Marriage equality and mourning: Mildred Boesser fought till the end

When the Supreme Court legalized same sex marriage nationwide last week, President Obama called the ruling “a consequence of the countless small acts of courage of millions of people across decades who stood up.”

Mildred Boesser stood 5 feet tall, and she was one of those people. On the day of the ruling, Boesser was on her deathbed at home in Juneau, surrounded by family.

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Sara Boesser and Mildred Boesser in September, 2014. (Photo by Melissa Griffiths)
Sara Boesser and Mildred Boesser in September, 2014. (Photo by Melissa Griffiths)

“Friday she was still up and in the chair and talking and holding court and doing well,” says Sara Boesser, Mildred’s daughter. “But she was ready to go and she said, ‘Why am I still here? Why am I still here? I am ready.’ And then the Supreme Court ruling came through and she said, ‘That’s why I’m still here,’ and she was so happy.”

The wife of an Episcopalian minister, Mildred spent decades fighting for gay rights and marriage equality. Just last year, shetestified to the legislature in support of a bill that would prohibit discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity.

“For the record, I’m 88 years old. I’ve lived in Alaska since 1959. I’ve been married for 65 years to the same man and together we’ve raised four children. I’m also a Christian and my faith informs what I do,” Mildred said. “I can’t begin to tell you how saddened I am by the fact that in this great state I love so dearly, a person can be fired legally from a job, evicted from housing, denied credit or financing simply because of whom they happen to love.”

Sara Boesser and her partner Juanita Reese recently got engaged. (Photo by Lisa Phu/KTOO)
Sara Boesser and her partner Juanita Reese recently got engaged. (Photo by Lisa Phu/KTOO)

Mildred’s advocacy work stemmed from her daughter Sara.

Sara recounts her mother visiting her while she was a senior at the University of Washington in Seattle. It was the early 1970s.

“I was working at a bookstore called Madwomen Bookstore downtown and it had a lot of feminist and progressive and some lesbian books,” Sara says.

As they were leaving the store, Sara decided at that moment to tell her mother:

“At the crosswalk, light hit green and we started across the crosswalk. I said, ‘Mom, did you know that I’m a lesbian?’ She kind of kept going and she looked at me and said, ‘No, but I’m glad you told me, but that doesn’t change anything about what I feel for you.’ And we got across the crosswalk.”

Throughout the years, Mildred spoke up in the State Capitol Building, in city halls across Alaska and knocked on doors in support of gay rights. Sara says her mother never missed an opportunity to testify in the Capitol, even when Sara herself was discouraged.

“At some point it became too difficult for me to go back to those same legislators and tell them again that we are no threat. I couldn’t do it anymore,” Sara says. “And my mother still would. She wouldn’t even sometimes tell me she’d done it and then I read about it in the paper and think, ‘Wow, way to go Mildred.’”

Liz Dodd is a close family friend. She worked alongside Mildred in 1998 against the state constitutional amendment that defined marriage as between a man and a woman. Dodd says the hearings were antagonistic and she recalls times when lawmakers were rude.

“You would have this bank of legislators sitting around their little dais there and little Mildred at the table in front of them, soft spoken, just preaching love basically,” Dodd says.

Sara Boesser was honored to be Mildred’s daughter.

“People would stop me on the street always and say, ‘I love your mother. She’s my surrogate mother. She’s my grandmother. She’s a mother to us all.’ I was always very proud of her,” Sara says.

The respect was mutual, says Dodd. Dodd recounts her last conversation with Mildred.

“She started to talk about Sara and how Sara was her hero and how Sara inspired her and made her stronger,” Dodd says. “And she said, ‘I had brought this person into the world and then all through the years, I’ve watched her in absolute amazement at who she is.’”

After the Supreme Court ruling, Sara announced to her mother and father that she and her partner of four years are getting married.

“The last day that she was alive, she said, ‘I’m sorry I’m going to miss your wedding.’ I said, ‘Oh, don’t worry mom. You’re my first invitee and you’re going to be there with us, don’t you worry,’” Sara says.

Mildred Boesser passed away at age 90 on June 29, 2015. She is survived by her husband Mark, her four daughters and countless others who considered Mildred their mother.