January 19, 2011

Setting the Record Queer: Bayard Rustin and the Civil Rights Movement.

Side Note: I had originally intended to do "Setting the Record Queer" articles on a more regular basis, in which I would focus on LGBTQA individuals who had made some significant contribution to history either positive or negative. However, between wanting to stick to a somewhat strict criteria of who I would do and the amount of time it takes to do such articles well, I ended up not doing as many as I had originally intended.

First, I did not want to do someone simply because they were famous, such as celebrities or artists, I wanted people who played a role in history itself. Second, I did not want to do an individual, unless there was conclusive (or nearly conclusive) evidence that they really were queer in some way. This criteria actually eliminated a lot more people then I had expected, such as Abraham Lincoln. Second, really famous individuals who were well known for being somehow LGBTQA were also not what I was interested in. This last criteria tends to eliminate a lot of the Greeks - Plato, Socrates, Alexander, etc. - among others.

So, while I consider less stringent criteria, I thought I would ask people if they had any paticular choices they might want to suggest for future Setting the Record Queer articles.

Bayard Rustin was a gay man of color and key figure in the American Civil Rights Movement. He served as a close advisor to Martin Luther King Jr. and was a organizer in the 1963 March on Washington where King gave his famous "I Have a Dream" speech.

Rustin's sexual orientation was often used as a weapon against him, both by individuals within the civil rights movement and those who opposed it. In a vain attempt to prevent the March on Washington from occurring, pro-segregationist Senator Strom Thurmond attempted to use an arrest of Rustin for lewd behavior against Rustin. Thurmond also went so far as to imply a gay affair between Rustin and King.

Non-violence was a crucial element of Rustin's philosophy and he was an advocate of non-violent civil disobedience within the civil rights movement. Later in his life, he would become more focused on equal rights for GLBTQA individuals.

In 1986, Rustin gave a famous and rather controversial speech called "The New Niggers Are Gay". In the speech Rustin states:
Today, blacks are no longer the litmus paper or the barometer of social change. Blacks are in every segment of society and there are laws that help to protect them from racial discrimination. The new "niggers" are gays. . . . It is in this sense 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.

On August 24th 1987, Bayard Rustin passed away from a perforated appendix. From The New York Times article on that event:
Commenting on Mr. Rustin's death, Roy Innis, national chairman of the Congress of Racial Equality, said: ''Bayard Rustin was a planner, a coordinator, a thinker. He influenced all of the young leaders in the civil rights movement, even those of us who did not agree with him ideologically.''

"Homophobia will never erase the contributions of Bayard Rustin to the civil rights movement" from Holy Bullies and Headless Monsters

Wikipedia Article on Bayard Rustin

Bayard Rustin Is Dead at 75; Pacifist and a Rights Activist" from The New York Times archive

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