Four gay members of the Army and one from the Navy stood at attention in full dress uniform Wednesday morning as U.S. Air Force General Counsel Gordon O. Tanner and Congressional Cemetery President Paul Williams unveiled a newly installed memorial headstone for gay rights pioneer Frank Kameny.
The unveiling was part of the annual LGBT Veterans Day ceremony sponsored by the D.C. Center for the LGBT Community that is held each year at Congressional Cemetery.
More than 200 people turned out for the event, which took place at the gravesite of Air Force Sgt. Leonard Matlovich. With guidance from Kameny, Matlovich disclosed he was gay in 1975, becoming the first active duty U.S. service member to challenge the military’s ban on gays.
The Kameny headstone along with a footstone bearing the slogan, “Gay is Good,” which Kameny coined in 1968, have been placed at a cemetery plot just behind the Matlovich grave. The plot was purchased by the LGBT charitable group Helping Our Brothers and Sisters.
“This is a remarkable occasion to honor two remarkable men who transformed the gay movement,” said Tanner, an Air Force veteran who currently serves as one of the highest ranking gay civilian officials at the Pentagon.
“Their connection was early in its history, as Leonard Matlovich reached out to Frank Kameny and they together looked to the way to end the ban on gay military service,” Tanner said.
The memorial headstone for Kameny was issued by the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs in honor of Kameny’s role as a World War II combat veteran.
More than 50 members of the Gay Men’s Chorus of Washington sang the national anthem at the start of the ceremony and the hymn, “Make Them Hear You,” as the Kameny headstone was unveiled.
When the chorus performed, Beth Smith, a musician with D.C. Different Drummers, a local LGBT marching band, played “Taps” on a trumpet in honor of Kameny’s memorial.
Kameny biographer and gay historian David Carter told the gathering that many LGBT activists are unaware that Kameny’s groundbreaking activism on behalf of gay rights in the early 1960s predates the 1969 Stonewall riots in New York, which many have credited with triggering the modern gay rights movement.
“It’s frustrating to me having written the history of Stonewall that the media say over and over that the modern gay rights movement started with Stonewall,” Carter said. “It did not. It started with Frank Kameny.”
Carter is author of the 2004 book “Stonewall: The Riots that Sparked the Gay Revolution.”
In his remarks at the LGBT veterans ceremony, Carter read the concluding paragraph of a 1968 essay entitled “Gay is Good” that Kameny wrote and which Carter said highlights Kameny’s assertive style of activism that predates Stonewall.
“Finally, to those of my fellow homosexuals who may read this, I say that it is time to open the closet door and let in the fresh air and the sunshine,” Kameny wrote. “It is time to hold up your heads and look the world squarely in the eyes as the homosexuals that you are, confident of your equality, confident in the knowledge that as objects of prejudice and victims of discrimination you are right and they are wrong.”
Added Kameny: “It is time to live your homosexuality fully, joyously, openly and proudly, assured that morally, socially, physically, psychologically, emotionally and in every other way, gay is good. It is.”
Michael Bedwell, the lead organizer of Wednesday’s LGBT Veterans Day event and a longtime friend of Matlovich, said Matlovich decided several years before his death in 1987 that he wanted to be buried in Congressional Cemetery. Bedwell said he and Matlovich were roommates at the time and lived on Capitol Hill near the cemetery.
His intent, according to Bedwell, was to establish a memorial site for all LGBT veterans and initially didn’t want his memorial marker stone to bear his name. Instead, Matlovich, who designed the stone and lived to see it installed at the cemetery, had it engraved with a message that has since become his legacy: “A Gay Vietnam Veteran: When I Was In the Military They Gave Me A Metal for Killing Two Men and A Discharge for Loving One.”
Several years after his burial, in which the Air Force honored him with a full military funeral, friends installed a footstone at his gravesite bearing the name “Matlovich.”
The dedication of the Kameny memorial marker stone came just over four years after Kameny died on National Coming Out Day on Oct. 11, 2011. He died of natural causes at his Washington home at the age of 86.
Also speaking at the event was Jose “Joe” Zuniga, an Army veteran who challenged the military’s ban on gays when he came out during a 1993 national gay rights march on Washington. His disclosure, similar to that of Matlovich nearly 20 years earlier, led to his discharge and his new role as a gay rights advocate.
Others who spoke included longtime D.C. gay activist Paul Kuntzler, who joined Kameny in the historic first gay rights demonstrations outside the White House in the early 1960s; Gay and Lesbian Activists Alliance President Rick Rosendall, a longtime Kameny friend and gay rights colleague; and gay Air Force veteran Tony Smith, who spoke on behalf the important role all veterans play in service to their country.
Williams, the Congressional Cemetery president, said he was honored to help facilitate the placement of the Kameny headstone. He noted that the Kameny and Matlovich memorial sites are in a location that has become known as the cemetery’s “LGBT corner,” the first known “LGBT” section of any cemetery in the U.S. and abroad.
“We touch with pride the headstone to which Frank was entitled as a veteran,” Rosendall said in his remarks at the event. “He resented having to lie to fight for his country in World War II. But thanks to his long and pioneering service on the domestic front afterwards, no one has to tell that lie again.”