Throughout military history, long before the “LGBTQ+” was even a thing, members of the community were either banned from joining the service or hidden away. Soldiers, especially men, were painted as tough, brave, and everything masculine, and there was no room for anything that was not deemed “honorable.” Regardless, there were LGTBQ soldiers who braved the wars and went to protect their nations even when they were hidden, dismissed, and just plainly discriminated against. Most of them were either forced to hide their true identities or at least not talk about it with policies like “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.” Here are some of them:
Oliver “Billy” Sipple was from Detroit, Michigan, and grew up part of a large devout Baptist family. Billy knew that he was gay at an early age, but knowing that it would upset his religious parents, he chose to hide his sexual identity from them. He eventually dropped out of high school and instead joined the US Marines, where he was deployed in Vietnam. There, he was wounded not only once but twice, with one of them in the head.
At that time, the US military had not passed its “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy yet that allowed gays to enlist as long as they kept their identity a secret. Regardless, Sipple still chose to keep his identity hidden.
Perhaps one of the interesting parts of his career was when on September 22, 1975, the US veteran was walking through Union Square in San Francisco when he noticed a big crowd that formed at the St. Francis Hotel. He found out that President Gerald Ford was causing the build-up, as he was there for a conference. The President emerged, and Sipple immediately noticed a dark-haired woman raising her .38 caliber pistol and was aiming for the president. In a heartbeat, he lunged forward, knocked the gun out of the assassin’s hand, and saved Ford’s life.
Later on, in an interview, he said, “I’m not a hero, I’m a live coward… It’s probably the scariest thing that ever happened in my whole life.”
Sipple did not really appreciate the public recognition that came with what he did. When he was discharged from service, he moved to San Francisco and entered the burgeoning gay scene. The press looked into his background and discovered he was gay and reported it for reasons that varied from advocacy for public acceptance of gays to reinforcing bigotry against gays. Sipple was horrified by the narrative shift to his sexual preferences over what he did to thwart an assassination attempt on the President He did not want to announce to the world his sexuality as he knew his parents would disown him. He called news outlets one by one and begged not to be named or mention anything about him being gay. They still did anyway, and the news reached his family. His father did not want anything to do with him. He was not even allowed to attend his mother’s funeral when she died. Due to what happened, Sipple filed a lawsuit against several newspaper companies for $15 million. In his selfless act to save the President, the media ended up all but destroying his life.
“My sexuality is part of my private life and has no bearing on my response to the act of a person seeking to take the life of another,” Sipple said in the lawsuit. Unfortunately, he lost the lawsuit and was kept isolated by his family. What was even sadder was that Sipple died alone at the early age of 47 in 1989, and because he was just by himself, his body was not discovered until two weeks later.
World War II veteran Patricia Davies was born into this world as a boy named Peter, and she lived by it almost throughout her life. Davies served in the Army between April 1945 and 1948, but her bravest moment came when she was 90 when she finally decided to come out as a transwoman. She said,
I’ve known I was transgender since I was three years old… I knew a girl called Patricia, and I decided I wanted to be known by that name but it didn’t stick.
Although she regretted not coming out earlier as she knew it would cause a problem while she was in the service, she looked back on her military service with pride, “I feel quite proud having served during the war and having done military service, in particular during the trouble in Palestine.”
Even after the war ended, she still hesitated to embrace her identity, worried about how society would react. Even medical professionals tried to “cure” homosexuality with electric shock treatment. Finally, at the age of 90, she began her transition. Fortunately for her, she had a supportive wife who bought her dresses and jewelry.
As a son of a retired Air Force sergeant, Leonard Matlovich grew up familiar with the US military, and he knew he had to be just like them. In 1963, he enlisted and served in Vietnam, where he earned his Bronze Star and Purple Heart and kept an impeccable record in the military.
Just like the two above, Matlovich was closeted until a gay activist Frank Kameny came looking for someone to challenge the military ban on homosexuality. Matlovich felt he might be who Kameny was looking for, given his track record. Jeff Dupre, a longtime friend of Mat (as he called him), recalled the day that he opened up,
He said, ‘Well, you know, they’re looking for a candidate to challenge the gays in the military laws. … Someone who has a good record to make it legal to be in the service and be open. I’ve got these awards from the service. I think I can do it.’
He tried to discourage him, saying that Mat had not outed yet and that he was not ready for that. In the following weeks, Matlovich told his commanding officer that he was gay. He was asked to promise not to practice homosexuality again, but he refused, and they discharged him from the service.
So what did Matlovich do? He became a prominent gay activist and outed himself to the rest of the world by appearing on a TIME magazine cover with a black, bold quotation below his photo, “I Am a Homosexual.”
Matlovich spent the rest of his life fighting for the right of the LGBTQ soldiers. He still did, even after he died, for his tombstone wrote, “When I was in the military, they gave me a medal for killing two men and a discharge for loving one.”