When black people discovered that Deray McKesson—a civil rights activist who dedicated himself to dismantling white supremacy and police brutality—identifies as gay, they teamed up with racist twitter trolls to harass him, question the legitimacy of his thankless activism, and called him homophobic slurs. The same ones who questioned the legitimacy of Deray’s activism are the same ones who said they refuse to protest alongside him because he is gay.
I learned to accept that someday, my achievements will be erased by racists and by homophobic people who share the same color skin as me. No matter how hard we work, we can never stand at the apex of any of the communities we belong to. We’re too black, and we’re too queer. We will always be number two to a cis-heterosexual black person. And we will always be number two to a gay white person. Black queer voices will always be sidelined.
Before social media provided a platform for racists and homophobic black people to join forces and tear down queer black activists, Bayard Rustin, civil rights activist and chief organizer of 1963’s Great March on Washington, witnessed the worst of racism and homophobia. Because of racism, everything was segregated, but because of homophobia, queer black people were often thrown out of the few spots white people reserved for us, and in many states being queer was illegal. Rustin spent 60 days in a California jail for “sex perversion” in 1953.
I learned about Rustin in my African American history class, where one of my straight black classmates accused my white professor of trying to “steal achievements from black people and give them to gay people,” as if Rustin’s gayness made him any less black. This comment came after my professor told us that Rustin pioneered one of the first Freedom Rides, more than a decade before Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat on a segregated bus.
One of my straight black classmates accused my white professor of trying to “steal achievements from black people and give them to gay people,” as if Rustin’s gayness made him any less black.
What people like that classmate fail to realize is that black queer people are seldom put in places where we don’t have to choose between our queerness and our blackness. In the eyes of bigots, we always appear as what a person detests the most. This is why Rustin often found himself at a standoff with racism and homophobia.
And according to Rustin’s partner, Walter Naegle, “Bayard was willing to stand up for people—even though they had mistreated him—if it was a matter of principle." So regardless of how much animus he endured from people who wanted to erase his identity, he stood up for marginalized groups. He stood up for racist white gay people in the name of fairness, and he stood up for homophobic black people in the name of fairness.
In 1960, Rustin and Martin Luther King Jr., prepared to organize a boycott outside the Democratic National Convention. At the time, the leading politician—a man celebrated as the first African American elected to Congress from New York—Adam Clayton Powell, threatened to spread lies about Rustin and King being in a homosexual relationship.
Powell’s threat convinced King to cancel the protest, and it made Rustin consider the cost of his sexuality. This thought led him to resign from the Southern Leadership Christian Conference, an African American civil rights organization he helped build from the ground up. And even though Powell’s threat could have dismantled everything King and Rustin worked so hard to build for the black and brown community, Rustin still stood up for him “when he was being censured by the House, for all that hanky-panky going on in Bimini," Naegle said.
Queer black people should be able to organize and advocate without our work being relegated to the memories of a dwindling few, left out of history books.
After the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 passed through the House of Representatives, Powell became a target. He was accused of taking women on vacation at the expense of taxpayers. In January 1967, the House Democratic Caucus took away Powell’s committee chairmanship. In March, the full House voted to not seat him at all.
Rustin was well aware that this was an act of racism, and he couldn’t stand by silently. He spoke out about this, saying Powell was being “singled out because he [is] black. He wasn't saying he was a choirboy, but there were plenty of white politicians doing the same thing, and this was racist."
Queer black people should be able to organize and advocate without our work being relegated to the memories of a dwindling few, left out of history books. Rustin, this unknown hero who worked so closely with Dr. King and Gandhi, eventually received his due, but as it is with most who lack the privileges of whiteness and straightness, it came much later after his time. He refused to deny any part of who he was, and because of that is often in the background or partially out of the frame in many of those black-and-white photos that included Dr. King and John Lewis and other civil rights pioneers.
The erasure of black queer voices is birthed through an unwillingness to acknowledge the hatred we harbor for others or reserve for ourselves. There is no pro-blackness without intersectional, unconditional love. And in order to preserve the legacies of people like Bayard Rustin and build a way forward for the many black queer activists that will continue to come after him, we must be capable of unconditional love.