Not many people know that one of the principle organizers of Martin Luther King Jr’s famous March on Washington was an African-American gay man named Bayard Rustin. I’m 100% certain that Adam didn’t know that at all, but there are a lot more things about LGBT history that Adam doesn’t know than he does.
Rustin was one of Dr. King’s most trusted advisers and friends throughout many of the key moments in the civil rights movement of the 1960’s. He took a leave from the War Resisters League to support and encourage King’s efforts during the Montgomery Bus Boycott and was one of the founders of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, which was instrumental in the movement; yet Rustin’s sexual orientation was constantly used against him. Despite all of the strategic and important knowledge he brought to the table, Rustin was forced to resign from the SCLC and he was not allowed to have any public recognition for his part in organizing the march that gave us King’s “I Have a Dream” speech. It has been said that King himself greatly regretted the way that Rustin was treated by his colleagues, but the roots of homophobia run deep.
Things have changed since the 1960s. Both African-Americans and gays have more rights and protections granted to them by the government. Yet the public personae of both movements do not always show the true depth of their constituencies. All too often white gays and lesbians are on display while the rest of the community is marginalized. The movements representing communities of color also don’t always recognize the queer members of their communities. We fall short of attaining Dr. King’s dream when we do not recognize that racism and homophobia are not just similar but also must be confronted equally if we are truly to accept the diversity in our midst. It’s not too late for Bayard Rustin’s legacy to be revered by all of us.