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Gay History Month: Barbara Gittings and Sgt. Leonard Matlovich
The First 2 of 12
2006-10-04

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Gittings. Photo courtesy of GLAAD. Matlovich. Photo courtesy of San Francisco Bay Area Gay and Lesbian Historical Society

__________

Barbara Gittings

On July 4, 1965, Barbara Gittings picketed outside the steps of Independence Hall in Philadelphia, brandishing a sign which read: 'Homosexuals should be judged as individuals.' But her work as an activist goes far beyond that first protest. More than 43 years in the civil-rights movement saw Gittings make an impact on the medical, literary and media industries. She is a founding member of the New York chapter of the early lesbian group Daughters of Bilitis ( DOB ) and a former editor of the DOB's national magazine, The Ladder. Her tenure at The Ladder led to a shift in values of the organization toward direct action, a concept which Gittings implemented in her struggle with the American Psychiatric Association ( APA ) . Gittings joined Frank Kameny in the campaign against the APA's classification of homosexuality as a mental illness, a battle that included a rogue exhibit at the 1971 convention and participation in several APA panels. The campaign's goal was realized in 1973, when the Board of Trustees agreed on homosexuality's removal from the list of disorders. And, in perhaps her most notable contribution as a pioneer, Gittings' work with the American Library Association ( ALA ) dramatically increased the availability and proliferation of LGBT-themed works for mass consumption. The Gay Bibliography began with 37 positive titles on gay topics, and now has hundreds of titles in numerous categories. As a further step to increase LGBT visibility in literature, she also led the ALA's Task Force on Gay Liberation to present the first Gay Book Award in 1975, which was adopted as an official award by the ALA in 1986. In 2001, the Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation honored Gittings with the very first Barbara Gittings Award for activism.

Along with her partner, fellow activist Kay Lahusen, she continues her community activities and is widely recognized for all her historic efforts.

— Jason Villemez

Sgt. Leonard Matlovich

When Leonard Matlovich became the first openly gay man to grace the cover of Time on Sept. 8, 1975, his story had enlivened both the anti-gay military climate and the gay civil-rights struggle. After coming out in March 1975, Matlovich was discharged from the Air Force after 12 years of impressive service, including three tours in Vietnam that resulted in a Bronze Star, Purple Heart and Air Force Commendation Medal. The 32-year-old fought against the ruling, taking the case up to the U.S. Court of Appeals, which began a firestorm in press and political circles. A program about his case, Sergeant Matlovich vs. the U.S. Air Force, was aired by NBC as one of the first gay feature stories on broadcast television. Matlovich also graced the covers of multiple national media outlets, including Time. The Court of Appeals eventually overturned the lower court's decision to uphold the discharge, and subsequent proceedings led to ordering the Sergeant's reinstatement and $62,000 back pay. However, the court ruled not on the constitutionality of the discharge itself, but the Air Force's failure to clarify its reasoning. Rather than return to military service, Matlovich decided to accept an honorable discharge and a $160,000 tax-free settlement. He entered the civilian world and moved to San Francisco, where he lived as ensuing events unfolded. He took a strong conservative stance during the AIDS epidemic, campaigning against bathhouse culture and creating a gay conservative organization in Washington, D.C. In 1986, Matlovich was diagnosed with AIDS, and spent his remaining years as an activist until his death at 45 in 1988. He was given full military honors and a 21-gun salute at the Congressional Cemetery in Washington. His tombstone sits as a memorial to all gay and lesbian servicemembers, reading 'A Gay Vietnam Veteran' in place of his name. Another famous line adorns the stone, one that echoes in the gay and military communities still today; 'When I was in the military they gave me a medal for killing two men and a discharge for loving one.'

— Jason Villemez


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