Queer and black. Two controversially radical identities not often put together. Yet, these two identities are very much interwoven throughout contemporary history.
Being both LGBT+ and a person of colour in societies that demonised and threatened every aspect of your existence meant being deemed ugly and hominoid on the outside, as well as weird and unnatural on the inside. However, it also meant to be radical or revolutionary in every sense of the words, as to simply exist was an act of insurgence.
A hero of mine is Bayard Rustin (1912 – 1987). A homosexual black civil rights activist, Rustin is famed for being a chief organiser of the historic and monumental 1963 March on Washington, as well as being an adviser to Dr Martin Luther King Jr. Whilst these are awe-inspiring signifiers of his legacy, he was a legend in his own right. In the 1930s, Rustin was involved with the Young Communist League, but left as he disagreed with their activities. During the Second World War, Rustin worked for socialist African-American leader A. Philip Randolph, protesting the discriminatory hiring process of the U.S. Forces. As a Quaker pacifist who followed Gandhi’s philosophy of non-violent resistance, he joined many groups, including the Fellowship of Reconciliation (FOR). In 1942, a decade before the Montgomery bus boycott, Rustin was arrested and beaten for refusing to move to the back on a bus from Louisville to Nashville under Jim Crow laws, but was subsequently released uncharged. He recounted about a white child on the bus who was told not to touch a n*****:
“I owe it to that child, not only to my own dignity, I owe it to that child, that it should be educated to know that Blacks do not want to sit in the back, and therefore I should get arrested, letting all these white people in the bus know that I do not accept that.
It occurred to me shortly after that that it was an absolute necessity for me to declare homosexuality, because if I didn’t I was a part of the prejudice. I was aiding and abetting the prejudice that was a part of the effort to destroy me.”
His decision to be open about his homosexuality cost him the visibility that he would later develop in the civil rights movement.
Rustin was sent on behalf of the FOR and the American Friends Service Committee, who worked to protect seized property, to report on the conditions of Japanese-American internment camps following the attack on Pearl Harbor. He was then later arrested for a second time during the war for refusing to register for the draft and imprisoned for three years. During his incarceration, he organised against British colonial rule in India and Africa, which he protested upon his release.
Rustin was arrested a third and final time in 1953 for vagrancy and lewd conduct. However, he pleaded guilty instead to the charge of “sex perversion” and, as a result of his conviction, was pressured to resign from the FOR. Rustin became a prominent organiser in many aspects of the civil rights movement but in 1962 he was asked to leave Dr King’s organising team due to the public image of his homosexuality. Despite this, he was voted to be allowed to be a director of the March due to their ‘absolute faith’ in his character and ability in the following year.
In the years before his death in 1987, he engaged in gay rights activism after being urged to do so by his partner, Walter Naegle, and, admirably, he openly admitted; “[He] was not involved in the struggle for gay rights as a youth”. Naegle accepted the Presidential Medal of Freedom which President Obama awarded posthumously to Bayard Ruskin in 2013.
I will finish by saying that it is only by appreciating queer black history that we can do justice to such intersectional and beautifully diverse communities. As we all should know by now, representation matters, and we have nothing to lose, but everything to gain, by listening to and telling the stories of queer black voices. The people, events and movements that make up queer black history are vast and numerous, so this BHM I urge you to delve into the hidden stories that brought us to where we are today.