From Our Archives: Institutional Bigotry
The first eBook in our Hidden History series is available for purchase, and a second is on its way!
Here's a taste of what you can expect from “Seneca Falls, Selma, and Stonewall,” which offers riveting selections from our archives on Suffrage, Civil Rights and Gay Rights. Roger Wilkins' article “Institutional Bigotry,” from November 1980 is included in the book, and speaks to the homophobic policies of the U.S. Military in the days before “Don't Ask, Don't Tell”. Civil rights leader Roger Wilkins makes a strong declaration in support of gay troops decades before the issue became mainstream":
A Federal court in the District of Columbia recently ordered the Air Force to reinstate Leonard P. Matlovich, a former sergeant who was dismissed five years ago because he admitted that he was a homosexual. Though it is on a narrower and more technical ground than I would have liked, I am delighted by the judge's decision.
Leonard Matlovich was a superb airman. He was a decorated Vietnam veteran whose service ratings were always excellent. There was nothing in Sergeant Matlovich's behavior in the service to single him out from anybody else except that he did his job far better than most people in the Air Force did theirs. But his spirit bothered him. He wasn't being honest with the world about himself. Part of his identity as a human being was his homosexuality. But he was hiding it, pretending it didn't exist, pretending he was something other than what he was. He was behaving as if he was ashamed of what he was and that made him ashamed of himself.
So he did a courageous thing: He announced his homosexuality. And the Air Force promptly threw this distinguished airman out of the service. The Air Force had a regulation prohibiting the retention of homosexuals in the service unless "the most unusual circumstances exist." The judge said the Air Force had engaged in "perverse behavior" in being unable to explain its policy, and ordered Matlovich reinstated.
I met Matlovich and another homosexual airman back when they were both fighting their original expulsions from the Air Force. The other airman, Skip Keith, was a mechanic trained to work on C-5A engines. He loved his work and had been judged to be good at it, but when he felt he had enough of hiding part of himself from the world, he too was tossed out of the Air Force.
I am not surprised that the Air Force could not explain its position clearly. Shortly after I met Matlovich and Keith, I had lunch with a group of journalists and an Air Force lieutenant general. During the course of the lunch, I asked the general why the Air Force tossed homosexuals out on their ears. He practically choked on his food. The best I could get from him was that when he was flying he wanted a wing man he could rely on. He couldn't answer why gay airmen would be more unreliable than anybody else. He just got more incoherent.
The general was black. If I had closed my eyes and changed his words a little bit, I could have imagined that tirade coming from a white general in 1940 trying to explain why the Army couldn't be integrated. Institutional bigotry in any form stinks, and men like Len Matlovich and Skip Keith are heroes to have stood up to it.
For more information, check out progressive.org/ebooks or email ebooks [at] progressive [dot] org!
Erik Lorenzsonn is an editorial intern at The Progressive.
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