A contingent of active-duty and retired gay and lesbian military service members and their supporters participated in a Veterans Day wreath laying ceremony on Monday in D.C.’s Congressional Cemetery to honor LGBT service members, including those who lost their lives while serving their country.
The event took place at the gravesite of Air Force Sgt. Leonard Matlovich, who in 1975 became the first active duty service member to challenge the military’s ban on gays. The Air Force provided a formal military burial for Matlovich in Congressional Cemetery at the time of his death in 1988 as LGBT activists recognized his role as a champion in the cause of lifting the ban on gays in the military.
Lt. Col. Todd Burton, a member of the Army National Guard who organized the Veterans Day tribute, said the Matlovich gravesite was selected because Matlovich intended the site to be used as a tribute to all LGBT service members. Burton organized the event on behalf of Outserve/Service Members Legal Defense Network, a national group representing LGBT service members.
“It’s a privilege to gather here with fellow service members to honor one of our own,” Burton said. “What an honor to be able to do this together.”
About 20 participants gathered around the gravesite as Burton told of Matlovich’s role as a leading force in the movement to end the military’s ban on gays. Although Matlovich didn’t live to see that happen, Burton said he became an inspiration for succeeding generations of LGBT service members.
Burton noted that the ashes of D.C. gay rights leader Frank Kameny, who counseled Matlovich during Matlovich’s challenge of the military’s gay ban, would soon be buried at a site in the cemetery close to the Matlovich gravesite. Kameny, a World War II combat veteran, died in 2011.
As Burton completed his tribute, Sr. Master Sgt. Kevin Murphy of the Air Force and Sr. U.S. Navy Chief Dwayne Beebe-Franqui — both wearing military uniforms — placed a wreath behind the Matlovich gravesite’s internationally recognized headstone.
Matlovich anonymously arranged for the headstone’s placement at the cemetery prior to his death. He told friends and associates that he wanted it to be used to honor all LGBT service members.
The stone is made of the same black granite used in the Vietnam Veterans Memorial wall located on the National Mall. Matlovich arranged for pink triangles to be embedded into the headstone in reference to the symbol used to identify gay men in Nazi concentration camps and which later became an international symbol for gay rights.
As a veteran who served in combat during the Vietnam War, Matlovich also had inscribed in the headstone a statement now widely known in the LGBT rights movement: “They gave me a medal for killing two men and a discharge for loving one.”
Matlovich’s name was placed in a separate footstone at the gravesite shortly after his death.
“I’m honored to stand here right now,” said Beebe-Franqui shortly after placing the wreath at the gravesite.
“I survived the entire ordeal of ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,’” he said, noting that’s he’s been in the Navy 21 years. “I never thought it was going to go away and when it finally did it was just an amazing day for everyone. And that’s why for all those years of having to hide, I decided to not hide anymore and stand and be a leader in the Navy and to support LGBT troops.”
Beebe-Franqui, who was accompanied at the ceremony by his husband, Jonathan Beebe-Franqui, said the two live together on a Navy base in Nashville, Tenn., where he’s currently stationed.
During the ceremony, Burton called on the gathering to observe a moment of silence to honor four gay male service members and one lesbian service member who died in action while serving in the military. The five are Lloyd Darling, who was killed in Vietnam in 1968; Alan Rogers, killed in Iraq in 2008; Andy Wilfahrt, killed in Afghanistan in 2011; Donna Johnson, killed in Afghanistan in 2012; and Reid Nishizuka, killed in Afghanistan in 2013.