If only we lived in a world where the media sought out historian John D'Emilio to ask him what he thought black gay progressive Bayard Rustin, the chief organizer of the 1963 March on Washington, would make of today's straight white conservative rally.
Like gay genius Billy Strayhorn working in Duke Ellington's shadow, Rustin was a monumental talent simultaneously exploited and protected by his more famous heterosexual colleagues in an era when homosexuality was illegal. According to D'Emilio's sterling biography Lost Prophet: The Life and Times of Bayard Rustin, Martin Luther King Jr. severed ties with him in 1960 rather than stand up to NAACP head Roy Wilkins' man Adam Clayton Powell Jr. who threatened to spread the falsehood that Rustin and King were lovers. They soon reconciled and Rustin planned the epic march with A. Philip Randolph. Leading up to that event, Strom Thurmond denounced Rustin as a "communist, draft-dodger, and homosexual" whose "background showed the moral depravity of the March on Washington." Thurmond also held an FBI photo of Rustin clothed talking to a bathing MLK as proof that they were having sex with each other. Former nemesis Wilkins used the Thurmond incident to argue that Rustin should not be publicly credited for his work. Too often this was Rustin's fate but he does get fair credit in Charles Euchner's brand new Nobody Turn Me Around: A People's History of the 1963 March on Washington.
Earlier this week Autumn Sandeen recalled Rustin's words when reflecting on a Republican operator's coming out. In his 1986 From Montgomery to Stonewall, Rustin wrote:
There are four burdens, which gays, along with every other despised group, whether it's blacks follow slavery and reconstruction, or Jews fearful of Germany, must address. The first is recognize one must overcome fear. The second is overcoming self-hate. The third is overcoming self-denial. The fourth is more political. It is to recognize that the job of the gay community is not to deal with extremists who would castigate us or put us on an island and drop an H-bomb on us. The fact of the matter is that there is a small percentage of people in America who understand the true nature of the homosexual community. There is another small percentage who will never understand us. Our job is not to get those people who dislike us to love us. Nor was our aim in the civil rights movement to get prejudiced white people to love us. Our aim was to try to create the kind of America, legislatively, morally, and psychologically, such that even though some whites continued to hate us, they could not openly manifest that hate. That's our job today: to control the extent to which people can publicly manifest antigay sentiment.