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Making Friends with the Dead: Gravestone Activism at the Congressional Cemetery

I am talking to the dead. This is not something that I typically do. But given the time and place, it seems appropriate. Plus, and this to me is no small thing, I was invited.            


I am sitting on a park bench in the internationally famous “Gay Corner” of the Congressional Cemetery in Washington D.C.  I am surrounded by the souls of people who I have never met and will never meet. I am alone on a cold day on the banks of the Anacostia River, but I feel warm. I feel as though I am among friends.


Because I am.

 

The inscription on the park bench represents probably the kindest thing a dead person has ever said to me. “Sit a while, share a chat and a smile. Emerson is smiling with you!” So here I sit, smiling, resting, and marveling at the brave souls around me. Brave souls who refused to be silenced. Refused to stay hidden. Refused to trust others to memorialize them in an accurate and respectful way. It was also here that the kind, caring, and generous dead introduced me to the concept of gravestone activism.


I did not come here to visit Emerson Kanegusuke. I had never heard of Emerson Kanegusuke before. But to me, it is his park bench and the message upon it that best represents the welcoming nature of this quiet “Gay Corner.” I could not help but think of the thoughtfulness of Emerson and his partner, Patrick, when they composed this inscription and invited me to “sit a while.” Perhaps on some level they knew that I would be coming. Perhaps on some level they knew that “sitting a while” was exactly what I came here to do.


The grave I came to visit is just behind me. Over my right shoulder. It is the noteworthy grave of Technical Sergeant Leonard Matlovich. Leonard’s story is too long to tell here, but suffice to say that he caused a political and social firestorm when he came out as gay in 1975. A decorated Viet Nam vet, he was the first U.S. service person to intentionally out himself in defiance of the military’s Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell (DADT) policy (Bailey, 2013; Hepner, 1975). At his discharge hearing, the Air Force asked him to sign a document whereby he would pledge to “never practice homosexuality again” (Sicard, 2023).  Leonard refused and he was deemed unfit for service.

 

Leonard’s gay rights activism continued through the 1970’s and into the darkest years of the AIDS/HIV pandemic of the 1980’s. He died of complications of AIDS/HIV in 1988. But before his death, he visited Europe and he was struck by the way that queer people were drawn to the grave of Oscar Wilde in Paris. He felt that gay people needed a similar gathering spot here in the United States (Yarrow, 2021). Because he was honorably discharged, Leonard was eligible to be buried in Arlington National Cemetery (leonardmatlovich.com). But he was put off by the cold uniformity of ANC and charmed by the somewhat rundown cemetery where I now sit. (Apparently at the time, the cemetery had a reputation for being frequented by drug dealers and prostitutes.) Thanks in part to Leonard’s notoriety, the Congressional Cemetery is no longer run down, but it is still a bit of a rumpled mess. Sitting here on Emerson’s bench, I can feel the same sense of charm that Leonard must have felt. Many of the rows of graves are not straight, the ground is incredibly uneven, and the gravestones themselves are a visual hodgepodge of different shapes, sizes, and colors. There is little sense of uniformity to be found. If I were a veteran, I would choose the Congressional over Arlington too. Perhaps it is odd to say this about a cemetery, but at the Congressional, the grounds feel very lived in.




Leonard acquired a certain amount of fame in his life--he is considered to be the first openly gay individual to appear on the cover of Time Magazine (Bailey, 2013; Yarrow, 2021) – but he wanted his grave to mark the passing of all the queer soldiers and service people who preceded him. Those who had been forced to stay hidden. Those who had tragically felt forced to distance themselves from their lovers, their partners, and their community. Leonard’s gravestone does not bear his name. Instead it reads, “A GAY VIETNAM VETERAN.” He wanted his marker to stand in testament to all of them.

 

 Below that inscription, the epitaph that Leonard composed has now become famous: “When I was in the military they gave me a medal for killing two men and a discharge for loving one” (Sicard, 2023; Yarrow, 2021). The simple profundity of those 21 words has become known worldwide. To me, the power of those words says as much about war and senseless death as it does about our society and its senseless but enduring homophobia. Sen. John Kerry once called the epitaph, “the most eloquent and most convincing testimony” against the DADT policy that he had ever encountered (Hibbard, 2012).


The gravestone was erected in the Congressional Cemetery before Leonard died, and you can see photos on the internet of him posing with the stone. I am sure he would be happy to know that the gravesite has indeed become a gathering space as he intended. Military ceremonies are held there on a regular basis. Queer couples have gotten married there. And, perhaps most wonderfully, many other gay individuals and gay couples have followed suit and erected similar gravestones nearby (leonardmatlovich.com, Yarrow, 2021). My new friend Emerson and his partner Patrick are not famous. But they are among the many who followed Leonard’s lead. While sitting on their bench, I googled Patrick and Emerson, and I learned that Patrick was a U.S. diplomat and Emerson was his husband for 16 years. I am looking across the friendly, welcoming, hopelessly uneven grounds of Emerson’s final resting place, and I cannot help but smile. Emerson’s obituary says that he was always “the brightest smile and the biggest heart in the room” (Legacy.com). Sitting here on his bench in this sacred space, I know that that has not changed. It’s just that Emerson’s “room” has become much larger.

 

I have added a table below to highlight some of the words of affection and wisdom I observed in my afternoon in the Gay Corner. (NOTE: Although internationally known, the “Gay Corner” is an informal designation and remains unmarked in the cemetery. It does not appear on any signage that I saw. But it can easily be located on the cemetery map by searching for the grave of Leonard Matlovich.) What follows below is a short list of epitaphs – from the simple to the profound to the cat lovers.

 

In closing, I want to call attention to something that Leonard Matlovich said in reference to his gravestone. It is a sentiment that I now refer to as gravestone activism, and a quiet act of resistance that I hope someday to model. Leonard said, “I believe that we must be the same activists in our deaths that we were in our lives” (leonardmatlovich.com). And he’s absolutely right. Every gravestone erected is a potential platform for peace, belongingness, and social justice. In my own research, I highlight the harm done to marginalized communities due to distortions and erasures present in the memorial expressions of their dead. But if a gravestone is powerful enough to cause harm, if its absence is powerful enough to cause erasure, then certainly the power of gravestones can be used to positively acknowledge uniqueness, to raise awareness, or to call out injustice. Many of us might say that we will be activists until the day we die. But I think Leonard Matlovich might ask, “Why stop there?”

 

Memorable Epitaphs, Congressional Cemetery


Epitaph: When I was in the military they gave me a medal for killing two men and a discharge for loving one.

Individual: “A Gay Vietnam Veteran” (Leonard Matlovich)


Epitaph: Sit a while, share a chat and a smile. Emerson is smiling with you!

Individuals: Emerson Luis Soares Kanegusuke Lineham & Patrick Joseph Kanegusuke Lineham


Epitaph: Gay is good.

Individual: Frank Kameny (A World War II Vet and gay activist, Frank is not buried here. But he was a friend and mentor to Leonard Matlovich. At gay rights marches and events, Frank often carried a sign that read, “Gay is Good” – a simple but powerful statement at a time when being gay was sadly considered anything but good. It is a phrase for which Frank wished to be remembered.


Epitaph: Beloved partners and husbands

Individuals: Thomas Gerard Klarner & Neil Timothy Turtell


Epitaph: A proud gay teacher and businessman

Individual: Butch Ziegler


Epitaph: Face the sunshine and let shadows fall behind.

Individuals: Dave and Bob. (They also contributed a park bench.)


Epitaph: If you have done nothing to erase prejudice wherever it exists, best weep for yourself and our country.

Individual: Cliff Anchor (Cliff was romantically linked to Leonard Matlovich.)


Epitaph: Never give up hope or give in to discrimination.

Individual: Tom “Gator” Swann. Proud Gay Veteran.


Epitaph: Cat Lovers

Individuals: Herbert Ralph Kubli & Mark Peckham McElreath


Stephenson Brooks-Whitestone, Ph.D., is a qualitative researcher examining the outcomes and implications associated with discrimination after death. . Her work chronicles efforts by both individuals and institutions to distort, diminish, and/or disappear the identities of the marginalized dead in public memorial expressions.


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