Last week’s PGN editorial mentioned Bayard Rustin as part of an acknowledgment of Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s fight for equality.
Rustin was an out gay adviser to King in the 1950s-60s and an organizer for the March on Washington and the 1955 Montgomery Bus boycotts. He also helped King create the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. A Quaker, Rustin is thought to have been highly influential for King’s pacifist ideologies and introduced him to Mahatma Gandhi’s principles. But because of his 1953 conviction of “sex perversion,” many pressured King to oust Rustin from his inner circle, though Rustin remained working with King. Rustin’s arrest was the result of having sex in a vehicle with at least one man, and his case was made public when Sen. Strom Thurmond of South Carolina read Rustin’s arrest file into the Congressional Record.
But now, over 50 years later, California State Sen. Scott Weiner and Assemblymember Shirley Weber are asking California Gov. Gavin Newsom to expunge Rustin’s record.
In a letter to Newsom on Jan. 21, Weiner and Weber wrote, “Mr. Rustin’s conviction and registered sex offender status haunted him for the rest of his life, and it continues to tarnish his name, despite his death 33 years ago.” The letter also said, “Despite Mr. Rustin’s heroic contributions to the civil rights movement, he fell victim to California’s homophobic criminal justice system.”
Newsom said he would consider the letter in a statement: “History is clear. In California and across the country, sodomy laws were used as legal tools of oppression.”
Rustin was an out gay Black man during a time when it was incredibly difficult to be one. His fight for equality is one that still resonates with the LGBTQ+ community and folks of color, certainly when those communities intersect.
Now, more than ever, we need heroes to admire. We need to find our strength in the strength of those who came before us amid a Trump Administration that has repeatedly attacked our human rights, along with the rights of many others. Rustin, and anyone charged with sodomy, sexual perversion, lewd behavior, etc. for being queer, deserves to have a clean record. For those brave people, being LGBTQ+ was much more of a risk than we face now, and we all know the risks continue.
The City of Philadelphia just named Celena Morrison, a Black trans woman, executive director of LGBT Affairs. Morrison has long worked on the ground for our community, and her appointment is resonating with many in our community who know the extent to which transphobia and racism still exist from outside our community and from within it. But we still have justice to address locally, in the name of Rustin and our other LGBTQ+ heroes. Nizah Morris’ 2002 death in the hands of or very near to the hands of police, according to statements and timelines provided on public record, is one of them.