Bayard Rustin (March 17, 1912 – August 24, 1987) was an American leader in social movements for civil rights, socialism, nonviolence, and gay rights. Rustin worked with A. Philip Randolph on the March on Washington Movement in 1941 to press for an end to discrimination in employment. Rustin later organized Freedom Rides and helped to organize the Southern Christian Leadership Conference to strengthen Martin Luther King Jr.’s leadership, teaching King about nonviolence and later serving as an organizer for the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom.
In 1986, He testified on behalf of New York State’s Gay Rights Bill where he gave a speech “The New Niggers Are Gays”, in which he asserted,
Today, blacks are no longer the litmus paper or the barometer of social change. Blacks are in every segment of society and there are laws that help to protect them from racial discrimination. The new “niggers” are gays…. It is in this sense that gay people are the new barometer for social change…. The question of social change should be framed with the most vulnerable group in mind: gay people.
While there is a recurring tendency to describe Rustin as a pioneering “out gay man” the truth is more complex. In 1986, Rustin was invited to contribute to the book In the Life: A Black Gay Anthology. He declined, explaining
I was not involved in the struggle for gay rights as a youth. …I did not “come out of the closet” voluntarily—circumstances forced me out. While I have no problem with being publicly identified as homosexual, it would be dishonest of me to present myself as one who was in the forefront of the struggle for gay rights. …I fundamentally consider sexual orientation to be a private matter. As such, it has not been a factor which has greatly influenced my role as an activist.
Rustin did not engage in any gay rights activism until the 1980s. He was urged to do so by his partner Walter Naegle, who has said that “I think that if I hadn’t been in the office at that time, when these invitations [from gay organizations] came in, he probably wouldn’t have done them.”
Due to the lack of marriage equality at the time Rustin and partner Walter Naegle took an unconventional step to solidify their partnership and protect their unification. In 1982 Rustin adopted Naegle, 30 years old at the time, in order to legalize their union. Naegle explains,
We actually had to go through a process as if Bayard was adopting a small child. My biological mother had to sign a legal paper, a paper disowning me. They had to send a social worker to our home. When the social worker arrived, she had to sit us down to talk to us to make sure that this was a fit home.
Davis Platt, Bayard’s partner from the 1940s, said, “I never had any sense at all that Bayard felt any shame or guilt about his homosexuality. That was rare in those days. Rare.
On November 20, 2013, President Barack Obama posthumously awarded Rustin the Presidential Medal of Freedom.