Wednesday, May 15, 2013

Last year was the centennial of the birth of civil rights activist, Bayard Rustin.  He was the man who brought Gandhi’s notion of non-violence to Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and was the architect of the historic March on Washington in 1963.  This year will see a number of celebrations of his life and because it’s 2013 not 1963 he can be celebrated, in addition, as a pacifist and a gay man. 

I’m working with a group of scholars at Emory University to look at the convergences and divergences between the Black Civil Rights Movement and the Gay (or LGBT, if you will) Movement.  We’re planning a conference at Emory in 2014 and to that end I’ve been reading a lot about African American activists who straddle both identities.  People such as Audre Lorde, James Baldwin and Bayard Rustin were aware that they saw more than one thing when they looked in a mirror.  It’s exciting to finally have a discussion out loud about this idea of connection and begin to dispel the hard-held belief that somehow being African American is a universe away from being gay.

And it’s lovely to examine the life of Bayard Rustin who was such an inspiration to James Baldwin.  See “Time on Two Crosses: The Collected Writings of Bayard Rustin” (Cleis Books) edited by Donald Weise and Devon Carbado (one of my confreres on the Emory project) or the documentary film, “Brother Outsider (”

Rustin was one of the leaders in Dr. King’s inner circle with whom Baldwin felt most comfortable.  He didn’t experience the disapproval from Rustin for his queerness or for the queerness in his fiction.  They were not of the same generation (Rustin was born in 1912 and Baldwin in 1924) but they were both from generations for whom the concept of a Gay Movement was almost impossible to imagine.  Being Gay meant being quiet about it, so while neither was in the closet they couldn’t imagine carrying a banner.

For an African American, who watched friends and relatives being raped, lynched, denied the right to vote or go into stores; who saw them being attached by police dogs and fire hoses, nothing seemed equally as important as the fight to stop these atrocities.  There seemed no parallel.  Yet, of course, there are parallels in the virulence of the fear people have for both groups. 

And to some degree the consistent effort to remain hidden had kept attacks against gay people from the public eye.  And when an indignity was revealed—such as being dragged from a public drinking establishment—too many people, especially Blacks trying to achieve middle class respectability, thought it was only what they deserved.  Everyone was so afraid of discussion of sexuality there could only be shame not pride.

But Baldwin frequently defended Rustin when other Black politicians and activists attacked him.  Rustin was what we used to call ‘flamboyant,’ he carried an ornamental walking stick  and was once arrested for having public sex.  That could have ended his activist career.  But he stood proud; and he and Baldwin stood together as “bastard black queers,’ to quote Rustin.

When doing research on “Waiting for Giovanni” one of the most moving moments was reading about Baldwin’s understandable trepidations about going south where Freedom Riders had been bombed and other activists had been murdered.  I came across a wonderful photo of Baldwin looking youthful and intense standing beside the imperial Rustin.  The photo captures a snapshot of the dynamism of a movement as well as the deliberately obscured participation of Black gay people in the Civil rights Movement of the 1960s.

My hope is that the play, “Waiting for Giovanni” and the upcoming celebrations of Rustin’s life, as well as the Emory Conference, entitled Whose Beloved Community (more info to come), will ignite people’s curiosity enough so they learn more and no longer accept the half-truths of history but insist on knowing how we got as far as we have.  We need to know these things if we expect to go any further.

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