My brow wrinkled when the name Bayard Rustin came up several months ago in connection with the film Milk.
All my memory could muster of Rustin was a vague image of an elegant man who was “backstage” in the black civil rights movement, standing behind Martin Luther King during his “I Have A Dream Speech” 46 years ago in Washington, DC. (In many of the iconic photos of that March on Washington, Rustin is to the back and right of King, virtually off frame — except for a glimpse of a folded arm, and a handkerchief peeping out of a jacket pocket.)
More than 20 years before that march, and more than 10 years before Rosa Parks staged her own sit down protest against segregated bus seating, Rustin faced down several police officers who dragged him from a Nashville-bound bus in 1942 for his refusal to sit in its blacks-only designated area.
“I believe I have a right to sit here,” he told the infuriated policemen before they hauled him from a seat near the front of the bus. “If I sit in the back of the bus I am depriving that child” — indicating a white child — “of the knowledge that there is injustice here, which I believe it is his right to know.”
As Washington prepares for another human rights march Oct 11, this time of the queer kind, how many know that Rustin, a gay man, taught Martin Luther King the non-violence strategies that drove the 1956 Montgomery Bus Boycott? Or that seven years later, Rustin was the architect of the 1963 March on Washington saturated with King’s oratory and persona?
As the very apt title of a collection of his writings, Time on Two Crosses, conveys, Rustin-as-black-man weathered hits from racist whites, even as gay Rustin endured the homophobia of fellow civil rights leaders.
That he was a gay man in a black movement proved an “unprecedented conundrum for African American leaders, who weighed the worth of his tactical expertise and political sophistication against his ‘deviant’ sexual identity,” the collection’s editors write.
Sometimes that expertise and sophistication trumped the indigestibility of his sexuality, they noted. Other times, not.
And so Rustin was often relegated to the periphery of the civil rights movement he helped launch.
Even as Rustin was often pushed to the back of the civil rights bus in a bid by its straight leaders to safeguard the movement’s “respectability,” his own words and actions on behalf of gay rights were even more obscure.
When moves were afoot to dilute New York’s gay rights ordinance, Rustin presented then-mayor Ed Koch with 20 reasons why they should support its unrevised version. His view was that gays and lesbians had become “the barometer and the litmus paper of human rights attitudes and social change.”
Rustin also spoke out about HIV/AIDS in the 1980s when other black civil rights leaders barely responded to the epidemic. “Bayard helped to change that by publicly commenting on the epidemic and sensitizing groups like the NAACP, the National Urban League, and the Black Medical Association to social and racial implications of AIDS,” Time on Two Crosses says.
But he would also chastise the gay community for its own narrow-mindedness when he heard stories of white gays not wanting blacks to come into their spaces, pointing out the profound incongruence between being gay and being bigoted.
His point still resonates today. In the aftermath of Prop 8’s re-banning of gay marriage in California, media reports noted that both blacks and latinos, many queer, were unfairly blamed for the proposition’s passage and targeted with racial slurs in some of the post-election community protests.
In the last 12 months several key anniversaries in gay history have converged: Canada’s decriminalization of gay sex 40 years ago, Stonewall, and Harvey Milk’s assassination 30 years ago. In all the commemorative fuss — all of it well-founded — where are the Rustin tributes?
As one who straddled communities of race and sexuality with considerable grace and intellect in difficult eras, and whose words and activism can help bridge the continuing gaps between racial and sexual minority communities, the all-encompassing brand of Rustin’s human rights legacy is as shrouded as it ever was — and that is more than a shame.