Legendary Love: Bayard Rustin and Walter Naegle

As we continue to pay tribute in our own way to upcoming Valentine's Day, the partner of the gay civil rights activist and organizer of the March on Washington shares his side of the story.

BY Robert Drayton

February 12 2014 8:00 AM ET


Photo at left of Walter Naegle is by Danielle Leavitt for OUT100.

The culture of New York, where people usually leave each other alone — a live-and-let-live philosophy of tolerance — may also have shielded Rustin and his partners from overt prejudice. But, most important, the Naegle family was supportive of the relationship. “We spent a lot of time with my family. My mother took vacations with us on a couple of occasions, and he was known to all of my siblings,” Naegle says. “There were certain members of his family that didn’t want to have anything to do with us. It was really their feelings about him. They didn’t like him because he was gay.”

When looking back on his time with Bayard, Naegle recalls that it was their shared love for pacifism and nonviolence that allowed their relationship to thrive. “If you come from a position of being Gandhi-like, where you have self-esteem and pride in your accomplishments, but you don’t think you are better than anybody else, and you are willing to say if there’s a problem between the two of us, a lot of it is my problem. If both partners are doing that, then you’re going to reach a point where there’s some compromise or some reconciliation,” Naegle says. “If you just want to get to a point where your self-esteem is intact and you feel like you’ve been victorious and you’re the dominant partner, that’s not going to be a very healthy relationship. If you want to get to the point where you can go to bed at night and sleep comfortably and feel loved, then you will be willing to compromise or see your way out of the difficulty. And I think, because both of us felt that way, we were able to do it.”

Near the end of Bayard’s life, he said the next fight for civil rights would be that of lesbians and gays. It seems fitting, then, that federal government stepped forward this year via the Supreme Court to recognize same-sex marriage.

“He would certainly be happy, but I think he would be surprised that it’s happened so quickly,” said Naegle. “I think that the LGBT movement kind of took a page out of Bayard’s playbook. Bayard was somebody who believed in coalition building, and especially if you’re a minority group. I mean, how are you going to get a law passed if you’re 10 percent of the population? You have to maximize your allies. The LGBT community has done that very successfully.”

In August of 1987, ten years after the couple met, Bayard died at the age of 75, long before they could legally marry. But Bayard had established a legal bond between them by adopting Naegle. Since Bayard’s death, Naegle has been working with a team within the Bayard Rustin Fund to keep his legacy alive, notably by assisting in the 2002 documentary Brother Outsider: The Life of Bayard Rustin.

“Being black, being homosexual, being a political radical, that’s a combination that’s pretty volatile and it comes along like Halley’s Comet,” Naegle says, adding, “Bayard’s life was complex, but at the same time I think it makes it a lot more interesting.”

Naegle attended a reception at the White House this Tuesday in commemoration of the 1963 March on Washington. The Obama administration has also informed him that he will be the recipient of Rustin’s Presidential Medal of Freedom.

For more about Bayard Rustin, visit Rustin.org.

 

(This article originally appeared on Out.com on August 28, 2013)

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