National Public Radio’s “StoryCorps” broadcast on Oct. 30 was a friend’s memory of a good soldier named Leonard Matlovich.
For those of us who track memories as history, it was what you might call a blast from the past.
While it wasn’t mentioned in the NPR piece, Matlovich’s story looms large in Sonoma County’s late-20th-century history.
The start of a week in which we honor our veterans is an appropriate time to remind those who remember him well and inform those who don’t of Matlovich’s importance to reforms in the U.S. military and his contribution to the gay “glory days” of the 1980s in Russian River resort towns.
Matlovich, known as Mat to his friends, was a sergeant in the Air Force, a career military man who had grown up an “Air Force brat” with a father who had served for 32 years. He had survived two tours in Vietnam and earned a Bronze Star for bravery as well as a Purple Heart.
That was pretty much his life story as it was known to his superiors in 1975, when Jeff Dupre was introduced to him at a Thanksgiving gathering. Dupre is the one whose interview was the “StoryCorps” piece that aired last month.
They were part of a group sitting around a friend’s living room watching the Macy’s parade when, as Jeff tells it, someone asked him, “ ‘Mat, what are you up to?’
“He said, ‘Well, you know, they are looking for a candidate to challenge the gays-in-the-military laws. They are looking for someone who has a good record. … I’ve got these awards from the service, I think I can do it.’
“The guys said, ‘Mat, no way! You’re too quiet. You’re not out. You’re not ready for that.’ ”
The next time Dupre saw Matlovich was on the cover of Time magazine, in uniform, his medals on his chest.
“There he was,” Dupre said. “Shiny eyes, curly hair, with the headline, ‘I am a homosexual.’
“When he called, all I could tell him was how proud I was of him.”
After his historic letter to the Secretary of the Air Force, Matlovich was court-martialed and thrown out of the Air Force.
He began his civilian life in San Francisco. Now hailed as an iconic figure in the fight for gay rights, he was a political conservative, a Goldwater Republican, which probably did not serve him well when he made an unsuccessful run for the San Francisco supervisorial seat left vacant by the murder of Harvey Milk.
In 1981, with $160,000 the Air Force paid him to drop a lawsuit demanding reinstatement, he invested in Guerneville’s expanding gay community. Stumptown Annie’s, the pizza parlor he opened at the corner of Main Street and Armstrong Woods Road, became an obligatory stop for the increasing number of gay and lesbian weekenders.
Guerneville already had been tagged as “Fire Island West” (Newsweek magazine, 1979) when Matlovich arrived.
Guerneville and its neighboring riverside communities had been destinations for Bay Area families since the train tracks hit town in the 1870s. But it was coming off hard times by the 1970s, suffering from the damage done by a succession of killer floods and new vacation opportunities provided by the jet airplane to the tropical wonders of Mexico and Hawaii.
I don’t know how and when it was decided. It may have been by way of a longtime gay bar called the Vieux Carre, on Pocket Canyon Road, that the Bay Area’s gay community “discovered” Guerneville. Until the ’60s, when a couple of gay bars opened in Santa Rosa, there was only the Vieux Carre. It was owned and operated by Rikki Streicher, something of a legend for her gathering places in San Francisco, including a well-known lesbian bar called Maud’s. Streicher, who died in 1994, lived to see great changes in her world, including the honor of being named grand marshal of San Francisco’s Gay Freedom Day Parade. Her successor at Vieux Carre was equally well-known — a male impersonator named Kay Carroll who had come off the “Borscht circuit” in New York’s Catskills.
The rising tide of recognition for the gay community in the Bay Area in the 1970s overflowed into Russian River resorts. Peter Pender, a nationally known bridge expert, bought a long-time riverside resort called Murphy Ranch and changed the name to Fife’s. (It was initially dubbed “Fifi’s” by the resident “river rats,” astonished at what was happening to their town.).
But Fife’s led the way and other resorts followed, including the landmark Hexagon House at the entrance to Armstrong Grove.
So the economy was healthy along the river when Matlovich arrived, and, because of his well-established celebrity, he became an instant leader for this new gay community. Supervisor Ernie Carpenter appointed him to the county Human Services Commission, and he allied himself with the environmentalists concerned about the river’s future.
When reporter Susan Swartz interviewed him not long after his arrival, he told her: “This is the place. Even if I lose everything, I’ll scrub floors. I’m not leaving.”
But he did leave, lured to Washington, D.C., three years hence by an offer to lead a new lobbying organization called Concerned Americans for Individual Rights. The whole town turned out to say goodbye at a party described by the Paper, a weekly that served the river area, as “a family gathering.”
Knowing his “upfront” background, it was not terribly surprising when, in 1987, he went on TV — ABC’s “Good Morning America” — to tell the world that he had been diagnosed with AIDS. He said he wasn’t surprised; that as a gay man, he had wondered when his turn would come.
Despite his illness, he returned to San Francisco to make another unsuccessful run for public office, this time to succeed Art Agnos in the state Assembly.
Matlovich talked often and openly about AIDS and about the burial site he had purchased in Washington, D.C.’s Congressional Cemetery.
He lived long enough to celebrate the Supreme Court decision of February 1988 that declared the Army’s ban on homosexuals unconstitutional. A milestone on the road he traveled.
He died four months later.
His tombstone is inscribed — as his friend Dupre told us on NPR — not with his name, but instead, as he wanted it to read:
A Gay Vietnam Veteran
When I was in the military they gave me a medal for killing two men and a discharge for loving one. Never again. Never forget.