LGBTQ History

Bayard Rustin was convicted for having sex with a man. Lawmakers want to finally address it.

In an attempt to an embarrass Bayard Rustin following the 1963 Civil Rights March on Washington, Senator Strom Thurmond once read Rustin’s 1953 “sex perversion” conviction on the United States Senate Floor, for the record. The arrest for ‘lewd vagrancy’ came in 1953, when police surveilled Rustin following a speech in Pasadena, California and caught him having sex in a vehicle with at least one man.

Now, California politicians and activists want to posthumously pardon Rustin – who was registered as a ‘sex offender’ for the rest of his life, until his death in 1987.

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Rustin was an out adviser to Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. in the 1950s and 1960s, being the prominent organizer behind King’s efforts to create the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), the 1955 Montgomery Bus boycotts, and the 1963 March. Rustin is credited for introducing King to many of the pacifist principles of Mahatma Gandhi that became central to King’s career, but Rustin was removed from the pacifist organization Fellowship for Reconciliation for his ‘crimes’. Reportedly, activist Adam Clayton Powell Jr. pressured King to oust Rustin from his circle in 1960 following the public revelation of the latter’s conviction, although Rustin would continue to work alongside his mentor A. Phillip Randolph and King in the following decade.

State Senator Scott Wiener, chair of California’s Legislative LGBTQ Caucus, and state Assemblymember Shirley Weber, chair of the Legislative Black Caucus, are championing the cause to expunge Rustin’s ‘record’. They sent a formal letter detailing the request to Governor Gavin Newsom on January 21, 57 years to the day of Rustin’s citation.

“Mr. Rustin’s conviction and registered sex offender status haunted him for the rest of his life, and it continues to tarnish his name, despite his death 33 years ago…Indeed, California’s treatment of Mr. Rustin tarnishes our entire state,” Wiener and Weber write. “Pardoning Mr. Rustin will be a positive step toward reconciliation.”

In a statement to NewNowNext, Wiener claims that he has the support of Los Angeles District Attorney Jackie Lacey. Wiener credits activist Nicole Murray-Ramirez, who has been advocating for Rustin to receive an official postage stamp dedicated to him, as the person who influenced him to pursue this measure.

“It would send a very powerful signal that our values of the state and about our ability to recognize that we’ve done some really bad things over time and we need to atone for them,” he states.

Walter Naegle, Rustin’s partner through the end of his life, would be essential to correcting the harm done to Rustin’s legacy following the erasure of his achievements and Black, gay male identity. “He survived, he thrived, he did fine, but there were a lot of people that didn’t,” Naegle told The Washington Post. Author Michael G. Long, who wrote a biography on Rustin, reported that a pardon would be “an affirmation of what Rustin knew all along: that he was not a criminal for being gay.”

Gov. Newsom pledges to consider the letter, saying in a statement that “history is clear. In California and across the country, sodomy laws were used as legal tools of oppression.”

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