John D'Emilio, "Bayard Rustin in Chicago," 1951
This essay appeared in the Windy City Times, August 1st, 2008, under the headline: "Chicago Gay History: 1951, Bayard Rustin in Chicago." Copyright (c) by John D'Emilio 2008. All rights reserved.
So what is “gay history” anyway? Or LGBT history” Or queer history” ? Usually, the way it's written, it's about people in groups: how they live, how they're oppressed, how they've resisted. We have histories of lesbian bar life; of queer resorts like Fire Island; of the homophile movement; of transgender identity; of the persecutions during the McCarthy era. In other words, historians tend to write about topics that scream “queer” at us in bright flashing neon.
But what about all the folks who didn't lead queer-centered lives? I don't mean people in the closet. I mean those whose lives didn't revolve around their being gay or lesbian. Or those who crossed from one gender to another, but then just went about the business of living.
I wrote a biography of one such person. His name is Bayard Rustin. Rustin is one of those very-important-but-hardly-known individuals who don't get much space in history books. His biggest claim to fame is that he organized the massive 1963 March on Washington where Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., delivered the memorable “I Have a Dream” speech.
But Rustin did so much more. In the 1940s, before the civil rights movement captured front-page headlines, he was introducing Gandhi's philosophy of militant non-violence to the black freedom struggle. He rode buses, sat in at restaurants, and generally put himself in places where black men were not supposed to be. When the Reverend King was a young unknown minister leading a bus boycott in Montgomery, Alabama, Rustin tutored King in nonviolence. Long before the world's nuclear powers banned atmospheric testing of atomic weapons ( in the 1950s, the U.S. government was exploding bombs in Nevada! ) , Rustin led protests on three continents. He inspired many young men and women to take the plunge into a life of social justice activism.
Without question, Rustin was a gay man. He went cruising. He had sex with guys. He had boyfriends and long-term relationships. But Rustin didn't live in a gay world. He spent his time primarily among activists in the peace and racial justice and labor movements. In these environments, Rustin did not go around announcing his sexual identity in conversations.
Between the 1940s and 1960s, Rustin came to Chicago many times “ for conferences, lectures, or meetings. Sometimes a quick trip might turn into something more. In 1942, he was here to confer with other pacifists who were developing Gandhian strategies to challenge segregation. Staying in Hyde Park, Rustin went to a local barber shop for a haircut but was denied service. He conducted a spontaneous sit-in that turned into a larger protest until, finally, the barber acceded and cut Rustin's hair.
In the summer of 1951, Rustin was in Chicago for several weeks. Harvey Clark, a World War II veteran and CTA bus driver, had rented an apartment in Cicero. The Clarks were the first black family in Cicero. Local whites were not pleased. The day the Clarks moved in, a crowd gathered and began smashing windows. The Clarks stayed away the next day, but that evening the crowd swelled to several thousand. White rioters shattered more windows in the building; tore doors off their hinges; heaved furniture through windows and set it afire; and ripped out the building's plumbing. By the next day, the rioters numbered 10,000, and the governor had to call in the National Guard.
The American Friends Service Committee brought Rustin to Chicago to help with the situation. For several weeks he attended community meetings on the South Side of Chicago to plan a response. He worked with parish priests to educate their white parishioners about racial injustice. He organized youth groups to channel their energy toward constructive responses. He met with newspaper editors in Chicago and the suburbs.
I imagine Rustin in these settings and I wonder: did the folks who worked with him realize that this impressive fighter for justice, whom they admired so much, was a gay man?
Rustin wasn't one to come out, at least not in the way gay men or lesbians do today. But Rustin was visible in the sense that he didn't pretend to be straight. He didn't make up an imaginary heterosexual life for himself. If he was going out with someone, he brought the guy with him to parties and public events. People wouldn't say anything, but they noticed.
Rustin was visible in yet another way. He didn't behave or look like a regular guy, black or white. His style of speech was clipped and cultured, in a way that sounded haughty and refined; his way of dressing was perhaps a little too careful and stylish; his mannerisms bordered sometimes on the precious and the fey. All these marked him as different. Again, no one in his political circles was likely to say anything, but it registered. As Rustin moved among activists and community leaders in Chicago, did they think to themselves “he's queer, isn't he?” What kind of impression did Rustin leave behind?
Less than 18 months later, Rustin's sexuality became news in Chicago. In January 1953, Rustin and two other men were arrested at night in a parked car on a deserted street in downtown Pasadena. Rustin served sixty days in jail on charges of lewd vagrancy. The Chicago Tribune ran a story on the second page with the headline “Morals Charge Jails Booster of World Peace.” It mentioned that, in November, Rustin had spoken in Chicago before the “Young Men's Luncheon Group” of the Chicago Council of Foreign Relations. The detail preyed upon fears that homosexual corrupt youth. The Tribune ran another article the next day: “Negro Lecturer Sentenced on Morals Charge.” A few days later, the Chicago Defender, an African American paper with a national circulation, carried a front-page headline: “Bayard Rustin Jailed on Morals Charge.” The article included this statement: “Sexual deviates are often referred to as “queers.'”
Miraculously, Rustin was able to salvage his career as a Gandhian activist. He continued his work and his travels, including repeated trips to Chicago. The lengthiest of these later trips came in 1966, when the civil rights leadership in Chicago invited Dr. King to help them organize demonstrations against segregated housing. The protests were met with lots of violence from whites, and the events were front-page news for weeks. Rustin was in Chicago often that year, working with King and with local leaders.
Unlike in 1951, when his sexuality remained a matter of silent speculation, now his gay identity was very public. In the years after the Pasadena arrest, as he traveled around the country on lecture tours, right-wing organizations trotted out his conviction on sex charges. In 1963, two weeks before the March on Washington, a segregationist Senator denounced him in Congress and put information about his arrest into the Congressional Record.
Rustin never let these attacks stop him. He kept marching, he kept organizing, he kept speaking out for peace, racial equality, and economic justice. His work kept winning the respect of the many activists who encountered him, even as the gay label trailed him.
In these decades, he never organized a gay demonstration or spoke at a gay event or lobbied for gay rights. Still, I can't help feeling that the combination of his integrity as a fighter for justice and his visibility as a gay man somehow contributed to the gay struggle for justice. In ways that historians can't measure, Rustin contributed to the new era that began to take shape after Stonewall.