Thursday, November 21, 2013

Bayard Rustin - Fifty Years After The 1963 Civil Rights March

Fifty years after the 1963 Civil Rights March on Washington, Bayard Rustin, an openly gay civil rights activist and strategist for the march, was awarded posthumously the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President Barack Obama on Wednesday, November 20, 2013. Bayard's Quaker background was the foundation for his supporting equality and human rights for all people.

As an openly gay black man, Bayard's history was known to me because I am a child of the civil rights movement. My parents were involved in the civil rights movement in Detroit, Michigan, and I remember hearing his name mentioned at the dinner table many times. I am not sure if Bayard's openly gay lifestyle influence my parents' understanding of what it meant to be a sexual minority back in the 1960s, but when I came out to my parents in 1970 – several months after Stonewall – they were very supportive of me, saying that there was nothing wrong with me because I was gay. Not only was that a relief to have my parents and family support, it also reinforced that character and integrity are qualities that made a difference in how some people would not judge you on your sexual orientation. In 1975 moving to San Francisco, I had the opportunity to grow as an openly gay person in an atmosphere that nurtured me in a relationship with another black gay man. As I grew into my mid-to-late 20s, I relocated from San Francisco to Washington DC in 1979 after participating in the first National Gay and Lesbian March on Washington, Washington DC. Washington DC was a black gay mecca and I was proud to be an openly gay person here, but I definitely stood out amongst my peers.
It was to my early activism here in Washington DC, working with a number of other openly black gay men, our goal was to move people from the closet where many black gay men hid because they had families in the city and feared being exposed. Within two years of relocating, the HIV epidemic – then called GRID – hit Washington DC, and the Washington DC LGBTQ community was challenged to meet the needs of its members. 
At the beginning of the crisis, the white gay medical clinics were not very friendly towards black gay men that were not associated with white males, and I think it was my understanding of Bayard's activism, the need for public acknowledgment that black gay men must be recognized and their suffering from the epidemic had to be stemed, thus the need to confront black politicians within the DC government to provide support for its black gay community was not only necessary but mandatory. I also think a number of other black gay and nongay people, whether political or nonpolitical activists, also channeled Bayard's vision that all people were equal in their humanness, and advocating for equal and fair treatment within the gay community across the board was the right thing to promote and lobby for funds to help stem this growing challenge. Though the successes started off small, as the epidemic grew the black LGBTQ community took the initiative to organize and change the anti-gay atmosphere that permeated the religious and nonreligious institutions in Washington DC.

Gay organizations like the Best of Washington did fundraisers to help those who were sick to pay their rent and put food on their tables; black lesbian organizations like Friends for Friends did weekly condom distribution at Metro stops in poor neighborhoods all over Washington, DC and the suburbs; and Us Helping Us established HIV testing sites and provided alternative medicine to complement the medical treatments of the time and we thrived. It was through those early years up to the development of new medications that prolong life, it was members of the black gay movement that help organize pride events that has grown into what we now call "black gay pride" events throughout the US and what eventually became International Federation of Black Pride. This is also another way in which Bayard's legacy played an important role in inspiring black gays to be proud of who they are, to stand for equality for all, and to continue our journey towards fulfillment of all human rights.
Is this history of black gay activism that I have brought into the Muslim LGBTQ movement, and as an openly gay Imam, again Bayard's vision has inspired me to educate and promote alternative views of what it means to be Muslim and LGBTQ.  This has not been an easy process, but it has been a fulfilling one.  Not unlike a pastoral counseling session I had today for a young Muslim lesbian, in a loving samesex relationship, was feeling the weight of her judgmental Muslim community. Throughout our session I could see her eyes, earlier heavily burden with worry, to become less dim and glow brighter for she had found someone who understood her and gave her inspiration to seek Allah and not the permission of other human beings who were uncomfortable with the idea that LGBTQ Muslims existed and were thriving. I am on a path and it is one that has its challenges, but the goals of equal and fair treatment and the fulfillment of human rights legislation will take time to achieve.  And this is also true of changing takes time, but we should continue to live as did Bayard--out and proud to be who you are.

So this past summer while participating in the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington, it was great to see generations of civil rights activists, their children and grandchildren, gay and non-gay, marching as he did in 1963. I'm sure that Bayard, if he were alive today, would have felt honored and proud to know that his "…unwavering belief we are all equal members of a 'single human family'" was supported by civil rights activists, their children and grandchildren of those who opposed him 50 years earlier.
I would like to personally thank Mandy Carter, along with many unnamed others, for her/their unwavering efforts and support to have Bayard receive the President's Medal of Honor.
Quoted from Mandy Carter's FaceBook page: “BAYARD RUSTIN (Posthumously). Bayard Rustin was a giant in the American Civil Rights Movement.Openly gay at a time when many had to hide who they loved, his unwavering belief that we are all equal members of a “single human family” took him from the first Freedom Ride to the lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender rights movement. Thanks to his unparalleled skills as an organizer, progress that once seem impossible appears, in retrospect, to have been inevitable. Fifty years after the March on Washington he organized, America honors Bayard Rustin as one of the greatest architects for social change and a fearless advocate for its move vulnerable citizens.”