At the little Galbraith AME Zion church in downtown Washington, the congregation has followed Melvin Boozer's progress since, as a shy 11th grader in 1962, he was named colonel of the award-winning Dunbar High School cadet corps.
Church women dressed in their Sunday best used to smile and say "Amen" at 11 o'clock services when the preacher asked Melvin to stand and be recognized as one of the church's own. Time after time, he was praised for his accomplishments: Salutatorian at Dunbar. Academic scholarship to Dartmouth. Four years in the Peace Corps in Brazil. A Ford Foundation fellowship to Yale.
Boozer, now 34, is finishing his Ph.D. at Yale and is teaching at the University of Maryland. But there is one achievement that most of his friends don't know and that he hasn't told the congregation about. Boozer was recently elected president of the Gay Activist Alliance here.
After years of worrying and struggling with the nagging questions of his homosexuality, Boozer has decided it is time to come out of hiding. He will march through the streets of Washington tomorrow in the first national gay rights march.
In an interview, Boozer talked openly, albeit with some trepidation, about gay activism -- a subject seldom accepted or discussed favorably, if discussed at all, in the black community.
"Making a statement is the only way for me to use my limited resources to do something for me and for others," he said. "Social change has only come about by people making statements. Anyone aware of the civil rights movement will understand that."
Acceptance of his homosexuality didn't occur overnight, he said, but unfolded in bits and pieces. As long as he could remember, Boozer said, he was attracted to men. "My mother asked me why I am gay, and I don't know why," he said. "I am firmly convinced that I am gay, that it's okay to be gay."
Boozer grew up in a part of Washington that now exists only in history. As a child of the ghetto, he lived with his family near First and M Streets NW in a house without electricity that has since been torn down. He is the second oldest of three children. He never really knew his "biological" father; his stepfather did construction and janitorial work and his mother worked as a domestic.
He grew up in an era of change in the late '50s and '60s, a time when blacks in this country, especially in Washington, suddenly found themselves in a position to take advantage of opportunities unheard of just one generation before.
William Rumsey, the director of the D.C. Department of Recreation, who was Boozer's adviser at Dunbar when he was colonel, recalled Boozer's progress.
"I remember the announcements in church that he was home from school," said Rumsey, a trustee at Boozer's church. "The minister would ask him to stand up. He would boast about Melvin's accomplishments. He would say one of our own who has gone away.'"
Boozer said, "I didn't realize it at the time, but now when I look back on it, there was a perception about accomplishments that blacks held that being black was something to overcome -- that you had to distinguish yourself in something so that you could be acceptable to whites."
When he went to Dartmouth, he said, "I saw that whites were not the perfect creatures that we were told they were. I was amazed at how they put their feet up on the furniture because they owned it and they went barefoot because it was new to them.
"We, as blacks, felt this incredible need to be good, but now I reject a lot of things that I perceived and things that motivated us," he said. "We have to realize that we are okay just being who we are."
By the time he was in high school, Boozer had already built up a reputation as a competitive scholar.
He became editor of the school newspaper, president of the chess club, student council member and head of other organizations. But the real prestige was colonel of the cadet corps.
Today, years later, Boozer still gets stopped on Washington streets by people who don't remember his name, but remember that he was "the colonel."
"They stop me and say 'hey colonel,"' Boozer said. "We talk about the old days, days that for many people were the best days they had, especially if they never went to college. We talk about what we've been doing and they usually wind up asking me if I am married. It ends when I say 'no'"
Boozer's arrival at Dartmouth marked the beginning of a personal growth process in which he, for the first time, questioned his religious and family upbringing. But he still hadn't begun to question his sexuality. For the time being, he said, he kept it in the background.
It was a time when others of his age questioned many of society's value as a war raged in Vietnam.
"When I was a freshman, I was in ROTC and if a demonstrator had come up to me, I would have knocked him across the head with the butt of my rifle," Boozer said. "By the time I was a junior, I had dropped out of ROTC and I had joined those linking arms to keep ROTC off campus."
The idealism of those years was reflected in his decision after graduation to join the Peace Corps.
In Brazil, a society with different definitions of masculinity, Boozer said he became comfortable with the idea that men could show affection toward one another without being viewed as an oddity.
On several occasions, he enjoyed homosexual encounters, but always, he said, with the thought that all that would be left in Brazil when he returned home.
When he did return, and attended Yale graduate school, he dated a woman steadily for two years. "She wanted to get married. That's when I realized it was not what I wanted. Until that time, I still had expectations of getting married."
For awhile, he said, his life was in turmoil.
He left Yale and his doctoral studies on weekends to explore New York's gay community in Greenwich Village, a place he describes as "bizarre."
Boozer started going to gay activist meetings at Yale, first walking past the meeting room, afraid that others might see him, and eventually going in, only to find "they looked normal. Some were professors, some graduate students. It was most assuring."
But he realized that, sooner or later, he would have to face coming home to Washington, his family and friends and the congregation at Galbraith AME Zion. By that time, he knew, he was homosexual. The problem was how to tell others.
Initially, he didn't. He dropped hints: gay literature left around the family home; discuissions with friends and family about gay rights without implicating himself as a gay person; surrounding himself with mostly male friends.
As he identified himself with gay causes, joining the gay community church and participating in some gay activist activities here, he knew that he was increasing his chances for discovery.
He accepted a nomination as president of the gay alliance because he felt there was something that needed to be done that only he could do.
His nomination came at a time when the mostly white organization was attempting to reach out to black gays. Although Washington is 70 percent black and theoretically composed of more black gays than white gays, few blacks are activists. Many black gays have criticized the Gay Activist Alliance as insensitive to black gay concerns about discrimination within the gay community. Boozer said he hopes to change that.
"Black gays have not fully developed organized political forms . . . partly because of the oppression they sense in the black community," he said. "It's a fear of rejection from family and friends who live here that they need for support, or retaliation from a community that has been put down so many times in so many ways that homosexuality is perceived as a threat."
When Rumsey learned that Boozer had just been elected president of the Gay Activist Alliance, he was silent. Several seconds later, he said, "I respect his choice even though it is not what I would have wanted for him. I still would not turn him away for advice or anything he would seek from me."
Boozer says he is reconciled to the fact that the future may not be easy.
"I don't want people to continue thinking that gay people are only white, or that gay people are the kinds of negative images that some people have in their heads," he said. I want people to understand that gay people are people who are close to them, and people they have known all their lives but have not said they were gay because they thought people wouldn't want them or love them anymore."