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In Newly Released Audio, Bayard Rustin Talks About His Gay Identity

Civil rights leader says his openness threatened his position as key Martin Luther King, Jr. aide

Bayard Rustin speaks with Carolyn Carter, Cecil Carter, Kurt Levister, and Kathy Ross before a demonstration in 1964
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Newly released audio of gay civil rights icon Bayard Rustin reveals the extent to which he valued the intersection of his racial and his sexual identity — and how his life as an openly gay man nearly derailed his ability to fight for equality.

Rustin, an adviser to Martin Luther King Jr. who became more vocal on LGBTQ issues later in his life, said during an interview with the Washington Blade in the 1980s that he recalled a time in the 1940s when a mother warned her daughter not to touch him because he was black. He felt that it was important to educate the young child about race, and as a gay man he also realized that she needed to learn that gay people also existed. That attitude prompted him to be more open about his sexuality than was at all customary for public figures of his era.

“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,” he said several years before he died at age 75 in 1987. “I was aiding and abetting the prejudice that was a part of the effort to destroy me.”

An activist who believed in nonviolent resistance, Rustin spearheaded the organizing effort of the 1963 March on Washington and helped play a major role in the civil rights movement alongside King. But his sexual orientation wound up becoming a serious roadblock in his work.

“At a given point, there was so much pressure on Dr. King about my being gay — and particularly because I would not deny it — that he set up a committee to explore whether it would be dangerous for me to continue working with him,” Rustin recalled in the newly available audio, which will be aired on the Making Gay History podcast (here).

Robt Seda-Schreiber of the Bayard Rustin Center for Social Justice, which provides advocacy, education, and a safe space for LGBTQ and intersex people, said the newly surfaced clip “solidifies and spotlights the undeniable truth” of Rustin’s courage.

“Too few folks nowadays are aware that Bayard Rustin planned the March, inspired the Freedom Riders, & brought non-violence to Dr. King himself, among many other extraordinary accomplish­ments,” Seda-Schreiber said in an email message. “This lack of recognition is directly related to him not hiding in the shadows at a time when it was de rigueur for one’s very survival.”

Rustin’s surviving partner, Walter Naegle, provided the audio, according to NPR. Naegle, who lives in Chelsea, did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Updated 7:11 pm, January 16, 2019
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Robt Seda-Schreiber from Bayard Rustin Center for Social Justice says:
Thank you Gay City News for long overdue recognition of this extraordinary hero of so many different movements & further for allowing us comment on such. Bayard Rustin was lost to history, shunned & shamed because of whom he loved, who he was. This cannot & will not happen again, not on a large or a small scale- not to a leader of a movement, not to a worker in an office, nor to a student in a classroom, or indeed any individual in any community~ That is the very foundation of our organization The Bayard Rustin Center for Social Justice. We encourage all to join us in our collective journey forward celebrating the intersectionality of all our diverse communities! Robt Seda-Schreiber, Chief Activist BRCSJ www.facebook.com/RustinCenter
Jan. 8, 12:25 pm
sue dockstader from whiteaker says:
Typical of most gay publications, Rustin's ties to the Communist Party and his decidedly socialist views are completely overlooked.
Jan. 8, 11:07 pm
Michael Bedwell says:
FACT CHECK. Rustin is a huge hero to me, frankly far more accomplished and courageous than his protégé Martin Luther King, Jr., whose murder eclipsed the significance in history of Rustin and others, and I was honored to meet his surviving partner, Walter Naegle, at the dedication of the Legacy Walk memorial to Rustin in Chicago in 2012. However, with respect, it is a mistake to interpret from this recording that he was "openly gay"/“open about his sexuality” in the same way, say, Ellen and Elton and Robin Roberts and Matt Bomer and Tammy Baldwin and Adam Rippon are. For based on other, contemporaneous records we can only conclude that by his 1980s (not "several years before") statement, "it was an absolute necessity for me to declare homosexuality [in the 1940s]” that he did not mean "declare PUBLICLY," but rather to come out to himself; accept himself. Others KNOWING he was gay and not ***denying he was when asked is not the same thing as Rustin telling them he was. [***An article in the April 15, 1954, issue of “Jet” magazine claimed he “denies homosexual tendencies.”] FOR AROUND THE SAME TIME of the "Blade" recording from which that quote is taken, a year before he died Rustin declined an invitation to contribute to an anthology by black gay men, writing: “After much thought, I have decided that I must decline….I did not ‘come out of the closet’ voluntarily—circumstances forced me out. While I have no problem with being publicly identified as homosexual, it would be dishonest of me to present myself as one who was in the forefront of the struggle for gay rights. The credit for that belongs to others. They are the ones who should be in your book. While I support full equality, under the law, for homosexuals, I fundamentally consider sexual orientation to be a private matter.” SEE: "Lost Prophet, The Life and Times of Bayard Rustin” by John D’Emilio and "I Must Resist: Bayard Rustin's Life in Letters" by Michael Long. ANOTHER ERROR in the NPR story is the assertion by Mr. Marcus that Rustin organized the March on Washington "in the background." In fact, mainstream media not only knew he was the actual organizer but published multiple articles about it and pictures of him at March headquarters. E.g., August 28, 1963, syndicated newspaper column by Fulton Lewis, Jr.—"Strange Leader for 'The March'"—“ . . . Bayard Rustin, who has been described as ‘Mr. March-On-Washington, Himself’.” BAYARD RUSTIN WAS A GIANT, and I fail to understand the need of some to attempt to gild the statue of his reputation with revisionism. [UNRELATED TO RUSTIN, another error is on the Making Gay History page that NPR and you link to where Mr. Marcus says: “From a short-lived group called the Scientific Humanitarian Committee, which was founded by Henry Gerber in Chicago in 1924….” We trust this was just a slip of the tongue as, of course, that was the name of Magnus Hirschfeld's group in Berlin while Gerber's was the Society for Human Rights.]
Jan. 9, 9:05 pm

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