In 1996, Muhammad Ali and I co-authored a short book about bigotry and prejudice that was keyed to religious and racial divisions. To spread the message, we visited schools in a half dozen cities across the country, talking with students about the need for tolerance and understanding. In February 1997, our journey brought us to Boston.
Muhammad and I had talked on several occasions about gay rights. I don't know how his views evolved in later years. In the mid-1990s, he believed that a gay lifestyle was at odds with the Qu'ran.
Ali and I were staying at the Ritz-Carlton Hotel in Boston. As we got out of the limousine that had taken us around the city, the customary crowd gathered. Then I heard the unexpected.
"Omigod! It's Tom Hauser."
The person who blurted out those words was Elizabeth Swados, a gifted playwright, director, and author who'd I'd known in the early 1980s. Liz was with a friend, a woman named Roz Lichter. Muhammad signed autographs outside the hotel for a while. Then we went inside and invited Liz and Roz to join us.
I don't remember much about the conversation that the four of us had. I remember the aftermath clearly. It was obvious that Liz and Roz were coupled. After they left, Muhammad turned to me and asked, "They're lesbians, aren't they?"
"I assume so," I said.
A smile crossed Muhammad's face, the smile that the whole world fell in love with.
"They look like they're happy together," he told me.
The thought that Liz and Roz (who he'd never met before and would never meet again) were happy pleased Muhammad. Ali wanted people to be happy. It was one of the reasons he gave as much of himself as he did. He loved the idea that, by giving someone a few seconds of his time, he could make that person happy.
I thought about that afternoon in Boston earlier this year when I read that Elizabeth Swados had died of complications stemming from esophageal cancer. The tributes were led by her wife, Roz Lichter.
That couldn't have happened two decades ago when Muhammad and Liz met.
I thought about it again on the morning of June 12 when, two days after Muhammad Ali was buried, I awoke to news of the horrifying mass murder at a gay nightclub in Orlando.
"They look like they're happy together."
What is it about that idea that the haters don't understand?
Thomas Hauser can be reached by email at email@example.com. His most recent book (Muhammad Ali: a Tribute to the Greatest) has been published by Pegasus Books in the United States and by HarperUK in Great Britain.