Bayard Rustin: Are Gay Rights the New Civil Rights?

Bayard Rustin was an openly gay black man, helped introduce Gandhian nonviolence to the African-American civil rights movement. His pacifism landed him in jail for refusing to participate in World War II. He was part of the first Freedom Rides in 1947, helped to found the Congress for Racial Equality, and was National Field Secretary for the Fellowship of Reconciliation.

Rustin was among the most famous advocates of Gandhian nonviolence in the 1930s and 1940s, and the Mahatma once summoned him to a conference in India. Beginning with the Montgomery Bus Boycott, he served as key adviser to Martin Luther King Jr., giving him the chance to train Dr. King in the philosophy of nonviolence as a way of life. However, Rustin’s sexuality was not without controversy or consequence in the civil rights movement.

Under the cover of night in the trunk of a car, he was unceremoniously evacuated from
Montgomery because a reporter threatened to expose Rustin’s sexuality and past communist affiliation in the press. Worried that his presence could hurt the bus boycott, King and Rustin agreed that it would be best if Rustin left town.

Still, Rustin continued to advise King. He designed the organizational structure of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference and was the main fundraiser for the organization in its early stages. When King decided to call a march on the 1960 Democratic Convention, the party dispatched Congressman Adam Clayton Powell to stop it. Powell manufactured a sexual relationship between King and Rustin, telling King that he was going to leak the story to the press if he didn’t back down from his plans to march.

King relented and Rustin resigned. Nevertheless, as a seasoned veteran in nonviolent philosophy and direct action, Rustin was tapped to plan the 1963 March on Washington. In an interview, noted labor leader and march organizer A. Philip Randolph called Rustin “Mr.-March-on-Washington.”

In the weeks before, however, Strom Thurmond took the Senate floor to denounce Rustin’s leadership and, with it, the civil rights movement as a whole. He gave a 45-minute speech, presenting pages upon pages about Rustin’s activism and his arrest for having sex with two men in car in a California park and called Rustin a “communist, draft-dodger, and homosexual.”

As news of Rustin’s arrests continued to surface, particularly the arrest for “moral indecency,” there were calls for him to withdraw from planning the Washington march. Although the platform that launched Dr. Martin Luther King and the modern civil rights movement onto the world stage was orchestrated by an openly gay black man, and the march he helped organize would create the context for the passage of the Civil Rights Act in 1964 and the Voting Rights Act a year later, he was still villainized for his sexual orientation.

In spite of the pressure, Randolph, King, and the other civil rights leaders—both in the press and behind closed doors—expressed their utmost confidence in Rustin, and he continued to lead the day-to-day organizing. Bayard Rustin’s authority to speak on the convergence of gay rights and civil rights is indisputable. He helped build the civil rights movement and suffered for being a gay man at the same time. Rustin’s 1986 speech, “The New Niggers Are Gays” insists on the connection between gay rights and civil rights.

“Today, blacks are no longer the litmus paper or the barometer of social change. Blacks are in every segment of society and there are laws that help to protect them from racial discrimination. The new ‘niggers’ are gays. … It is in this sense that gay people are the new barometer for social change. … The question of social change should be framed with the most vulnerable group in mind: gay people.”

To say that gays are the new niggers is not to say that black oppression has disappeared. The claim that black folks are fully enfranchised and free is simply not true. Stark racial and economic disparities continue to exist in the United States, regardless of who is in the White House. Legislative onslaughts and public disdain against queer folks invites them into the community of niggers. By carrying the racial epithet beyond race, Rustin insists that blacks and queers share a common quest to save democracy. He calls us to look critically at the ways in which racism and heterosexism are two heads on the same devil.

In the essay “From Montgomery to Stonewall,” Rustin continues to unearth the common roots of civil rights and gay rights. The Stonewall Inn in Greenwich Village, New York had been raided frequently by the New York City police for being a gay bar. But on June 28, 1969, a “routine” raid turned into a riot. Black, brown, and white folks—lesbian, gay, queer, and in drag—began to fight back against the systematic persecution, mocking and attacking the police. Supporters of the Stonewall patrons gathered outside in solidarity.

News reports and eyewitness accounts say that folks in the streets began to sing, “We shall overcome!” Soon after, all hell broke loose. Police, Stonewall patrons, and their supporters engaged in a brawl. That night, black and white queer folks were beaten together as niggers. Reality and metaphor should not be lost to one another. For Rustin, the events at Stonewall are part of a protest tradition in line with women’s rights, civil rights, and anti-war demonstrations.

“That was the beginning of an extraordinary revolution, similar to the Montgomery Bus Boycott in that it was not expected that anything extraordinary would occur. As in the case of the women who left the Russian factory, and in the case of Rosa Parks who sat down in the white part of the bus, something began to happen, people began to protest. They began to fight for the right to live in dignity, the right essentially to be one’s self in every respect, and the right to be protected under law. In other words, people began to fight for their human rights. Gay people must continue this protest.”

For oppressed communities around the world, the civil rights movement is a model for their unique and particular struggles. Although geography, pigmentation, class, religion, and capacity to self-organize may differ, they hold in common the structures of relegation and resistance. The police of conservative, racist, and homophobic forces wield literal and legislative billy clubs. The black freedom struggle understood the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution as both the standard of and aspiration to what it means to be fully human on American soil. While their experiences were not the same as those of white Anglo-Saxons who were rejecting over-criminalization, religious intolerance, and British taxation without representation, African Americans shared the desire to be free and full citizens in the new democracy.

That’s why other oppressed groups—in this case, queers—come to see black folks as models for what it means to be a self-actualized people confronting discrimination. The civil rights movement set the stage for the queer rights movement because of its power and grace when confronted with the ugliness of prejudice, hatred, and violence. Black and queer folk share in existential themes of oppression. In its plainest sense, “queer” means to be at odds with the prevailing society. Because of these shared themes of oppression, being black is queer and being queer is black. In a word, black folks queered democracy.

Naming (faggot and nigger), vigilante violence/hate crimes (Matthew Shepard and Emmett Till), legislative disenfranchisement (Plessy vs. Ferguson and Prop. 8), hyper-sexualized stereotypes, and housing and employment discrimination have been used to undermine the humanity of both groups. And, for both, much of it has been done and justified by religion. Oppressive forces across time and space, and across race and class, share in the same brutal methods. They must be answered with a common cause.

The historical and contemporary experiences of black and queer folks not are the same. They are clearly different—but not dissimilar. Their similarity carries a moral obligation to compare struggles and stories, to forge an existential identification between the oppressed groups. In the past, black folks were the chief victims of moral outrage and political warfare; queer folks are today.

Rustin, however, places the burden of proof on the queer community. There are responsibilities that come to those who claim to be oppressed. Indifference to the suffering of other human beings cannot be a part of one’s own struggle, he insists. The queer community cannot work toward justice for itself alone. It must, self-critically, reject all forms of prejudice. Rustin writes that a society that denies school children food will never grant gay rights. By the same logic, a society that rejects universal health, embraces preemptive war, and houses more black men in prison than in college will never grant queer folkstheir God-given rights or their rights as democratic citizens.

To share in the hateful legacy of “nigger” requires generosity on the part of black people. We must be freely giving of the gift we have given democracy for over four centuries. All niggers—historical and contemporary—must join forces to achieve freedom for all. Rustin places a moral challenge on those in the struggle: “Every indifference to prejudice is suicide because, if I don’t fight all bigotry, bigotry itself will be strengthened and, sooner or later, it will return on me.”

—Rev. Osagyefo Sekou

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