Queer Black History: Bayard Rustin Black History Month PLANETROMEO

Queer Black History: Bayard Rustin

February is Black History Month so, we thought we’d celebrate the role that a few (maybe to some, relatively unknown) gay black men have played in history, to advance diversity, inclusion, and modern gay awareness. Below is Part 1 of the series, Queer Black History, where we explore the life and legacy of Bayard Rustin, the genius behind Martin Luther King Jr. 

Bayard Rustin

Queer Black History: Bayard Rustin Courtesy of Giphy via @foxadha
Queer Black History: Bayard Rustin

Openly Gay in 1940s America

Bayard Rustin (March 17, 1912 – August 24, 1987), is probably one of the first in modern day history, who dared to live as an openly gay black man, in the fiercely homophobic America of the 40’s, 50’s and 60’s. He’s been referred to as ‘The Man Homophobia Almost Erased From History‘ but was later honored for his support for LGBT rights.

Queer Black History: Bayard Rustin Courtesy of Wikipedia Uploads Free License
Queer Black History: Bayard Rustin

Related Queer Black History: James Baldwin

Arrested for Love

Working mostly behind the scenes, he helped to build the civil rights movement. But being an openly gay man at the time, proved to have its challenges. In the early 50’s, Rustin was arrested for having sex – with two men – in a car – in a park. He pleaded guilty to a charge of ‘lewd vagrancy’ and spent 60 days in jail; the arrest comes back later in his career to harass him.

Black History: Martin Luther King Jr.
Martin Luther King Jr.

The Genius behind MLK

Beginning with the Montgomery Bus Boycott (1955), he served as a key advisor to Martin Luther King Jr., advocating for nonviolence. However, Rustin’s gayness eventually became a point of conflict, not so much for King, but to the civil rights movement. First, when a reporter threatened to expose Rustin’s sexuality to the press, he was whisked out of town before the boycott – in the middle of the night – in the trunk of a car. Then years later, while planning a march on the Democratic National Convention (1960), a U.S. Congressman threatened to leak the #fakenews that King and Rustin were having an affair, if King didn’t cancel the march. King backs down and Rustin resigned.

News resurfaces about his earlier arrest and Rustin became a further liability, ultimately resulting in him being asked to withdraw from the planning of the historical 1963, March on Washington.

Queer Black History: Bayard Rustin PLANETROMEO Gay History courtesy of Wiki Images
Black History Month: Bayard Rustin

Human Rights for all

Despite the many personal and professional setbacks due to his sexuality, he was still considered a respected authority on gay rights, who often publicly spoke about the intersectionality between civil rights – gay rights – human rights. In one of his 1986 essays, From Montgomery to Stonewall, Rustin describes the parallel between homophobia and racism. And in 1986, while giving a controversial speech at the University of Pennsylvania, The New N****** Are Gay, he again highlighted the connection between civil rights and gay rights; later reinterpreted for modern day in, The New F**gots are Trans.

Queer Black History: Bayard Rustin
Bayard Rustin

In His Own Words

Finally, in Brother to Brother: An Interview Between Bayard Rustin and Joseph Beam,
Beam asks: “What remarks do you have for other black gay activists who hope to follow in your footsteps?”
Rustin responds: “Well, I think the most important thing I have to say is that they should try to build coalitions of people for the elimination of all injustice. If we want to do away with the injustice to gays it will not be done because we get rid of the injustice to gays. It will be done because we are forwarding the effort for the elimination of injustice to all. And we will win the rights for gays, or blacks, or Hispanics, or women within the context of whether we are fighting for all.”

Queer Black History: Bayard Rustin Black History Month
Queer Black History: Bayard Rustin

Posthumous Awards

Bayard Rustin died of a ruptured appendix in New York City on August 24, 1987, at the age of 75. After he died, he received the following honors recognizing his contributions to human rights and the LGBT community (accepted by his surviving life partner Walter Naegle):

2013 – Presidential Medal of Freedom

2015 – Support for LGBT rights: National LGBT 50th Anniversary Celebration

Queer Black History

This is the first in an ongoing series for Black History Month, Part two features the life and legacy of James Baldwin.

Michael Baldwin Queer Black History BHM

Black History Month, Part three features the life and legacy of Melvin ‘Mel’ Boozer.

Queer Black History Melvin 'Mel' Boozer

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Bayard Rustin animations sourced from Giphy and @foxadhd