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Links to the Past: Black Gays and Lesbians in the Civil Rights Era

by Bernard Tarver

January 15 would have marked the 68th birthday of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. The world has changed since his assassination in 1968, yet with recent attacks against social programs designed to create more opportunities for disenfranchised Americans, both Black and White, a great deal remains the same in the struggle for Civil Rights.

Legislation such as Proposition 209 out in California, to end state affirmative action requirements to assist women and minorities ironically passed around the same time it was revealed Texaco executives were conspiring to systematically exclude Black employees from reaching upper management.

The end of 1996 also saw the Supreme Court of Hawaii uphold the right of same-sex couples to be joined in marriage, however only after Congress and President Clinton had already enacted new federal legislation permitting individual states to not recognize such unions. The more things change, the more things stay the same.

Dr. King once said that injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. One can only speculate what his reaction would be to the latest attacks on the very types of human rights for which he gave his life. Make no mistake, while King's focus from the mid-1950's to late 1960's was primarily on improving conditions for racially, politically and economically oppressed Southern Blacks, the fruits of his labor, indeed the entire civil rights movement itself, served to stimulate subsequent change for women, poor people, organized labor, immigrants and gays and lesbians.

That today's activists would still be carrying on the legacy of Dr. King should come as no surprise. The need for a fundamental retooling of how America shares power and privilege was recognized by diverse segments of society, and many who were drawn to the fight for social justice, faced discrimination not only along racial lines, but also because of their gender, class, employment status, national origin, or sexual orientation.

Students of the civil rights era seeking historical roots to today's gay rights movement may be interested to know the role Black lesbians and gays played in the nonviolent movement Dr. King led. While much has come to light since, awareness then of "who was who" was less substantiated.

Taking into consideration that present day gay rights activism traces its roots to the 1969 Stonewall Rebellion, which itself could only have been made possible by the climate of civil disobedience born from King's efforts, the freedom to be "out" as we now know it didn't exist during the '50's and early '60's. In "Making History: The Struggle for Gay and Lesbian Equal Rights", Eric Marcus wrote, "The painful reality of 1961 was that gay men and lesbians faced a world that was just about as hostile as it had been a decade earlier. For all but a few, the dangers posed by exposure were far too great to risk association with an organization for homosexuals."

For Black gays, who had yet to win rights simply as Black citizens, this was particularly acute. The dual status of being Black and gay carried a double stigma, and most chose to limit that by avoiding any association with openly homosexual causes. But that didn't stop them from being active.

The late writer Audre Lorde in an essay written in the late '80's entitled "I Am Your Sister" responded to allegations that Black lesbians and gays were not part of the movement.

"When I picketed for Welfare Mother's Rights, and against the enforced sterilization of young Black girls, when I fought institutionalized racism in the New York City schools, I was a Black Lesbian. But you did not know it because we did not identify ourselves, so now you can say that Black Lesbians and Gay men have nothing to do with the struggles of the Black Nation. And I am not alone. When you read the words of Langston Hughes you are reading the words of a Black Gay man. When you read the words of Alice Dunbar-Nelson and Angelina Weld Grimke', poets of the Harlem Renaissance, you are reading the words of Black Lesbians. When you listen to the life-affirming voices of Bessie Smith and Ma Rainey, you are hearing Black Lesbian women. When you see the plays and read the words of Lorraine Hansberry, you are reading the words of a woman who loved women deeply," Lorde wrote.

Perhaps the most recognizable name among Black gay civil rights leaders of the King era was Bayard Rustin. Born in 1912 to West Indian parents, raised in comfortable surroundings in Pennsylvania, an ex-Quaker and ex-Communist, imprisoned as a conscientious objector during World War II, Rustin would first become a close confidant to King during the 1956 Montgomery (Alabama) bus boycott. King relied on Rustin as a strategist for the movement.

His public homosexuality did not prevent him from holding positions of authority. However interviewed in the book "Other Countries" Rustin discussed the problems it posed in 1960. "My being Gay was not a problem for Dr. King but a problem for the movement. He finally came to the conclusion that he needed to talk with some people in his organization...The committee finally came to the decision that my sex life was a burden to Dr. King...I told Dr. King that if advisors closest to him felt I was a burden, then rather than put him in a position that he had to say leave, I would go."

King however would continue to call upon Rustin for needed counsel, and in 1963, bowing to pressures to block his appointment as Director of the March on Washington, King approved Rustin to be named deputy. Rustin is widely credited with making that event one of the watershed moments of the Civil Rights movement. Fittingly, it was also the model for both the 1993 Gay and Lesbian March on Washington, and the Million Man March in 1995.

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[QRD main page] Last updated: 6 May 1997 by Chuck Tarver