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.