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Martin Luther King’s friend Bayard Rustin will be pardoned for gay sex

Martin Luther King’s friend Bayard Rustin will be pardoned for gay sex

  • Bayard Rustin was one of the heroes of the civil rights movement and was arrested for concensual gay sex.
Bayard Rustin.

California is to posthumously pardon LGBT+ and civil rights hero Bayard Rustin for his 1953 ‘vagrancy’ arrest, which was for consensual gay sex.

Rustin, a close confidante of Martin Luther King Jr, was one of the key organizers of the historic 1963 March on Washington – a highpoint of the civil rights movement.

He also played a vital role in non-violent protests and boycotts to end racial discrimination in the United States.

While Rustin kept in the background at the time, President Barack Obama gave him the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2013.

Bayard Rustin’s ‘vagrancy’ arrest

But in 1953, police arrested Rustin in Pasadena, California. They discovered him having sex with two men in a parked car. The arrest came just hours after he gave a speech about anti-colonial struggles in West Africa.

They charged him with vagrancy – a common charge for consensual gay sex. And he spent 50 days in an LA jail. 

The conviction haunted him until his death in 1987.

However, despite that, Rustin didn’t hide his sexuality.

Davis Platt, Rustin’s partner from the 1940s, said: ‘I never had any sense at all that Bayard felt any shame or guilt about his homosexuality. That was rare in those days. Rare.’

And while he didn’t campaign on LGBT+ rights for many years, he did join the fight towards the end of his life.

In 1986 he gave a speech supporting New York State’s Gay Rights Bill, titled ‘The New N*****s are Gays’.

He said: ‘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 question of social change should be framed with the most vulnerable group in mind: gay people.’

Posthumous pardon for Rustin

California Governor Gavin Newsom said he was not just pardoning Rustin. He also wants to clear the record of others who had consensual gay sex.

Newsome said: ‘In California and across the country, many laws have been used as legal tools of oppression, and to stigmatize and punish LGBTQ poeple and communities and warn others what harm could await them for living authentically.

‘I thank those who advocated for Bayard Rustin’s pardon, and I want to encourage others in similar situations to seek a pardon to right this egregious wrong.’

In 2017, Rustin’s partner for the last 10 years of his life, Walter Naegle, wrote a personal account of his achievements for GSN.