LGBT Heroes #1

LGBT Heroes #1

This is the first in a series of articles about LGBTQIA+ heroes – individuals whose lives have been inspirational in the struggle for recognition of the right for every individual to enjoy and celebrate their chosen identity.

Graphics by Abena Akuffo-Kelly – Teacher and Councillor.
Words kindly contributed by Dean Fudge – Educator.

Bayard Rustin (1912-1987)

A Nashville bound bus played a key role in the early activism of Bayard Rustin. As he was taking his allotted seat at the back of the bus, a young child, sitting in the white section reached up to play with his tie. The child’s mother slapped its hand saying; ‘do not touch a n*****.’ Rustin made a choice to sit, where he was, in the white section and endured the subsequent public and private beatings at the hands of the police.
Rustin’s non-violent approach to activism was at odds with the civil-rights movement at the time but never-the-less he persevered in it and persuaded others that this approach would work.
Rustin was an organiser and rider in the 1947 ‘Freedom Rides’ which tested the enactment of laws banning racial segregation on public transport, the result was time spent on a segregated chain gang after several arrests.
In 1953, he was arrested for having sex with a man in the back of a car. This resulted in more prison time, having to register as a sex offender, and his homosexuality becoming public knowledge. He resigned from his position in the civil rights group Fellowship of Reconciliation and took up more anonymous activism for fear that his sexuality would defame the work.
Rustin was right, his opponents did use his sexuality to slur him. When he began advising Martin Luther King, there were false accusations levied that the two men were having an affair and threats to expose this led to a cancelled protest and Rustin being shunned by other civil rights leaders.
Rustin continued to organise and advise within the civil rights movement.  Steps were taken to ensure that his work organising the March for Freedom did not receive public credit. This sought to avoid further accusations against the movement based on Rustin’s sexuality.
Ruskin was viewed by many within the civil rights movement as a liability, he was shunned and mistrusted by other leaders because he was openly gay. Martin Luther King Jr recognised Rustin’s genius for organisation and took advice from him adopting his model of  non-violent activism. Rustin shared platforms with King during  several key speeches.   In 1963 Life magazine put Ruskin in its front cover honouring his leadership of the March for Freedom.

Rustin continued to advise and influence the civil rights movement and later helped shape government foreign policy.  It was not until the 1980s that he began to explore publicly the intersectionality of being both black and gay. He stated previously that sexuality was fundamentally a private matter that for him sex had to be sublimated. However, in 1986 Rustin acknowledged 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.’

Rustin died in 1987 and was survived by his partner of ten years. In order to secure legal rights for his partner at a time when marriage equality was lacking Rustin had legally adopted him. This was not an unusual practice within the LGBTQ+ community at the time.

Rustin received a posthumous Medal of Freedom in 2013 under Obama’s presidency. Obama’s speech acknowledged:

“These are the men and women who in their extraordinary lives remind us all of the beauty of the human spirit, the values that define us as Americans, the potential that lives inside of all of us,”

Rustin was pardoned of his 1953 conviction for sexual misconduct in February 2020.


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