Black and Gay: Celebrating Bayard Rustin

by: Tim’m, OVAH! Outreach Coordinator

Note: This post was originally featured on the Chicago Phoenix website and the Center on Halsted blog. You can read the original here.

I had a long-overdue conversation with my sister, Toya, recently amid contemplations about legacy and inheritance, as an educator, artist, and activist who may become better known posthumously, than I am living. Under no uncertain terms, I wanted her to know that should anything unforeseen happen to me, that I wanted to be remembered as a gay-identified POZ man who stood for the rights and dignity of all people, which includes both African-Americans and members of the LGBT community.

Too often, I have faced the insidious either/or question: Are you for black rights or LGBT rights? It is a dehumanizing question for anyone who understands that one’s partial freedom is not really freedom at all. I am fortunate to have been born post-Civil Rights Movement and post-Stonewall; and benefit from the relative gains both communities have made towards full inclusion as Americans. Still, for all of my work in both communities, I could not say, with resolve, that my family wouldn’t want to remember me differently: as someone who struggled with being gay, as opposed to one who struggled against society’s homophobia and heterosexism.

The conversation with my sister was also prompted by the crude erasure of a few friends who passed just before 2012; their families preferring to memorialize them as heterosexuals-in-waiting, rather than self-affirming LGBT people. And while I’m always a bit reticent to suggest that members of the black community are somehow more homophobic than other cultural groups—there is a long tradition of sweeping under rugs, hiding skeletons in closets, and not airing dirty laundry that is the stench of our community’s shame; even, ironically, during Black History or Black Pride events.

It is for this reason that many Black LGBT people have demanded that history be reassessed in order to affirm heroes and “sheroes” who made vast contributions to, not just Black culture, but American culture. It is this spirit of affirmation and reclamation that led me to the story of Bayard Rustin, pivotal figure in Dr. Martin Luther King Jr’s 1963 March on Washington.

Since his death in 1987, Bayard Rustin, principal organizer for the 1963 March on Washington led by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., has been celebrated as a gay Civil Rights icon. Ironically, while today he is considered the mentor and strategist for the historical March, in the 60s, he was minimized by many Civil Rights leaders for being homosexual. Despite adversity, Bayard Rustin’s legacy continued beyond the 1963 March as he insisted that Civil Rights for LGBT people marked a continuation of a broader fight for Human Rights for all.

As I spoke with my sister about the legacy I will undoubtedly leave, not just to my daughter, but to my niece and nephew and their children, I trembled with passion about my desire to be known for my life’s work in the LGBT community. In 1912, a man named Bayard Rustin was born into a world rampant with overt hatred for difference, quite often taking the form of racism and homophobia.

I suppose I think of myself as Brother Bayard’s kin—doing my part to ensure that as many people as possible remember his life in full color, each time they think of the 1963 March on Washington which he and, no doubt, other gay and lesbian people, made possible. On February 9, 2012, Center on Halsted will celebrate his Centennial legacy as we recommit ourselves to the change still needed to ensure liberty and justice for all.

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