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