform side of the service as a judge advocate general from 1973 to 1977. In 2010, Tanner married his spouse Robert Patlan in D.C.

But Tanner isn’t the only openly gay person the Senate has confirmed for a position for the civilian side of the Air Force. Last year, Eric Fanning was approved by lawmakers to take on the role of Air Force under secretary, which made him the highest-ranking openly gay official the Pentagon.

Prior to this confirmation, Tanner was principal deputy assistant secretary of the Air Force for manpower and reserve affairs, where had served last year since 2013. Since 2000, he has served in various capacities in the civilian side of the Air Force, including principal deputy general counsel; deputy assistant secretary of the Air Force for reserve affairs; deputy general counsel for environment and installations; and associate general counsel of the Office of the Air Force general counsel.
Tanner received his bachelor’s degree from the University of Alabama and his law degree from Vanderbilt University.

One of the first issues Tanner may have to tackle is defending a recent policy change within the Air Force allowing airmen who are atheists to omit the words “so help me God” from their enlistment and officer appointment oaths.

 No stranger to speaking out in favor of highlighting the presence of the LGBT community within the U.S. armed forces, Tanner participated in the first-ever Pride event at the Pentagon in 2012 following the end to “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.”
In his remarks, Tanner said gay officials within the military must be as “open and honest as you can possibly be” because they have a responsibility to make themselves visible.

“We civilians, for those of you in the room and on — in TV land out there, we have military colleagues who are not yet comfortable about being more open,” Tanner said. “We as civilians have a unique opportunity to be that bridge, to help them if they find themselves in a climate that is not as comfortable yet as it should be. We can be there for our military colleagues.”

But Tanner also recalled the pain he felt under the military’s ban open service before it was repealed by Congress and lifted by Obama and Pentagon officials a year later.
“I did retire recently as a Reserve JAG,” Tanner said. “And I remember the fear and concern I had about potentially being outed during that period of time. And it would have been awful. And I can’t imagine what a relief that — I can imagine what a relief that is now.”

Even though “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” has been repealed, a number of challenges still remain for LGBT people in the armed forces. Transgender people are still barred from service by military regulation; no non-discrimination policy exists for gay, lesbian, bisexual service members; and under current law gay veterans are ineligible for certain spousal benefits if they live in a state without marriage equality.
On Friday, the LGBT military group the American Military Partner Association issued a statement drawing attention to these persistent issues ahead of the third anniversary of the end to “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” which was formally lifted on Sept. 20, 2011.

Lori Hensic, director of research and policy for the American Military Partner Association, said despite ongoing obstacles, the confirmation of Tanner demonstrates the progress that has been made.
“It’s encouraging to our community to see someone of high caliber be promoted to a position commensurate with their talent,” Hensic said. “Considering the past discrimination an openly gay man would have faced in attaining such a position, it’s inspiring to see how far we’ve progressed as a nation, especially in our military.” 

Chris Johnson is Chief Political & White House Reporter for the Washington Blade. Johnson attends the daily White House press briefings and is a member of the White House Correspondents' Association. Follow Chris 

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