In honor of Black History Month, the Washington Blade is profiling two figures in the LGBT rights movement who may not be as well known as other LGBT historic figures.
But many activists familiar with LGBT rights developments from the 1980s through the early 1990s agree that D.C. gay activist Melvin Boozer and lesbian feminist writer, poet, and political activist Audre Lorde made important contributions to LGBT equality.
Audre Lorde [1934-1992]
Born in New York City in 1934 as a child of West Indian immigrants, Audre Lorde became interested in poetry in her early teens, with her first published poem appearing in Seventeen Magazine when she was still in high school, according to author Joan Martin, co-contributor to the book Black Women Writers (1950-1980): A Critical Evaluation.
Martin and others familiar with Lorde’s early years said Lorde embraced poetry a medium for expressing her strong advocacy for social justice causes, including the movements for African American, women’s, LGBT, and immigrants’ rights.
The author of 15 books of poetry and prose, Lorde was designated Poet Laureate of New York State from 1991 to 1993.
She graduated from New York’s Hunter College High School, a secondary school for intellectually gifted students, in 1951. A University of Illinois biographical paper on Lorde says she confirmed her identity as both a lesbian and a poet in 1954 during a year as a student at the National University of Mexico.
After returning to New York Lorde graduated from Hunter College in 1959 and soon became active in the gay culture of Greenwich Village. A short time later she attended Columbia University, where she received a master’s degree in Library Science in 1961.
A short time later, while working as a librarian, she married attorney Edwin Rollins and had two children, Elizabeth and Jonathan, before the couple divorced in 1970. During that period Lorde took the position of writer-in-residence at Tougaloo College in Mississippi, where she led workshops with her undergraduate students on issues of civil rights.
Also during that period she completed a book of poems called Cables to Rage. In 1984, Lorde began a position as visiting professor at the Free University in Berlin, Germany, where, among other things, she helped organize civil rights efforts among Afro-German women.
Lorde also became known for elegant prose writing in addition to poetry. Among her most noteworthy works, her biographers have said, was “The Cancer Journals,” a moving personal account of her struggle with breast cancer and her self-described confrontation with the possibility of death.
“For Lorde, self-expression and self-discovery are never ends in themselves,” wrote author Ana Louise Keating in the Journal of Homosexuality. “Because she sees her desire to comprehend her battle with cancer as ‘part of a continuum of women’s work, of reclaiming this earth and or power,’ she is confident that her self-explorations will empower her readers,” Keating said.
Also considered noteworthy in her writing career was the release of her 1982 novel “Zami: A New Spelling of My Name,” which her publisher called a “biomythography, combining elements of history, biography and myth.”
The following year Lorde received national attention in the LGBT and the wider community when she was selected as a speaker at the 20th anniversary commemoration of the 1963 March on Washington organized by Martin Luther King Jr.
Black LGBT groups that participated in the 1983 event selected Lorde to be a speaker before organizers of the event agreed to allow an out LGBT person to speak at the mass gathering on the National Mall.
The organizers reportedly reversed their initial refusal to allow an LGBT speaker after D.C. gay activists Phil Pannell, Mel Boozer, and Ray Melrose, among others, staged a sit-in at the Capitol Hill office of then-D.C. Congressional Del. Walter Fauntroy, who opposed an LGBT speaker. Coretta Scott King, Martin Luther King’s wife, reportedly told the organizers she wanted Lorde to be one of the speakers.
“In her three-minute speech, Lorde challenged the audience to broaden its thoughts on social justice and to be inclusive to everyone,” said writer Phillip Zonkel, who gave an account of Lorde’s speech in a biographical paper on Lorde.
“Audre said, ‘There’s a war on classism, homophobia, ageism, racism, sexism,’” Zonkel wrote. “We need everyone to fight this war. You’re not going to include us? Are we not black enough?” he quoted Lorde as saying.
Activists familiar with the 1983 event said Lorde’s speech had an important impact on many mainline civil rights leaders and activists who, up until that time, had little or no direct interaction with an out African-American lesbian or gay man involved in the civil rights movement.
“She consistently challenged racism, sexism, classism and homophobia, serving as a catalyst for change within and among social movements, in which she herself participated,” said filmmaker Jennifer Abod, who in 2012 produced a biographical video on Lorde called “The Vision of Audre Lorde.”
Lorde died in 1992 from the breast cancer that she fought and wrote about widely through her poetry and prose.
Melvin ‘Mel’ Boozer [1945-1987]
Melvin Boozer began what friends and fellow activists say was a relatively short but highly effective tenure as an LGBT rights leader with national stature in 1979, when he was elected president of the then-Gay Activists Alliance of Washington, D.C.
Boozer, who grew up in D.C. and graduated salutatorian of his class at Dunbar High School, received his bachelor’s degree from Dartmouth College and later received a Ph.D. at Yale University in sociology. Around the time he became involved in gay rights activities in D.C. he became a professor of sociology at the University of Maryland.
During his two-year tenure as GAA president, where he had the distinction of becoming the first African American to serve as president, Boozer is credited with playing an important role in advancing a number of important local LGBT rights efforts. Among them was the passage by the D.C. City Council of a Sexual Assault Reform Act, which repealed the city’s sodomy law.
Boozer emerged as a strong critic of Congress a short time later, when, under pressure from conservative groups, Congress voted to overturn the sodomy repeal measure.
Other projects Boozer helped to advance was GLAA’s successful campaign to secure approval for GLAA, as the first LGBT group, to lay a wreath at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier at Arlington National Cemetery in memory of both LGBT people and all others who lost their lives in military service.
Also under Boozer’s tenure, GLAA won a court fight for the right to place posters promoting LGBT equality in the city’s Metro buses.
Following his tenure at GAA, which later became the Gay and Lesbian Activists Alliance, Boozer became director of the National Gay Task Force’s D.C. office and subsequently president of the newly formed Langston Hughes-Eleanor Roosevelt Democratic Club, which represented LGBT Democrats.
In October of 1979, Boozer marched in the first national March on Washington for Lesbian and Gay Rights.
One year later, Boozer greatly expanded his LGBT rights efforts to the national stage when he became a speaker at the 1980 Democratic National Convention in New York. Gay Democratic activists, in an effort to increase the visibility of gay rights efforts, startled many attending the convention by invoking a party rule that allowed them to place Boozer’s name in nomination for Vice President of the United States.
Although they never expected Boozer would win the nomination, the activists moved ahead with the effort to enable Boozer to address the full convention as a prospective nominee. In a moving speech from the convention’s main rostrum, Boozer gave a personal account of how he had experienced anti-gay prejudice.
“Would you ask me how I dare to compare the civil rights struggle with the struggle for lesbian and gay rights?” Boozer told more than 1,000 delegates and others attending the convention.
“I can compare them and I do compare them, because I know what it means to be called a ‘nigger’ and I know what it means to be called a ‘faggot,’ and I understand the differences in the marrow of my bones,” he said. “And I can sum up that difference in one word: none.”
Boozer’s speech drew widespread praise within LGBT circles and among many of the delegates attending the convention, which eventually nominated Walter Mondale as the vice presidential candidate and Jimmy Carter, the incumbent president, as the 1980 Democratic nominee for re-election.
A biography of Boozer by D.C.’s Rainbow History Project says Boozer’s ascent as a gay rights figure came at a time of “great social, intellectual and political ferment in D.C.’s African American gay community.” The biography notes that Boozer played an important role in the expanding visibility and prominence of African-Americans gays and lesbians in D.C. politics at that time.
In the last year of his life in early 1987 then-D.C. Mayor Marion Barry and members of the D.C. Council honored Boozer for his contributions to the LGBT community and to the city as a whole.
Boozer died of complications associated with AIDS on March 6, 1987.