Bayard Rustin: a radical gay icon for our time

MLK Jr. and Bayard Rustin

“When an individual is protesting society’s refusal to acknowledge his dignity as a human being, his very act of protest confers dignity on him.” 

— Bayard Rustin

Socialist. Black Civil Rights leader. Out gay man.

Those words defined the life of Bayard Rustin, one of the Philadelphia region’s most famous historical figures. An early mentor of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Rustin worked closely with King as a proofreader and ghostwriter. He was also King’s non-violence strategist and helped plan other nonviolent protests and boycotts to end racial discrimination, including the March on Washington. 

Born in West Chester on March 17, 1912, Rustin was raised by his maternal grandparents, who were members of the NAACP. W.E.B. DuBois was among the frequent guests of Julia Davis Rustin, Rustin’s grandmother. Rustin attributed his early involvement in civil rights to his grandmother’s tutelage and activism.

Historian Henry Louis Gates, Jr. wrote in 2013 for PBS that “One of the first documented realizations Rustin had of his sexuality was when he mentioned to his grandmother that he preferred to spend time with males rather than females. She responded, ‘I suppose that’s what you need to do’.”

An out gay man in an era when the closet was the safest place to be, Rustin knew he was gay early, and he lived his life accordingly. He had relationships with men throughout his life and was out privately to all his compatriots in the Civil Rights movement. 

Rustin attended Cheney State Teacher’s College, a Pennsylvania Historically Black College and University (HCBU). He attended an activist training program at the American Friends Service Committee in Philadelphia, joined the Quakers and moved to Harlem in 1937, where he became involved in activist causes, including efforts to free the Scottsboro Boys. He also became a member of the Communist Party but was disillusioned quickly and shifted his allegiance to the Socialist Party.

Rustin was an accomplished tenor and had attended college on a music scholarship. Once in New York, he sang with Paul Robeson in a musical and also sang at the famous Café Society nightclub; it was there he made a range of friends, both political and gay.

But it was activism that was Rustin’s driving force. Throughout the 1930s and 1940s, he was deeply engaged in a myriad of civil rights causes, driven by his Socialist politics. He was instrumental in getting President Franklin D. Roosevelt to draft Executive Order 8802 — the Fair Employment Act — which banned racial discrimination in defense industries and federal agencies.

A pioneer in the movement to desegregate interstate bus travel, Rustin was arrested in 1942 for refusing to move to the back of a bus during a drive from Louisville to Nashville, violating Jim Crow laws of the era. Rustin was beaten and taken to the police station but was released uncharged.

In a newly discovered audiotape that aired on NPR in January 2019, Rustin spoke about his choice to be arrested 13 years before Rosa Parks would be arrested. He said his decision “clarified his witness as a gay person.”

Rustin said, “As I was going by the second seat to go to the rear, a white child reached out for the ring necktie I was wearing and pulled it.” Afterward, the child’s mother hurled a racial slur at Rustin. He said he owed it to the child and “my own dignity” to show that Black folks “do not want to sit in the back, and therefore I should get arrested, letting all these white people in the bus know that I do not accept that.”

Rustin linked that decision to his coming out. “It occurred to me shortly after that, that it was an absolute necessity for me to declare my homosexuality, because if I didn’t, I was a part of the prejudice. I was aiding and abetting the prejudice that was a part of the effort to destroy me.”

Rustin said, “To be afraid is to behave as if the truth were not true.”

In 1948, Rustin would meet with Mahatma Gandhi in India and adopt theories of non-violence into his activism, which he would teach to King. But in 1953, his life was altered when he was arrested in Pasadena, California, for having sex with another man in a parked car. Charged with vagrancy and lewd conduct, Rustin pled guilty to a single, lesser charge of “sex perversion,” which sodomy was called at the time, even if it was consensual.

Rustin served 60 days in jail. The public nature of his “crime” distanced many in the movement from him. But, over his lifetime, Rustin would not just continue his work as a Black Civil Rights activist, he would also be a voice in the gay civil rights movement — often linking the two movements together. Co-founder of the Black Panthers and Rustin’s contemporary Huey Newton expressed similar sentiments in a speech when he said, “The women’s liberation front and gay liberation front are our friends, they are our potential allies, and we need as many allies as possible.”

On Feb. 5, California Gov. Gavin Newsom (D) officially pardoned Rustin decades after he was forced to register as a sex offender. Newsom said the action was an effort to correct a “long and reprehensible history” with regard to gay men like Rustin.

“California, like much of the nation, has a disgraceful legacy of systematically discriminating against the LGBTQ community. This discrimination has taken many forms, including social isolation and shaming, surveillance, intimidation, physical violence, and unjust arrest and prosecution,” Newson said. “Mr. Rustin was sentenced pursuant to a charge commonly used to punish gay men for engaging in consensual adult sexual conduct. His conviction is part of a long and reprehensible history of criminal prohibitions on the very existence of LGBTQ people and their intimate associations and relationships.”

Rustin died suddenly on Aug. 24, 1987, of cardiac arrest after appendix surgery. He was survived by his longtime partner, Walter Naegle. Naegle accepted the Medal of Freedom from President Barack Obama when Obama awarded it posthumously to Rustin in 2013. Obama quoted Rustin, who said, “Let us be enraged about injustice, but let us not be destroyed by it.”

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Victoria A. Brownworth is a Pulitzer Prize-nominated award-winning journalist whose work has appeared in The New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, The Philadelphia Inquirer, Baltimore Sun, DAME, The Advocate, Bay Area Reporter and Curve among other publications. She was among the OUT 100 and is the author and editor of more than 20 books, including the Lambda Award-winning Coming Out of Cancer: Writings from the Lesbian Cancer Epidemic and Ordinary Mayhem: A Novel, and the award-winning From Where They Sit: Black Writers Write Black Youth and Too Queer: Essays from a Radical Life.