Bayard Rustin on Movement for Gay Rights, 1985 ("Blacks Told to Support Gays")
Bayard Rustin was a major African American activist during the 1950s and 1960s. He worked extensively with Dr. Martin Luther King, helping organize marches and events promoting civil rights, equal treatment, and racial integration. Rustin, in fact, taught King about strategies of nonviolent resistance, ways to fight against injustice without resorting to guns or violence. Perhaps the most important thing Rustin did was organize the 1963 March on Washington, a large rally in which King gave his most famous speech, the “I Have a Dream” speech. Planning and organizing this event, which had dozens of speakers and performers, was a major achievement. But because Rustin was gay — and had once been arrested because he was gay — he was never recognized for this achievement. He was told to stay in the background and keep a low profile in the black civil rights movement, despite all his hard work. Civil rights leaders, such as King, worried that if Rustin’s role in the civil rights movement became too public, it might cause bad publicity and hurt the movement’s goals. As a result, like so many other people of his time, Rustin had to hide in the shadows while others took credit for his accomplishments. As shown in this document, only late in his life did he start speaking out for gay rights also, connecting the two issues.
Rustin’s homosexuality played a complicated role in the civil rights movement. His organizing skills were considered essential for the movement’s progress. Yet his 1953 arrest in Pasadena California, for a fling in a car with a white man created fear among civil rights leaders that Southern Democrats and white supremacists would exploit the issue. White society had long subjected Black Americans to degrading sexual stereotypes, and civil rights leaders were deeply sensitive to the movement’s public image. The last thing they wanted was to be called “perverts,” which might damage the movement’s reputation. Rustin, though frustrated by the situation, understood the dynamics and accepted his role as the invisible man behind the scenes. Teachers may want to mention the organization that hosted Rustin’s talk, Black/White Men Together, known as BWMT for short. This has been a very significant organization within the gay movement since its founding in 1980. Its goal is to overcome the racism that is described in several of the other documents in this inquiry set. Since the beginning of the gay rights movement in the 1950s, one of the most important functions gay organizations have served is to create public forums for discussions. These forums have allowed speakers such as Rustin to open up about aspects of themselves that they often avoided. Rustin’s points in the article provide many useful comparisons with other documents describing black gay experiences.
L.A. Sentinel Aug 1, 1985
Civil Rights Leader
Blacks Told To Support Gays
by BETTY PLEASANT
Sentinel Staff Writer
Labelling the struggle for the freedom of gay people in society as the most difficult human rights problem of all, newspaper columnist and longtime civil rights activist Bayard Rustin called upon the 300 delegates at the 5th annual convention of National Assn. of Black and White Men together to stand up for their rights as gays.
Rustin himself a homosexual, spoke at the gay convention’s concluding banquet held July 20 at the Quality Inn in Inglewood. The weeklong convention attracted Black and White homosexual men from throughout the country and from as far away as Brazil and Canada.
Rustin, 75, said gay rights is the central problem of humanity in society and is so for three reasons. The first is the biblical injunction that for men to lie together is an “abomination,” Rustin said “Nowhere in the history of Western civilization is color or femininity or any other basis for injustice considered an abomination or an argument against God—only homosexuality,” Rustin pointed out.
He said the second reason homosexuality is so difficult for people to deal with “is that it is an attack upon the second most sacred notion of society—the family.” The third reason “is the mistaken notion that somehow every person who is homosexual—male or female—has as this fundamental objective that brutalization of children.”
Rustin disputed the second and the third contentions and asked, by way of stressing his point: “Who ever accused Blacks, Hispanics or women of being anti-God, anti-family and anti-child?...Who has ever considered any minority group as vicious as they consider homosexuals?”
Rustin, the organizer of the historic 1963 March on Washington which led to the passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, likened the struggle for gay rights to the fight waged for Blacks’ civil rights, and he urged the convention delegates to adopt the Black activists’ successful strategy of seeking not to convert those who committed to hate them, but rather to work toward winning over the 90 percent of the population which gas not made up their minds on how they feel about homosexuals.
“Society is redeemed by recognizing the greatest problem and dealing with it,” Rustin said. “If I am correct in my first point that is the homosexual that is most disliked in our society, then it is by all groups recognizing that until that group (homosexuals) is saved, the other groups cannot be saved,” Rustin intoned.
Discrimination is a single piece of cloth, Rustin told his audience. “Who expected Hitler, who hated Jews to shake hands with Jesse Owens?” Rustin asked. “If you hate Jews, you automatically hate Blacks; if you hate Blacks, you automatically hate gays, and if you hate gays, then there
(Continued on Page A-13)