Tuesday, September 3, 2013

There's been a lot of jabber the last two weeks about how Bayard Rustin -- the openly gay, African American civil rights leader -- is a "forgotten man".

Is he?

The fact of the matter is, most civil rights activists are forgotten. While Martin Luther King, Jr., Rosa Parks, and Jesse Jackson are well remembered, most Americans (and most African Americans) would have a hard time saying exactly what it was that they did. Even assuming that a person could say "Rosa Parks sat down on a whites-only bus", that hardly begins to cover her lengthy activism after that. Most people today probably don't know who A. Philip Randolph, Mamie Till-Moberly, John L. Lewis, or Bayard Rustin are, much less what they did.

One might argue that Rustin is a special case, in that he would have been remembered -- except that he was gay. There's plenty of evidence that Rustin's sexuality has been ignored by even his supporters. But if you consider the evidence, most of that suppression occured during his lifetime. Since at least 1997, there has been extensive acknowledgement of Rustin's homosexuality. But where is the concomitant increase in his visibility, then? It's not come. That kind of puts the kibosh on any hypothesis that he's been ignored due to his sexuality.

Indeed, Rustin was openly gay during his lifetime (almost flamboyantly so, given the era he lived in) and his homosexuality was widely discussed (in highly negative terms) by conservatives and racists. Again, that kind of puts the kibosh on any theory that Rustin was "forgotten" due to his homosexuality.

To hammer just one more nail in that coffin: If Rustin was "forgotten" because of his sexuality, he should have been "more forgotten" than other, heterosexual civil rights leaders. But he hasn't been. I dare anyone to show me evidence that the public has "forgotten" him more than Randolph or Thurgood Marshall (who spent a half-century litigating Brown v. Board of Education and other cases before getting on the Supreme Court) or Lewis. Such evidence doesn't exist.

It's important to raise public (not just academic) awareness of who Rustin was. That should happen for a wide range of civil rights activists, but it should happen for Rustin in particular because of his dual role as both an African American civl rights activist and gay rights activist.

It's important to do this, too, because so many "inheritors" of the civil rights movement have turned out to be raving, froth-at-the-mouth homophobes. Yet, Martin Luther King, Jr. embraced Rustin. King never once spoke out against Rustin's sexuality. King never pulled any "love the sinner, hate the sin" bullshit on Rustin. Raising Rustin's profile among the public will go far to resisting the rising tide of homphobia among certain civil rights activists.

But is it important to keep saying Rustin is "forgotten"? No, because I think that misstates the case.

I think you have to ignore the broader public for a moment, because they don't remember anyone unless they're twerking or collapsing from drug use.

Think for a moment about historians, academics, memoirists -- the kind of people who should remember Rustin. Is Rustin "forgotten" by them? Hell no!! More than 20 books about Rustin have come out since 1995 -- far more than about almost any other civil rights activist except MLK and Parks.

Is Rustin's sexuality denied or suppressed by them? Hell no!! Half of those books are by LGBT authors who celebrate it, and the rest are extremely inclusive about Rustin's sexuality. Some even go so far as to point out that Rustin was highly promiscuous, to the point where he could not be left alone with handsome young black activists or he'd sexually molest them. (There's almost a trend among scholars to take joy in pointing out his promiscuity.)

I don't think it does either the African American civil rights movement or the gay rights movement any favors by perpetuating the myth of Bayard Rustin as the "forgotten man". That myth does an incredible disservice to those who've worked hard since his death to raise awareness about Rustin the black man and Rustin the gay man. It also perpetuates the myth that most people are drooling homophobes who don't want to learn about Rustin "simply because he was gay". The fact is most people are just shit-lazy, not homophobic. If you tell them about Rustin, they are pleased to know. (Tell them to crack a book open, and they back off like Dracula before the Cross.)

The myth of Rustin as the "forgotten man" is a self-serving myth. It makes for good copy when news outlets like In These Times and Daily Kos and Huffington Post want to get eyeballs (and hence sell advertising and make money). It reinforces the victimhood of LGBTQ people, so that they can feel outrage (instead of getting up off their asses and changing the world) and so that the LGBTQ organizations which serve them can suck on that outrage and get a few more donation dollars.

I think we need to speak the truth about Bayard Rustin. He's no more forgotten than most civil rights activists. That's a problem, but it's not the problem most writers tell us it is.

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