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November 16, 2010

Gay Rights and the Killing Fields

Mark Wilson/Getty Images
Mark Wilson/Getty Images

Isn’t it interesting that gay rights activists and the left in general so own the DADT issue now that we no longer register a picture like this one — from a protest and photo op led by Lt. Dan Choi on Sunday — in terms of an older left-wing reflex, summed up by a Vietnam-era image like this.

While still struggling to wrap my head around the idea that Americans could take an American war for granted, I also marvel at the day-to-day compromise involved in fighting for a more humanistic killing machine.

These thoughts got into my head after spending two days at the National Communications Conference — one of the biggest get-togethers for professors of communications and visual communications, especially after attending a panel on militarism yesterday.

I wasn’t aware of Sgt. Leonard Matlovich before, or the fact his gravestone has become a rallying monument for gay vets. See the complete slideshow: Don’t Ask Don’t Tell Repeal Activists Hold Vigil At Grave Of Vietnam Veteran.

(caption: The gravestone of Sgt. Leonard Matlovich is shown, at Congressional Cemetery on November 15, 2010 in Washington, DC. Sgt. Matlovich who died in 1988 was a Vietnam Veteran who a received both the Purple Heart and Bronze Star and was later discharged from the Air Force for being gay. An inscription on his tombstone reads “When I was in the military, they gave me a medal for killing two men and a discharge for loving one.” Some “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” repeal advocates consider Sgt. Matlovich’s gravesite to be a memorial to all gay veterans.)

  • Michael @

    Interesting comments. In addition to having been one of the speakers at this event, as well as one of those arrested for civil disobedience at the White House later the same day, I am the creator of He and I were friends for the last 13 years of his life, I was executor of his estate, and with him when he died.

    Thus, I know that, contrary to the author of the quote pulled from the slide show, he INTENDED his gravestone to be a memorial to all gay veterans, reinforcing it by not putting his own name on it. Only his last name appears at the base of the granite grave cover. Since he was buried in the relatively unknown Congressional Cemetery, some other gay individuals and couples have chosen to be buried there, too. Some veterans [including one from WWII], some not, most near his resting place. I noticed a new one since I was last there in March right behind it. PHOTOS AT:

    As you were unaware of him, perhaps you’re also unaware of the significance of the pink triangles. In their mania for classification, the Nazis developed a set of immediate visual identifiers for inmates in the concentration camps. A guard would no just by seeing a particular patch on an inmate’s uniform why that person was there. An inverted pink triangle meant “homosexual,” red was for “political” prisoner, brown/later black was for gypies. etc. [Uninverted red was for POWs.] That mania was further demonstrated by subcategorization. A yellow “Star of David,” of course, meant Jew, but, e.g., a Star of David formed by a yellow uninverted triangle and an inverted pink triangle meant “Jewish homosexual.”

    There is a growing number of memorials of various kinds around the world to gay Nazi victims incorporating the pink triangle. After seeing a chart at Dachau like the one at the link below, Leonard added to his stone design these reminders of the worst known government-sanctioned oppression of gays in history. The second triangle is uninverted to symbolize ultimate triumph over homophobia.

    Finally, it might intrigue you to know that Leonard was an otherwise conservative Republican when, in 1975, he chose to be the first gay servicemmber to out himself to fight the ban. Both that fact, and his having volunteered for three tours of duty in America’s most unpopular, then-just ending war resulted in him being initially attacked by some in the “left” gay movement. While a TV newscaster in, of all places, San Francisco was caught on mike calling him a “faggot flier,” some gays called him “baby killer.” Arguments within the gay group at Columbia University over whether to invite him to speak [they did] helped lead to the group dissolving.

    Thank you for your attention. – Michael Bedwell

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