What It Was Like to be Gay in the Civil Rights Movement

In a 1987 interview, the late civil rights activist Bayard Rustin talked about how his sexual orientation affected his work for the cause.

The following is an excerpt from Devon W. Carbado and Donald Weise's Time on Two Crosses:The Collected Writings of Bayard Rustin (2nd Edition) (Cleis Press, 2015).

Time on Two Crosses: An Interview with George Chauncey, Jr. [1987]

GEORGE CHAUNCEY, JR.: How did your homosexuality affect your work in the civil rights movement, particularly after your arrest in Pasadena in 1953 on a “sex perversion” charge?

BAYARD RUSTIN: There is no question in my mind that there was considerable prejudice amongst a number of people I worked with. But of course they would never admit they were prejudiced. They would say they were afraid that it might hurt the movement. The fact of the matter is, it was already known, it was nothing to hide. You can’t hurt the movement unless you have something to reveal. They also said any more talk would hurt me. They would look at me soulfully and say, surely you don’t want to go through any more humiliation? Well, I wasn’t humiliated. Even at the time of the arrest, I was not humiliated. The fact of the matter is, in my case it was an absolute setup.

Book cover of "Time on Two Crosses: The Collected Writings of Bayard Rustin"
Photo Credit: 
Cleis Press
CHAUNCEY: Do you mean you were entrapped?

RUSTIN: Yes, that’s very definite. But that’s unimportant. Let’s assume I was completely guilty. It wouldn’t matter.

CHAUNCEY: A lot of gay men were entrapped in those days. Do you think you were targeted for political reasons?

RUSTIN: I think so. Because way back as far as 1946, ’47, I had organized all over the country, even in the deep South, and I was in California at the time of the arrest, leading demonstrations against discrimination in theaters, hotels, and restaurants.

CHAUNCEY: Could you tell us about specific incidents when your being gay became an issue for the other leaders in the movement? For example, when you and Dr. King were organizing demonstrations at the Democratic and Republican conventions in 1960.

RUSTIN: Actually, [A. Philip] Randolph asked me to organize the marches. I decided that Mr. Randolph ought to get Dr. King to join us, on the simple principle that the other civil rights leaders would feel they had to join in. Dr. King was at the press conference announcing the marches, and then left for Brazil. Later he called me from Brazil very, very agitated indeed, and said that on second thought maybe we ought not to proceed with the marches. At that point, he did not tell me why, straight-forwardly. I went to see Mr. Randolph, and asked him to give me permission to say to Dr. King that he was very sorry, but that he and the others were going to go ahead anyhow. I thought that Dr. King would have no choice but to stay in.

I called Martin back and told him this, whereupon he told me the whole story. A woman who was well known in the movement had called him and said that [Congressman Adam Clayton] Powell was going to call a press conference and implicate me and Dr. King in some sort of liaison if Dr. King did not call off the marches. Now, obviously this is a case where Powell had been promised something by the Democratic Party if he’d get rid of me. Dr. King asked for a delay and I said we couldn’t afford to delay. In the end, he decided not to go ahead and Powell did not go to the press. This is the kind of thing Adam did.

CHAUNCEY: What about the 1963 March on Washington, when your homosexuality was used publicly in an effort to discredit the movement? The leadership seems to have stood by you then.

RUSTIN: Here again, Mr. Randolph had asked me to organize the march. I proceeded to line up people; it was always a matter of boxing in the civil rights leadership, because each had his own turf. In any event, it was Mr. [Roy] Wilkins [Executive Director of the NAACP], whom I happen to admire greatly, who raised the question this time. He called me to his office and said, “I don’t think you should lead this march because they will try to stop it, and the most important thing they have to stop it with is that the director of it is gay.” I said, “Roy, I just disagree with that, and I think that the time has come when we have to stand up and stop running from things. And I don’t believe that if this is raised by the Southern Democrats, that it will do anything but spur people on. We can issue a statement which says they will use anything to try and stop us in our march to freedom, but no matter what they use we will win.” He disagreed and called a meeting of all the civil rights leaders. Finally, a compromise was reached. Mr. Randolph would be the director of the march, but he made me his deputy.

Then, Strom Thurmond stood in the Senate speaking for three-quarters of an hour on the fact that Bayard Rustin was a homosexual, a draft dodger, and a communist. Newspapers all over the country came out with this front-page story. Mr. Randolph waited for the phone to ring. And it did indeed ring. I went immediately to Mr. Randolph, and we agreed he would make a statement for all the civil rights leaders which basically said, “We have absolute confidence in Bayard Rustin’s integrity and ability.” He read the statement to the labor leaders and the Jewish and Catholic and Protestant leaders involved in the march and they all agreed to it.

CHAUNCEY: Why do you think the press didn’t come down harder on you? Thurmond charged there was a whitewash.

RUSTIN: They had a great deal of respect for our creating the march out of nothing. They just felt that why is this son-of-a-bitch from the South mouthing all of this shit that everybody knows. They thought he was just trying to get us to call off the march. And they didn’t like it.

CHAUNCEY: What private conversations did these incidents lead to with Dr. King? Did you ever talk at length with him about your homosexuality?

RUSTIN: Oh yes, yes, of course.

CHAUNCEY: What was his attitude?

RUSTIN: Dr. King came from a very protected background. I don’t think he’d ever known a gay person in his life. I think he had no real sympathy or understanding. I think he wanted very much to. But I think he was largely guided by two facts. One was that already people were whispering about him. And I think his attitude was, look, I’ve got enough of my own problems. I really don’t want to be burdened with additional ones. Secondly, he was surrounded by people who, for their own reasons, wanted to get rid of me—Andy Young in particular, and Jesse Jackson.

CHAUNCEY: What reasons? Because of your homosexuality?

RUSTIN: No. Definitely not. It was because we didn’t agree on some issues—whether or not King should go north to Chicago, and also the Poor People’s Campaign.

CHAUNCEY: Did your being gay interfere with your relationship with Dr. King?

RUSTIN: Dr. King was always terrified of the press. His first question would be what is the press reaction going to be? He would normally have preferred never to discuss any of it. And he never did except when he was pressured in some way into doing so. And on two occasions, I went to him and said I can tell you’re deeply agonized by this. So I think that I’m going to get out of the way now. If you need me later, call me back. And on two occasions, he called me back because he needed me.

CHAUNCEY: Did he ever compare your problems to the rumors about his extramarital affairs?

RUSTIN: I wouldn’t think there was any possibility of him comparing them, because I don’t think he saw them as having any relationship whatever. Oh, the crap that was going on in those motels as the movement moved from place to place was totally acceptable. The homosexual act was not.

CHAUNCEY: What about Mr. Randolph? How much did you talk with him about your being gay?

RUSTIN: Never! Mr. Randolph was a man who drew very strict lines. He would not discuss anybody’s personal life. He was a gentleman, of the old order.

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