Eight LGBT African-Americans Who Changed The Gay Community

Bayard Rustin
Civil-rights activist, organizer of the 1963 March on Washington

Martin Luther King Jr. had a dream—and a gay ally who helped make it come true. A pacifist and activist, Bayard Rustin (1912-1987) learned to take a nonviolent yet effective stand for equality from his grandmother, Julia, and the teachings of Mahatma Gandhi. In his youth, Rustin rallied against Jim Crow laws and the racially charged case against the Scottsboro boys.  Later, he debated Malcolm X, stressing the importance of seeing the world’s various races as one big family.

Rustin first met King in 1956, when Rustin helped organize the Montgomery Bus Boycott. He educated MLK in Gandhian nonviolent protest principles and went on to organize the 1963 March on Washington, where King made his immortal “I had a dream” speech.

But Rustin’s homosexuality posed a problem: Some civil rights leaders took issue with it, while members of the U.S. government used Rustin’s sexuality—and his arrest in 1953 for a “sex perversion” offense—to undermine his effectiveness.  Strom Thurmond, blasted Rustin as a “Communist, draft-dodger and homosexual” and had his arrest file entered in the congressional record.  (Thurmond also produced an FBI photo of Rustin and MLK chatting while the latter was taking a bath, to suggest the two were lovers.)

Before views about homosexuality softened, much of Rustin’s accomplishments in the civil-rights movement went unsung—though they are chronicled in the brilliant documentary Brother Outsider.

By the 1970s, Rustin began championing gay rights more directly: In a 1986 speech, “The New Niggers Are Gay,” he drew an explicit connection between the struggles of the black and LGBT communities:

“Today, blacks are no longer the litmus paper or the barometer of social change. Blacks are in every segment of society and there are laws that help to protect them from racial discrimination. The new ‘niggers’ are gays. It is in this sense that gay people are the new barometer for social change. The question of social change should be framed with the most vulnerable group in mind: gay people.”

NEXT: Mabel Hampton, witness to herstory in the making

Photos: Library of Congress

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  • Eric Auerbach

    When will the click-through photos end???

  • LizzyGirl

    Marsha P. Johnson.

  • Red Meat

    Frank Ocean has done nothing for the gay community or the music industry. Being gay is not an act of anything. There are far more artists in the last 20 years that have done more than come out of the closet.

    As for his talent, he has done nothing Usher or Justin Timberlake have not done. Even the prick Chris Brown did it better.

  • 2eo

    @Eric Auerbach: Jazz album that got less than 2000 votes on a website directly about the thing he is in.

    Lets not get ahead of ourselves, the world doesn’t give a fuck about Frank Ocean, it’s good that he’s come out and is continuing doing the thing he loves in spite of criticism.

    But lets not go assuming he’s up there with MLK, Harvey Milk and countless others.

  • Eric Auerbach

    @2eo: What? That’s Pazz and Jop, the best-known, most respected music critics’ poll in the country.

  • LadyL

    @Red Meat: @2eo: Visibility is power. It’s light and truth and transformation. That’s never more true than in black communities that have long been ruled by cultural ignorance, groupthink insecurities and religious intolerance. Ocean’s coming out is significant and potentially huge for young black and minority LGBTQ and their families.

  • dugman

    Did we have a brain fart and just forget James Baldwin? Baldwin had to go off to the safety of Paris to write and publish ‘Giovani;s Room” one of the few gay themed novels around when I came out. He also wrote on the themes of race and sexuality and the intersection of those themes.

  • stfallon1028

    Thank you for including Bayard Rustin on this list! A forgotten hero to the cause is finally getting the recognition he missed out on in life.

  • MickeyP.

    I love Wanda Sykes! She is a great comedian,IMO.

  • hamoboy

    How do Frank Ocean and RuPaul get on this list but not James Baldwin? Speechless.

  • CM79

    I say take Frank Ocean’s name off the list. He played the gay card because it was the only one in his hand. Frank is basically propped by a media who seemed to know what the worst outcome could have been in his coming out, and went out of their way to shield him from it. Behind the forced critical praise, on every blog, message board and real life conversation I’ve been witness to where he’s the topic, I see a stalemate in reaction; he has his defenders, but he also has many callous detractors.

  • Lefty

    I’m sure Bayard Rustin would have dreamt that one day all his work would result in being on a list with Don Lemon and Frank “he’s never said he’s gay” Ocean.
    I wonder if a similar list is being compiled of white gay people who changed the world. With Harvey Milk, Lance Bass and the Honey Boo Boo dude…

  • The Real Mike in Asheville

    Very confused, very: how about a column about those who are changing: Don Lemmon, Frank Ocean, Wanda Sykes, et al, and those who have: Bernard Rustin and Mabel Hampton.

    Alas, a list of 8 is a list missing too many: No James Baldwin? No Langston Hughes? Where is Alvin Ailey? Long, long before RuPaul — who is making waves for the LGBT community and I applaud that — there was Sylvester.

    Barbara Jordan? Alice Walker? Sheryl Swoopes?

    Honorable Mention — Julian Bond, the gay community has no better friend and advocate than the Chairman Emeritus of the NCAAP. An all-out advocate for equality for all; and his advocacy for marriage equality is changing the LGBT community as the walls of resistance from the larger black community crumble.

  • AdamK17

    Wanda Sykes grew up in suburban Maryland actually. She went to the same High School I did, just about 20 years apart.

  • Dehreeus

    White, gay websites kill me trying to make Frank Ocean into some gay, black hero. He doesn’t even want to be associated with us and the fact that y’all label everything black “hip-hop” is so annoying. Bye.

Comments are closed.