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Love and death: The legacy of Congressional Cemetery’s ‘Gay Corner’

Leonard Matlovich’s headstone at Congressional Cemetery in Washington. His headstone reads: “When I was in the military they gave me a medal for killing two men and a discharge for loving one.” (Ricky Carioti/The Washington Post)
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An earlier version of this story stated that Tip O’Neill was buried at Congressional Cemetery. That reference has since been deleted. He has a cenotaph at Congressional, but he is buried at Mount Pleasant Cemetery in Harwich Port on Cape Cod, Mass.

In a quiet neighborhood of Southeast Washington, Leonard Matlovich has been a persistent advocate for gay rights since the 1980s. Over the years, he has attracted dozens of followers who have gathered nearby. You won’t hear him on talk shows or see his byline on op-eds, though, because Matlovich passed away in 1988. Instead, he — or rather his tombstone — can be found in Congressional Cemetery, which claims to be the world’s only graveyard with an LGBTQ section.

So, why is Matlovich buried here — in a bucolic, 35-acre stretch of land near the Anacostia River and RFK Stadium — and why did “Gay Corner,” as some refer to it, develop under the cherry trees near his 6-by-8-foot granite grave marker? Part of the answer is a 10-second walk away: the fenced-in grave of the country’s most notorious homophobe, J. Edgar Hoover, and the pink granite gravestone of the longtime FBI director’s deputy, Clyde Tolson. “It was kind of a middle finger to Hoover,” says Paul Williams, the cemetery’s president.

For much of the mid-20th century, Hoover’s FBI bugged, harassed and attacked gays with the same vitriolic virulence that the agency used to go after civil rights leaders, antiwar activists, alleged communists and others deemed “deviant” threats to the nation. Hoover himself was, of course, believed to be gay — and Tolson was thought (though never proved) to have been his romantic partner — but don’t expect to hear about that if you visit the cemetery. “We got a cease-and-desist order” — from the now-defunct J. Edgar Hoover Foundation — “to stop our tour guides from suggesting this,” Williams says. Instead, guides simply tell visitors that the pair lived together, though they did have separate houses for the sake of appearances.

Congressional Cemetery: A place for all souls

Once known as the “national burying ground,” Congressional Cemetery is owned by nearby Christ Church but acquired its name because the government in the early 19th century bought plots for members of Congress who died in office. Patriotic composer John Philip Sousa and pioneering Civil War photojournalist Mathew Brady are also among the 68,000 people buried at Congressional. A Public Vault was used to hold the bodies of Presidents John Quincy Adams, William Henry Harrison and Zachary Taylor, among others, until they were buried elsewhere in the country.

The story behind Matlovich’s after-death protest has its roots in the mid-1970s, when he met the early gay rights activist Franklin Kameny — who in 1957 had been fired from the Army Map Service for being gay. Matlovich was a decorated Vietnam War veteran who had served in the Air Force for 12 years. A 1974 Air Force Times story reported that Kameny wanted to challenge the legality of the military’s ban on openly gay men. He was looking for “someone with a flawless record who the military doesn’t already know is gay, and who is ready to fight as a test case,” recalls Michael Bedwell, a friend of Matlovich’s and adviser to a project on gay history. “Leonard got Frank’s number and told him he fit his criteria.”

Matlovich came out with a flourish, appearing on the cover of Time magazine in September 1975, and five years of legal battles ensued. “Leonard loved the Air Force, but he felt that facts should prevail,” Bedwell says. That fall, Matlovich moved to G Street SE, across from the then-rundown cemetery, and he discovered that Walt Whitman’s lover, Peter Doyle, was buried there.

In 1984, two years before Matlovich was diagnosed with AIDS, he and Bedwell visited Père Lachaise Cemetery in Paris, where Oscar Wilde’s grave is a popular gay destination. “This brought home the idea that gays needed heroes to identify with,” Bedwell says. For Matlovich, Congressional Cemetery had “gay resonance because of Doyle”; he bought two plots near Hoover as a last laugh of sorts, explains Bedwell.

Matlovich died in 1988 at age 44. He had hoped the second plot might be for a future partner, but his gravesite instead covers both plots. His headstone reads: “When I was in the military they gave me a medal for killing two men and a discharge for loving one.” Above those words are two pink triangles, an upward-pointing one symbolizing gay rights and an upside-down one that gay prisoners were forced to wear in Nazi concentration camps.

To the left of his grave is a modest memorial to Kameny that reads “Gay is Good,” a then-heretical slogan that the activist coined in 1968. Kameny is not actually buried at Congressional, but many other gay men and women are. About 60 have been interred in Gay Corner, and 100 more have bought plots, according to Williams. Kay Lahusen was buried this spring next to her partner, activist Barbara Gittings, sometimes referred to as the mother of the gay rights movement. Gittings founded the East Coast chapter of the Daughters of Bilitis, the first U.S. lesbian rights organization, in 1958 and led the fight to force the American Psychiatric Association to declassify homosexuality as a mental illness. William Boyce Mueller, a founder of Forgotten Scouts — which fought the ban on gays in the Boy Scouts (the organization his grandfather established) — is buried close by under a broad magnolia. An obelisk installed in 2017 honors Antinous, an enslaved young man who was Roman emperor Hadrian’s lover and has been called a “gay god.”

Among those who have bought plots in Gay Corner are Stephen and Joshua Snyder-Hill, who were married at Matlovich’s grave in 2011. That year, Stephen was cast into the limelight when he was an active-duty soldier in Iraq who was booed at a Republican presidential debate for his videotaped question about ending the military’s “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy.

Nearer to the cemetery’s gatehouse at Potomac Avenue and E Street SE, several other prominent gay men are buried along the path called Congress Street. The remains of Alain LeRoy Locke, the first Black Rhodes scholar (in 1907) and a leading philosopher during the Harlem Renaissance, were moved to Congressional in 2014, 60 years after his death. A short distance away, the words on Ken Dresser’s headstone — “whose artistry is known to millions” — may be puzzling until one learns that he created Disney’s Main Street Electrical Parade.

A final resting place for four-legged — and other nonhuman — friends

Beyond the LGBTQ notables, modern-day political figures buried at the cemetery include Marion Barry. In keeping with Barry’s norm-defying career, the back of his stone lists major donors.

In the 1980s and 1990s, the cemetery became a haven for drug addicts and prostitutes. But it was brought back to life by both Gay Corner and a group of dog owners who pay dues to allow their pets to wander amid the gravestones. The cemetery also hosts outdoor horror movies in the summer and weekend yoga classes in the chapel or on the lawn.

Every June, up to 3,000 people gather at Gay Corner for the beginning of the Pride Run 5K; in the fall, the cemetery hosts a Veterans Day commemoration of gay service members. There has been talk of creating a national LGBTQ veterans monument at Congressional, where, for those dying to get in, a burial plot now runs up to $10,000. A much less financially and existentially costly option: free weekend walking tours where you can see for yourself that political activism in Washington never dies.

Andrew L. Yarrow — whose sixth book, “Look: How a Highly Influential Magazine Helped Define Mid-Twentieth-Century America,” will be published in the fall — is a former New York Times reporter and teaches at George Mason University.

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