Mel Boozer grew up in a series of homes without electricity. Graduating second in the 1963 class of Dunbar High, the school of choice for Washington, D.C.’s most high-achieving black students, he won a scholarship to Dartmouth, where he was one of only three African Americans in the freshman class. His roommate, rather than share a room with a person of color, moved out. After completing fieldwork in Brazil and earning a Ph.D. in sociology at Yale, Boozer moved back to his hometown, where he became active in politics as president of the Gay Activists Alliance, Washington director of the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force, and founder of the Langston Hughes–Eleanor Roosevelt Democratic Club for gay and lesbian blacks.
Boozer’s prominence in the mostly white milieu of D.C.’s early gay-rights movement was unusual, not least because of his local roots. Four decades ago, it took considerably more courage for a D.C. native to come out as a gay activist; most gay people (like most straight people) in the District were transplants. “It’s a lot easier to come out and be politically active in the gay community when you don’t live near your family than when you do,” Boozer told The Advocate magazine.
On the surface, Mel Boozer might seem to have little in common with Pete Buttigieg, Rhodes Scholar, McKinsey consultant, veteran, son of college professors, and mayor of South Bend, Indiana. But the first openly gay presidential candidate to mount a serious campaign for the presidency follows in the footsteps of Boozer, the first openly gay person to be nominated for a major-party presidential ticket.
On August 14, 1980, Boozer rose before the delegates of the Democratic National Convention in New York City. His name had been entered into nomination for the vice presidency not to challenge the incumbent, Walter Mondale, but as a means of drawing visibility to the emergent gay-rights cause. Although Boozer and the 77 men and women of the gay and lesbian caucus who canvassed Madison Square Garden that week ultimately obtained the necessary signatures to place him on the ballot, the reaction to their effort from fellow Democrats was not wholly positive. “Why don’t you just shut up,” one delegate told Boozer. “You wouldn’t get fired from your jobs if you just shut up.”
Convention organizers scheduled Boozer’s speaking slot around dinner, when the hall was about two-thirds empty and the television cameras were turned off. But Boozer’s powerful plea on behalf of the “20 million lesbian and gay Americans whose lives are blighted by a veil of ignorance and misunderstanding” is well worth reading today, particularly in light of Buttigieg’s efforts to connect with African American voters, recently described by The Washington Post as “clumsy, at best.” Speaking of the Democratic Party’s role in leading “the battle for civil rights for black Americans,” Boozer asked,
Would you ask me how I'd dare to compare the civil-rights struggle with the struggle for lesbian and gay rights? I can compare, and I do compare them. I know what it means to be called a nigger. I know what it means to be called a faggot. And I can sum up the difference in one word: none.
Bigotry is bigotry. I have been booed before. Discrimination is discrimination. It hurts just as much. It dishonors our way of life just as much, and it betrays a common lack of understanding, fairness, and compassion.
Boozer’s speech was electrifying. His use of two slurs, one right after the other, alliterated by hard, double gs, shocked the audience, forcing it to confront what it feels like to be the target of bigotry. These epithets have different etymologies, histories, and applications, and the baggage the former carries is, in fact, heavier than that of the latter. But they are both intended to hurt their recipients.
At a presidential debate last month, Buttigieg was asked how he could connect with African Americans, and his answer evoked the point Boozer made in that long-ago speech. “While I do not have the experience of ever having been discriminated against because of the color of my skin, I do have the experience of sometimes feeling like a stranger in my own country, turning on the news and seeing my own rights come up for debate, and seeing my rights expanded by a coalition of people like me and people not at all like me.”
Immediately, Buttigieg was assailed by primary opponents, media detractors, and Twitter denizens for allegedly likening the difficulties faced by black and gay Americans. “What he did on the stage, it’s just not productive, and I think it’s a bit naive,” California Senator Kamala Harris, who has since dropped out of the Democratic primary race, remarked. But Buttigieg wasn’t equating centuries of slavery, lynching, segregation, redlining, and all the rest of this country’s ugly history of state-sanctioned racism to the treatment of homosexuals, which, while also painful, cannot compare in nature or degree. He was simply trying to communicate how his status as an outsider—one who, up until 2003, could have been imprisoned for expressing his love for a man—endowed him with an empathy for other people who might feel like “a stranger in [their] own country.” He was conjuring the eloquent message of the man who paved the way for him on that debate stage, whose life experiences attested to how racism and homophobia, while in many ways different, are in one crucial aspect the same: They betray “a common lack of understanding, fairness, and compassion.”
Boozer might also have had something to say on another highly contentious subject: the degree to which, if at all, homophobia factors into what The Washington Post delicately refers to as the mayor’s “inability to connect with black communities.” The mere mention of this possibility elicits rage from progressives: It is a “disgusting, racist trope, secretly nursed and insidiously whispered by white liberals” (Charles Blow), an “insidious and racist lie” (BuzzFeed), an “ugly lie” (Jonathan Capehart). Yet given the statistics—while 83 percent of Democrats overall say homosexuality should be accepted by society, according to the Pew Research Center, just 63 percent of black respondents say the same; 62 percent of white adults support same-sex marriage, compared to 51 percent of black adults—it is not unreasonable to ask whether discomfort with Buttigieg’s sexual orientation plays at least some role in his stubbornly low support among African Americans. Asked whether this might be the case, James Clyburn, the highest-ranking African American in Congress, replied, “I’m not going to sit here and tell you otherwise, because I think everybody knows that’s an issue.”
Add this to the list of things “everybody knows” but few are willing to say. Because it doesn’t conform with the reigning narrative of the Donald Trump era, which is that the GOP is the party of irredeemably racist “deplorables” while Democrats are a coalition of the enlightened, few in the media or the broader commentariat are willing to acknowledge it.
Bigotry isn’t exclusive to one political party, race, religion, sexual orientation, or any other demographic, and neither is the duty to fight it. To the extent that an economically privileged, white, gay man can use his experiences of being discriminated against to relate to an economically disadvantaged, straight, black woman—or vice versa—well, this is the stuff of which human connection and social progress are made. That’s all that Pete Buttigieg, unwittingly channeling an unjustly forgotten African American trailblazer of gay rights, was trying to say.