Saturday, March 17, 2012

Heavy On My Mind: Bayard Rustin and Black Queer Lives

Today is Bayard Rustin's birthday. And, I want to take this opportunity to celebrate and remember a man who has made my life what it is today as a Black, queer, feminist. Rustin has been on my mind for the past two months. Ever since most of us in the U.S. celebrated Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s birthday. On that day, I was at an event where we remembered and talked about our memories of King. There were many folks who were older than me, lived during his assassination, and noted the importance of the 1963 March on Washington. While some of those memories are also things that stick out for me, the role of Rustin in the organizing of that event, at times, sticks out for me even more. In particular, I wonder and want to know what it was like for Rustin to be an out (although very different from how we think about the term now) gay, Black man in partnership with one of the most visible and powerful Black men in the country at the time. I want to know how his regular arrests for "homosexual acts" matched his arrests for civil disobedience, which were, in essence, the same thing. And I want to know why a man who was responsible for organizing one of the most remembered moments in civil rights history is not regularly celebrated for the life he led, the struggles he took on, and the violence he endured in the name of "freedom." The way he was forced to live his life in the shadows made it possible for us as Black people and for us as LGBT folks to live the lives we lead today.

I've also been thinking about Rustin for the last two months because of a recent Center for American Progress report “Jumping Beyond the Broom: Why Black Gay and Transgender Americans Need More than Marriage Equality,” in January. In it, the center describes what many of us Black queers already know:

Black gay and transgender Americans in particular experience stark social, economic, and health   disparities compared to the general population and their straight black and white gay counterparts. According to the data we currently have, families headed by black same-sex couples are more likely to raise their children in poverty, black lesbians are more likely to suffer from chronic diseases, and black gay and transgender youth are more likely to end up homeless and living on the streets.

This news is not new. We know this is the reality. We know that not much has changed for Black queer folks since the Gay Liberation movements of the 1970s and 1980s. What troubles me is that we, as a community, understand this reality and continue to move forward with an agenda that ignores this reality. Marriage will solve everything. It will make us equal. If we have those rights, we're covered. For some or even, a few. Especially if we continue to overlook the role of race and racism in shaping our LGBT experience. As the report notes,

In short, black gay and transgender people fall through the cracks when lumped under either a gay or black umbrella. Such categorical thinking ignores the fact that black gay and transgender people are at once both gay and transgender and black.

Overlooking the significance of race and racism in the lives of Black LGBT folks is detrimental to discussions of queer community. Especially at a time when race and racism shapes the lives of every single young, Black boy who is shot and killed for walking in their own neighborhoods--most recently Trayvon Martin. Or when racism, sexism, and homophobia contribute to the murder of Tayshana Murphy, an 18 year old Black, lesbian, basketball player killed, some suggest, because she was out as queer. Or how racism allows a young, Black transgendered woman like Cece McDonald (among others) to be charged with second degree murder when she, herself, was brutalized by a group of white adults.

Overlooking the role of racism in the quest for civil rights, citizenship, and visibility guarantees that the future of young Black lives is uncertain. Illuminating the fact that not much has changed in terms of the "dangers" of Black (queer and trans) bodies and, ultimately, Black lives in light of Rustin's fight. That's unacceptable to me everyday, but especially on this day, 100 years to the day that a Black gay man who forever changed the course of history for Black (and queer) folks was born. We owe him a celebration. We owe it to him to continue to challenge homophobia and racism. To recognize the work that he did for us and to not get derailed by single issue struggles that, as intended, divide our communities. I am confident we can do this. As confident as Rustin was when he rightly concluded that,


"When an individual is protesting society's refusal to acknowledge his dignity as a human being, his very act of protest confers dignity on him."

HAPPY BIRTHDAY, Bayard Rustin, may your life, your dignity, and your love always be celebrated.