A Month of our LGBTQ+ Heroes: Bayard Rustin, pacifist and activist


In my early twenties, I was eager to talk about “gay marriage” with whomever I could.  It was that trigger that activated pain in my soul whenever the topic came up.  I was in a relationship, in love and I could not get married legally.  I became obsessed with social activism and began reading as much as I could on LGBTQ leaders from our past.  A dear friend asked me if I had ever read about Bayard Rustin.  I actually had never heard his name.  My friend told me that he was a major leader in the Civil Rights movement in the 1960’s but that not enough people new about him because he was gay.  Bayard Rustin.  Know his name and his story.

I write this after a weekend of pain.  Too many Black deaths plague our country.  George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and Ahmaud Arbery are more tragic losses that this country cannot ignore.  This weekend our community in Downtown Manhattan was filled with protests and our nation is grieving.  I am again thinking of Bayard Rustin.  His legacy and leadership deserve to be known and perhaps as he also protested the deaths of the many Black people in this country.

Born in 1912 in Westchester, Pennsylvania, Bayard Rustin was raised by his grandparents in the Quaker faith.  He moved to Harlem in 1937 and attended City College.  His activism began early as he became involved with fighting for freedom for the Scottsboro Boys.  He was also a talented singer who appeared in a Broadway musical starring Paul Robeson.  Ultimately, he began working for FOR (Fellowship of Reconciliation) as their race relation secretary.  In 1941, he proposed a march on Washington to protest racial segregation.  This march was cancelled after Rustin met with President Roosevelt and the president issued the Fair Employment Act.  But this groundwork would come in handy two decades later when he would plan a march for Dr. Martin Luther King.

He was arrested multiple times in his life.  Some of the infractions were for not moving to the back of a bus (1942); refusing induction to the military as a pacifist (he served two years in prison from 1944 to 1946, and organized a prison protest over the segregated dining hall); and for sexual activity with another man (1953).  Rustin was a trailblazer in the Civil Rights Movement and worked very closely with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.  Unfortunately, his sexuality was used against him and some vocally against the movement, and he was often hidden from the front lines of the fight because of this intersectionality.

In the 1980’s, Bayard turned his focus to gay rights activism. He and his long-time partner could not legally get married and they resorted to having Bayard legally adopt him to protect their union.  Bayard fought bravely until his death in 1987. In 2013, President Obama awarded Rustin the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest civilian award in the United States.

I did get the privilege of marrying my husband.  And we must remember the brave activists who worked their entire lives for the progress we have now.  Looking outside this weekend, I could not help but think of Bayard Rustin.  I think he would have wanted us to do better.  I think we must.

For further reading, I recommend, Bayard Rustin: Troubles I’ve Seen, by Jervis Anderson.  There is also the documentary Brother Outsider: The Life of Bayard Rustin, available on Netflix.


The 14th Street Y will be joining the online community by muting our content now through June 7. Instead we will use our social platforms to amplify the stories and voices of the Black community.

Join us as we stand in solidarity with the Black community. Let us continue to fight until all people are able to realize their version of the American Dream.

As a first step, please take moment to take action in support of the Black community. For those living in NY State we recommend adding your voice to those calling for the Legislature to repeal 50a, the police secrecy law that prevents us from holding police officers accountable when they harm those they are sworn to protect. A bill to repeal 50a has been drafted and Governor Cuomo has pledged to sign it. Visit the site of the Brooklyn NAACP to show your support.