show menu

A compendium of queer people in the 19th and 20th centuries // Drawn and researched by Michele Rosenthal

Bayard  Rustin

Bayard Rustin 1912to –1987

American civil rights organizer and activist, and one of the key figures behind the March on Washington. He began fighting for civil rights at a young age, and when he moved to Harlem in 1937, he made his living as a nightclub singer while devoting himself to a number of causes. He organized a protest against segregation in the military, was beaten and arrested for refusing to give up his seat on a bus over a decade before Rosa Parks followed suit, and when he refused the draft in WWII on religious and moral grounds, he spent two years in prison, where he sought to desegregate the dining halls. A devoted student of Gandhi and Quakerism, he helped shaped Martin Luther King Jr.’s philosophies of nonviolence and civil disobedience. In 1963, with years of experience behind him, he became the chief organizer for the historic March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom—but there were many by this time who wished to distance Rustin from the Civil Rights Movement. He had been briefly affiliated with the Communist Party in the 30s, and in 1953 he had been convicted of “sex perversion” after he was caught with two men in the back of a parked car. Detractors used these facts as a way of discrediting the movement, which meant Rustin was considered a liability who needed to be kept out of the spotlight. Still, he never felt shame about being gay, and though he sought to keep his sexuality private, he was open about it to his friends. In 1977, he met his life partner Walter Naegle, whom Rustin eventually adopted as his son in order to legalize their union in lieu of marriage. It was Naegle who urged him to take his sexuality into the public sphere, and in 1986, Rustin testified on behalf of New York’s Gay Rights Bill. Though Rustin’s politics veered more conservative later in life, dividing him from some of his former colleagues, he continued to fight for a broad number of social justice causes until his death. He was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2013.

Purchase a print