“LGBTQ Legacy” is a series of Equality Utah posts celebrating influential lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer individuals who have gone before us. Each post focuses on a particular person and reflects upon the ways we can honor their memory.
Bayard Rustin (1912–1987) was born in Pennsylvania and was raised by his maternal grandparents. His grandmother Julia was active in the NAACP (National Association for the Advancement of Colored People), and so, in his early years, Rustin spent time with NAACP leaders like W. E. B. Du Bois and James Weldon Johnson. These influences, along with his upbringing in the Quaker faith, led Rustin to protest against Jim Crow laws and become a leading voice in the civil rights movement. Today, he is widely remembered for his work on the historic 1963 March on Washington, as an advocate for nonviolence, as an advisor to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., and as a gay rights activist.
In fact, many of the most notable events of the civil rights era were spurred on by Bayard Rustin. He co-organized the Journey of Reconciliation, the first of the Freedom Rides, to challenge segregation on interstate buses. He was part of the task force chosen in 1955 to write “Speak Truth to Power: A Quaker Search for an Alternative to Violence,” an influential pacifist essay. And, after learning techniques of nonviolent civil resistance in India, Rustin advised Martin Luther King Jr. on his organization of the Montgomery Bus Boycott. As Dr. King and Rustin continued to work together, they founded the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. Most famously, Bayard Rustin was the lead organizer of the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, the site of Dr. King’s legendary “I Have a Dream” speech.
In addition to being a believer in nonviolence, a committed activist, and a civil rights hero, Bayard Rustin was also a gay man. He posthumously received the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2013 and is remembered for his tireless work to build a more just and peaceful world. Here are some of the insights we can gain from his example:
1. We can support freedom and positive change for all people.
Bayard Rustin didn’t limit his service to causes that personally affected him. Instead, he saw the related nature of all forms of bigotry and oppression and felt it was his duty to help end these injustices wherever he could. For example, Rustin traveled to California to help protect the property of Japanese Americans who had been imprisoned between 1942 and 1945 in internment camps during World War II. In the ’70s and ’80s, he lent his voice to the plight of Jewish people in the Soviet Union, a community Rustin saw was experiencing much of the same unfair treatment and policies that African Americans were receiving in the United States. In Rustin’s own words, “If I do not fight bigotry wherever it is, bigotry is thereby strengthened. And to the degree that it is strengthened, it will, thereby, have the power to turn on me.” As reflected in the mission and vision of Equality Utah, we similarly believe that everyone in our state deserves to be treated with respect and understanding and should be afforded the same basic freedoms and opportunities as everyone else.
2. We can maintain our values in spite of persecution, abuse, or isolation.
Although Rustin’s talents and dedication were well established, his known homosexuality and one-time allegiance to the Communist party were serious problems for many others in the civil rights movement. So he was shunned in some circles and was even denied credit for some of his most impressive work.
Rather than abandon the cause, Rustin chose to work primarily behind the scenes, doing all he could in spite of this poor treatment. Then, in the later years of his life, Rustin advocated for gay rights in the state of New York and took the unconventional step of legally adopting his partner, Walter Naegle, as this was the only official way to gain legal recognition and protect their rights in their relationship at that time.
3. We can pay attention to discrimination within activist groups.
As we work in various organizations and political movements, we should try to be reflective and humble enough to notice ways we may also be falling short. Just because we may be in the right on one issue doesn’t mean we will be in the right on everything.
Within the civil rights movement, there were those who saw Rustin’s sexual orientation as a drawback or disqualifier. He acknowledged this difficulty when he said, “Martin Luther King, with whom I worked very closely, became very distressed when a number of the ministers working for him wanted him to dismiss me from his staff because of my homosexuality.”
Perhaps no group can meet the standard of perfection. But, when we see injustice or prejudice being perpetuated in any group we belong to, it’s worthwhile to name the problem and address it directly. Only then can we fully support our mission of securing equal rights and protections for everyone, including lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer Utahns and their families.
4. We can make intersectionality a core part of our activism.
Bayard Rustin’s very life and work highlight the importance of understanding intersectionality, or the ways that various oppressions can overlap and various identities can exist within one person. None of us are simply our sexual orientation or our race or our gender identity or our age; all these parts of us interact. Complete equality would mean that we would never have to hide these aspects of ourselves in order to be accepted or valued.
Rustin’s legacy as a gay, black man still speaks volumes and influences younger generations. According to another civil rights advocate, Preston Mitchum, “Previously,… it was [not] possible to identify with myself fully without feeling the need to take off layers when entering into various spaces… [but] Rustin also taught me that the experience of being Black and being gay could not be understood independently, but must include the interactions of our multiple identities that frequently occur together… and show[ed] me and other Black LGBT people the importance of [this] intersectionality and walking in your truth.”
Ultimately, we can each continue to honor Bayard Rustin by walking in our own truths and dedicating ourselves to making a world where people are free to be exactly who they are.
What do you most admire about Bayard Rustin? And, which other LGBTQ heroes would you like to see featured in future “LGBTQ Legacy” blog posts? Let us know in the comments below or on Twitter (@EqualityUtah) or Facebook (facebook.com/EqualityUtah).