Memorial Gains Momentum

Group Hopes to Make Monument to Gay Veterans a Reality

Posted December 5, 2003 at 3:06pm

At last month’s Rock the Vote Democratic Presidential Debate, Sen. John Kerry (Mass.) was asked by an audience member how he would help gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender Americans in building their families.

Kerry used the question to tell the hundreds of young people in the studio audience, and the millions of Americans watching at home, about a touching site in the Capitol Hill community. It is the gravestone of Leonard Matlovich, one of 60,000 markers that spread across the 32-acre Congressional Cemetery, and it has come to symbolize one aspect of the struggle for equal rights for the gay community.

Etched into Matlovich’s dark-gray headstone — which bears two large pink triangles above his birth date and death date — are the words, “When I was in the military they gave me a medal for killing two men and a discharge for loving one.”

In recent years the Matlovich grave has become a focal point for gay and lesbian veterans who, during their time on active duty, served their country forced by military law to remain silent about their sexual orientation.

Today, a veterans group is moving closer to creating a national memorial for gay veterans near Matlovich’s grave in the Congressional Cemetery. Despite its name, the graveyard is not federally controlled; it is a private cemetery owned by Christ Church and located at the far end of E Street in Southeast Washington.

“At the military cemeteries there is no way anyone can indicate their sexual orientation and the general public is led to believe that everybody who serves in the military is straight — we know different,” said Nancy Russell, the national president of American Veterans for Equal Rights, the largest gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender veterans organization in the United States. Russell is a retired lieutenant colonel who served in the Army for 20 years.

“We would like a place where the service of those individuals who are, or were, in fact gay, lesbian, bisexual [or] transgender can be memorialized in a public place where it can be seen and acknowledged and also a place where we might be able to go on occasion to hold a ceremony,” Russell said.

As of now, Russell’s organization is in the process of purchasing from 10 to 20 burial sites just east of the Matlovich grave in order to place a memorial and allow for burials.

The area AVER is interested in is near a number of other headstones of other openly gay veterans and across the street from a stone bench that sits next to Matlovich’s grave which bears the inscription, “If you have done nothing to erase prejudice, wherever it exists, best weep for yourself and your country.” The quote is attributed to retired Lt. Col. Cliff Anchor, a veteran dedicated to anti-discrimination who lives in Boston and worked with Matlovich before he died of AIDS in 1988.

When contacted about the possibility of a memorial at Congressional Cemetery, Kelley Benander, a spokeswoman at the Kerry presidential campaign, said the Senator would support the project and “has asked his staff to look into it.” Kerry also gave this statement: “A memorial is a way to honor the service and sacrifice of our veterans, including those who happen to be gay or lesbian Americans. I served with brave gay men and their service and sacrifice are just as important as anyone else’s. One of the most poignant sights you’ll ever see is in the cemetery itself on the tombstone of soldiers who gave their lives for their country but could not discuss their personal lives.”

Indeed, Russell said her organization has received “good support” from many of the Democratic presidential candidates. She noted that former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean has been in contact with her organization and expressed interest in having members of AVER march in his inauguration if he is elected.

But AVER hopes to move ahead with its memorial plans sometime before Election Day.

“What we want is a place that is a national memorial, and right now the place we can do a national memorial would be the Congressional Cemetery,” Russell said. “If in fact we get to a point in the future where the nation is comfortable with such a thing, then at that point in time perhaps we can look at something like the women’s memorial or the Vietnam Veterans Memorial.”

But Linda Harper, chairwoman of the board for the association for the preservation of Congressional Cemetery, the group that has final say about what can be built at the cemetery, was cautious about using the term “national memorial.” She said that she did not foresee the memorial being a large monument like those on the National Mall.

“This is hallowed ground and the original use for this and the original intent for this needs to be along those lines,” Harper said. “Just like the Matlovich grave, if in fact it becomes something else down the road, that’s different. But the intent needs to be that it is a cemetery and is hallowed ground.”

And while AVER is in the process of finding someone to design the memorial, Russell explained her vision for the memorial.

“There would be a place for names and dates of service and we’re thinking there would be a way of burying ashes so we visualize it as a way there would be perhaps … different levels someone could be memorialized there,” she said.

According to Congressional Cemetery manager William Fecke, each site in that area of the cemetery costs about $2,500. He said AVER would probably buy some plots up front and put a hold on other sites near the memorial area to purchase later if they require more land.

“The land area doesn’t need to be huge,” said Hank Thomas, the Washington regional president of AVER and a retired Marine Corps lieutenant colonel who received a Purple Heart in the Vietnam War. “We’re not looking at a Vietnam Wall kind of thing here. On the other hand I suspect that — depending on the sculptor and what they present — dollar figures may be anywhere from $20,000 to $100,000 dollars.”

Thomas said AVER has the seed money for the sites and the memorial and that the group would also go on a fundraising campaign once final costs are decided on, a process the group hopes to work through in the coming months.

He added that he hopes to one day have a similar memorial on the grounds of Arlington National Cemetery. But that day may come only when gay and lesbian Americans are fully and openly accepted in the military, Thomas said.

“The department of the Army has actually been extremely responsive, they invited us starting two years ago to participate in the Memorial Day ceremonies at Arlington Cemetery. That’s been a real first for an openly gay veterans group. … That’s a little bit of an open door,” he said.

“The monument to some degree is a further ratification that gays and lesbians have served honorably in the military service since forever — and are there now. We want to recognize that and want everyone else to recognize that too,” he added.