Authors Talk: Michael Bronski and Michael G. Long on Bayard Rustin’s Legacy



Long: Bayard certainly had a grand vision. As an openly gay, African American, pacifist, socialist activist with roots in communism, he could see the interconnections of sufferings caused by various prejudices and discriminations. And because of this, he insisted on practicing coalition politics. While he understood the frustration and anger of individuals wanting to “go it alone,” he also believed that “frustration politics” does nothing constructive. What we need to do, he said, is to start building coalitions with like-minded people, including those in power, around the grand ideas of equality and justice for all. Bayard was the first to encourage King to build coalitions with labor and political liberals. And he was right about this — coalition politics centered on achieving rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness for everyone is the path to achieving our unique goals. As he put all this, we need to move “from protest to politics.”

But it did take Bayard a long time, until the mid-1980s, to speak out in favor of LGBT rights. Thanks to Walter Naegle, Bayard’s companion during the last ten years of his life, Bayard stepped into the public square and spoke eloquently and boldly for LGBT rights in the last few years of his life. But do you have any idea why it took Bayard so long to do this? Was he a product of his age?

Bronski: Speaking out in the mid-1980s is almost 20 years after Stonewall, and even longer after the homophile groups were started. What did he have to lose, since he had already lost so much after his various arrests and his involvement with King? Was this self-hatred or was he overly cautious? There’s something very “private” about so much of the 1950s, when Bayard was actively gay, and I understand that this could affect his entire life. We are all the product of “our age” and time, but what is ironic here is that he did speak out about so many other issues without fear. I suspect that for him, maybe, and others, sexuality was not a political issue in the same way as labor or equality under the law. For the most part — and nineteenth- and early twentieth-century radicals such a Victoria Woodhull, Walt Whitman, and Emma Goldman are exceptions — viewing sexuality and sexual behavior as “political” is a contemporary idea. I suspect he did not see his personal life, even though he was persecuted for his sexual habits, to be “political” in the sense that we know it now.

Long: In 1986 Bayard told Joseph Beam, who would go on to edit a wonderful anthology of writings by African American gays, that he considered sexual orientation to be a private matter. We should also remember, though, that Bayard had been publicly burned so many times because of his gay sexuality. Muste, King, and Strom Thurmond — they all burned him because of his sexuality.

Bronski: I think we can all appreciate that, but still there is something very “closeted,” to use a term that is anachronistic here, with that argument. I’m thinking abut Susan Sontag, who was a lesbian almost all of her adult life and spoke out on moral and ethical issues all the time but never really came out and had little to say about LGBT rights. At what point do we hold people responsible for their actions, even when we understand where they are “coming from,” as we said in the 1960s? Is it ever fair to judge people on these issues? If so, then how do we do it? If not, where does that get us?

Long: Your point is well taken here, Michael. And can you imagine what the LGBT movement might have done had Bayard joined it early on? Had Bayard consulted with gay rights pioneers like Randy Wicker and Franklin Kameny and Barbara Gittings, the movement would have been breathtaking even in the middle of the 1960s. Unfortunately, that was not to be. And Bayard recognized that, too. He denied any credit for the emergence of the early gay rights movement. Even that claim has its own problems, though, primarily because the early gay rights movement was directly influenced by the civil rights movement that Bayard had helped to lead. The connections between these two movements are thick in the writings of the early LGBT movement.

Bronski: I agree. If Bayard had come in to these conversations earlier, that would have been great. But I think the problem is larger: Americans think of sexuality as a “personal” matter so it was not just that the LGBT movement got a slow start and had limited vision. That limited vision is intrinsic to how Americans think about the role of sexuality in our lives. Think of how long it took feminism, which had been around for centuries, to confront sex and sexuality.

Long: Exactly right. And partly to your point, Bayard also told Beam that his activism did not spring from his being gay or black but from his Quaker values. How do you assess that?

Bronski: I think that so much is predicated on our sexuality we can’t even image what this may mean. Bayard saw his values as Quaker values, which they were, but the question is, Why was he drawn to these values? Did they have something to do with his being gay? Quakers have always been far more open abut sexuality and personal choices. We’ll never know, but it’s something to think about.

Long: Although Bayard did not speak out for LGBT rights early on, in the way that Gittings, Kameny, and Wicker did in the early 1960s, he never hid his sexuality from others. If you knew Bayard, you knew he was gay. And he insisted on being as openly gay as he felt he could in the face of enormous pressure from very powerful people. It’s amazing to me that he did not collapse altogether from the public criticism he received for being a “pervert,” as Strom Thurmond called him. Rustin’s willingness to stand his ground and say “‘I’m gay—deal with it” continues to be a witness to all of us.

Michael Bronski, author of A Queer History of the United States (Beacon Press, 2011) has been involved in Gay Liberation as a political organizer, writer, editor, publisher, and theorist since 1969. He wrote extensively for the LGBT press in the 1970s and 1980s. He is also the author of Culture Clash: The Making of Gay Sensibility and The Pleasure Principle: Sex, Backlash and the Struggle for Gay Freedom. He has edited several books including Pulp Friction: Uncovering the Golden Age of Gay Male Pulps. His essays have appeared in nearly forty anthologies. As a journalist, cultural critic, and political commentator he has been published in a wide array of venues including The Village Voice, The Boston Globe, GLQ, The Los Angeles Times, and The Boston Phoenix. He is a Senior Lecturer in the Women’s and Gender Studies and Jewish Studies program sat Dartmouth College

Michael G. Long is an associate professor of religious studies and peace and conflict studies at Elizabethtown College and is the author or editor of several books on civil rights, religion, and politics in mid-century America, including Marshalling Justice: The Early Civil Rights Letters of Thurgood Marshall and First Class Citizenship: The Civil Rights Letters of Jackie Robinson. Long’s books have been featured or reviewed in The New York Times, Los Angeles Times, Boston Globe, USA Today, Book Forum, Ebony, Jet, and many other newspapers and journals. He has appeared on C-Span and NPR, and his speaking engagements have taken him from the National Archives in Washington, D.C., to the Houston Public Library, to the City Club of San Diego and the Metropolitan Club in New York City.

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