California Might Pardon Bayard Rustin For Gay Sex Crime

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Bayard Rustin speaking to friend, mentee, and fellow activist Martin Luther King, Jr. / Image via Wikimedia Commons

Could a gay rights and black rights icon (who is often forgotten by the masses) get a pardon for having public gay sex in California?

Lawmakers in California are asking Gov. Gavin Newsom (D) to posthumously pardon Rustin and “right this wrong.” According to the Washington Post, State Senator Scott Wiener, who is the chair of California’s legislative LGBTQ caucus, and Assemblywoman Shirley Weber, chair of the state’s Legislative Black Caucus, have joined together for this goal.

“There’s a cloud hanging over him because of this unfair, discriminatory conviction, a conviction that never should have happened, a conviction that happened only because he was a gay man,” said state Sen. Wiener in a letter to the governor. “We must acknowledge and make amends for the harm that California’s past actions have had on so many people. Pardoning Mr. Rustin will be a positive step toward reconciliation.”

In response to this call, Newsom released a statement on Tuesday saying that he’s “closely considering” the request.

“History is clear. In California and across the country, sodomy laws were used as legal tools of oppression,” Newsom said in the statement. “They were used to stigmatize and punish LGBTQ individuals and communities and warn others what harm could await them for living authentically. I thank those who are advocating for Mr. Bayard Rustin’s pardon.”

But what is this wrong? And who is Bayard Rustin?

Civil Rights leader Bayard Rustin speaking to school students ([left to right] Carolyn Carter, Cecil Carter, Kurt Levister, and Kathy Ross) before a 1864 demonstration / World Telegram & Sun photo by Ed Ford.

Despite his contributions to the civil rights movement, many in the general public don’t know the name and face of Bayard Rustin. Rustin was a Pennsylvania-born citizen who had an innate talent for leadership. While at college at Wilberforce University, Rustin led a student protest over the poor quality of the cafeteria food. He was later expelled over it. After traveling around, Rustin eventually found his way to activism and the civil rights movement. And, thankfully for all of us, he thrived in it.

Not only was Bayard Rustin the person who introduced Mahatma Ghandi’s nonviolence practice to the Civil Rights Movement, but he initiated a bus boycott in North Carolina in 1947. Meaning, he got arrested for sitting in the front of a bus 8 full years before Rosa Parks did the same. He then helped to organize the Montgomery, Alabama bus boycott. On top of that, Rustin acted as a friend and mentor to Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. Rustin even organized the historic March on Washington.

But, unfortunately, a lot of Rustin’s contributions were erased from history due to his sexual orientation. Bayard Rustin was openly gay in the 1940s, ‘50s, and ‘60s. He openly discussed his gay and interracial relationship in a time when both aspects of his love were considered taboo in America. But unfortunately, Rustin slipped in a very public way. Specifically, he was caught having sex in a car.

On a night in January 1953, Rustin was found by police officers while having sex with two other men inside a parked car. Rustin was convicted of “lewd vagrancy,” sentenced to 60 days in jail, and forced to register as a sex offender for the anti-gay “morals charge.” This conviction eventually led to Rustin being ostracized by civil rights movement members including Martin Luther King, Jr.

“I remember him saying he would be walking around in the streets and checking phone booths for loose change,” said Walter Naegle, a friend-turned-lover of the late Rustin.

Public Domain

Even to this day, that conviction has left a blemish on Rustin’s legacy and has caused him to be forgotten by certain textbooks and historians. The very start of this political move was due to LGBTQ activist Nicole Ramirez being told the arrest record would pose as an obstacle for making a postage stamp in Rustin’s legacy.

But that didn’t stop Rustin from being outspoken about his sexuality. Instead, it pushed him further into the light.

As he said in an interview that was recently unearthed by the Washington Blade:

“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.”

To Rustin, life as a “free whole person” was impossible without being out of the closet.

Bayard Rustin is an American hero. There is no doubt about it. We hope Governor Newsom can see that and decides to act on the calls of his colleagues and allies. Let’s polish off the legacy of a true civil rights, gay rights, and human rights hero.

Sources: Chicago Tribune, The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, Washington Post, Face 2 Face Africa, Washington Blade

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