Leonard Matlovich died from HIV/AIDS in 1988.
He is buried in Southeast D.C., under a tree, in the Congressional Cemetery.
There are 67,000 graves, but Matlovich’s is easy to find. It’s always covered in mementos - adorned with flowers, stones, flags, pins, and even pennies.
Most of the graves aren't all like this.
Matlovich is special.
In March of 1975, he became the first U.S. service member to willingly out himself as a gay man and challenge the military’s “ban on homosexuals.”
In one of his first television interviews, he told CBS Evening News, "I had to come forward and say no more America."
Matlovich was 31 years old and a decorated Air Force Sergeant who served three tours in Vietnam.
At the time, Walter Cronkite reported for CBS, “Sgt. Leonard Matlovich disclosed to his supervising officer of Langley Air Force Base in Virginia that he was a homosexual and wanted to stay in the Air Force. Last week, the Air Force moved to discharge him and Matlovich with a team of lawyers plans this as a classic ‘test case,’ if necessary all the way to the Supreme Court.”
Michael Bedwell, a close friend of Matlovich’s, says he volunteered to be a “test case” after reading an interview in the Air Force Times with gay-rights activist Frank Kameny.
“[Kameny] had been looking for a test case for a decade before Leonard came along. He had advised some other cases,” Bedwell said, “but the earliest cases were about just getting an honorable discharge.”
Matlovich and Kameny lost their case. The Air Force said Matlovich was “unfit” to serve as a gay man and discharged him in September of 1975.
"This was a man whom by mainstream society had done all the right things. He had fought for his country. He had nearly died for his country,” Bedwell explained, “and yet they were denying him his equal rights."
Matlovich became a symbol for gay America and a dear friend to Bedwell.
“We were roommates in two different cities. I was friends with him until his death in 1988,” Bedwell said.
When he diagnosed with AIDS, Matlovich told the world and Bedwell stayed by his side.
“By the time he did pass he had lost a great deal of weight,” Bedwell recalled. “He wasn’t able to keep food or liquid down.”
It’s been 28 years since Matlovich died, but people still flock to see his grave.
A grave that says, “When I was in the military they gave me a medal for killing two men and a discharge for loving one.”
On Veterans Day, there's often a big ceremony beside it.
A wreath, which cemetery workers say came from the ceremony, is still there – but Thursday evening, on World’s AIDs Day, there’s no such fanfare.
Perhaps it’s appropriate.
Leonard Matlovich died from complications of AIDS, but he isn't remembered because of how he died. He's remembered because of how he lived.