LISTEN: Bayard Rustin Talks Being Gay In The Civil Rights Movement

Image by Stanley Wolfson and the Library of Congress (Public Domain)

From his mouth to our ears. Check out what one Civil Rights leader had to say about being openly gay during times of civil unrest.

Bayard Rustin: An Untold Legend

But first, who is Bayard Rustin? It’s about time that we put some respect in Rustin’s name.


Born in West Chester, Pennsylvania, Rustin was a natural leader and activist. While studying at Wilberforce University, Rustin led a student protest over poor cafeteria food. He was later expelled for organizing that protest. He then spent time traveling and later realized that he still cared deeply for activism. This led to him getting involved with the Civil Rights movement.

The movement would not be the same without Bayard Rustin. Rustin not only introduced Mahatma Ghandi’s non-violence practice to the Civil Rights Movement, but he initialed the bus boycott in North Carolina in 1947. After that, he became a mentor, adviser, and friend to Martin Luther King, Jr. and organized the historic March on Washington.

Throughout all of this, Bayard Rustin remained openly gay. This was a point of contention among Civil Rights activists and even created a rift between Rustin and Dr. King. Rustin was also arrested in California for having a threesome in a publicly parked car. That charge ended up besmirching Rustin’s legacy, and it was only just cleared earlier this year.

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Bayard Rustin at a news briefing on the Civil Rights March on Washington in the Statler Hotel, August 27, 1963. Credit: Photo by Warren K. Leffler courtesy of Library of Congress, LC-DIG-ppmsc-01272.

Bayard Rustin Talks Being Openly Gay


Despite the pushback to his sexuality, Bayard Rustin continued to be openly gay. And according to Rustin himself, coming out “was an absolute necessity.”

At the start of 2019, the podcast Making Gay History released an uncovered interview between Bayard Rustin and the Washington Blade. In the interview, Rustin shares that he was constantly the target of homophobic attacks. And unfortunately, Rustin’s peers within the Civil Rights movement did not jump to his defense.

“At a given point, there was so much pressure on Dr. King about my being gay and particularly because I would not deny it, that he set up a committee to explore whether it would be dangerous for me to continue working with him,” Rustin told to the Blade.


But that wasn’t the only recording provided to us by Making Gay History. Eric Marcus, the podcast’s host, received a tape from Rustin’s surviving partner Walter Naegle. In the recording, Rustin explains that he felt it was a responsibility to be open about his sexuality. He says he began to think that way after a specific event on a segregated bus in the 1940s American South.

“As I was going by the second seat to go to the rear, a white child reached out for the ring necktie I was wearing and pulled it,” he recalled in the audio. “Whereupon its mother said, ‘Don’t touch a n*****.’ “

Rustin then recalled thinking, “If I go and sit quietly at the back of that bus now, that child, who was so innocent of race relations that it was going to play with me, will have seen so many blacks go in the back and sit down quietly that it’s going to end up saying, ‘They like it back there, I’ve never seen anybody protest against it.’ “

Instead, he saw an opportunity to disrupt the bus riders’ preconceived notions and the blossoming worldview of that young child.


“I owe it to that child,” he told himself, “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.”

Civil Rights leader Bayard Rustin speaking to school students before a demonstration in 1964. / Image via Wikimedia Commons

Rustin then realized the importance of confirming your identity, whether it be terms of race or sexual orientation, and standing adamantly by that self-assertion.

“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,” he said. “I was aiding and abetting the prejudice that was a part of the effort to destroy me.”

To this day, Bayard Rustin is still an unsung hero among the Black and LGBTQ communities. Yet, he has unmistakably affected both for the greater good. We hope whoever is reading this article walks away from his words and life story with an appreciation. An appreciation for not only Rustin but also the responsibility he saw in himself and all of us. Hopefully, we can all live up to the world he was trying to build.

Source: Making Gay History

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