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Gay Civil Rights icon Bayard Rustin just got his sodomy conviction pardoned

Bayard Rustin was a black gay civil rights pioneer who worked alongside Martin Luther King.
Bayard RustinPhoto: AP

California Gov. Gavin Newsom (D) has pardoned black Civil Rights pioneer Bayard Rustin for his 1953 “sex perversion” (that is, sodomy) conviction. Newsom also announced the creation of a new fast-track pardon process for other people previously convicted under similar laws punishing same-sex encounters.

Rustin pleaded guilty to the sodomy charge after being caught in Pasadena having sex with two men in a car. The conviction was used to publicly discredit him, driving him away from his position as a lead racial justice organizer alongside Martin Luther King Jr.

Related: Remembering the legacy of Bayard Rustin

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

“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.”

Newsom’s new clemency initiative will allow pardons for other Californians who, like Rustin, were arrested for consensual encounters with people of the same sex. People can apply for a pardon and learn more about the initiative at www.gov.ca.gov/clemency.

The California legislature’s LGBTQ and Black caucuses asked the Democratic governor to pardon Rustin last month.

State Sen. Scott Wiener (D), chair of California’s Legislative LGBTQ Caucus, and state Assemblymember Shirley Weber, chair of the Legislative Black Caucus, championed the cause to expunge Rustin’s criminal record. On January 21, 2020, they sent a formal letter detailing the request to Gov. Newsom, 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.”

Bayard Rustin’s activism after his conviction

Although Rustin was out and his close friends knew he was gay, his religious and political associates distanced themselves after his arrest.

The conviction compelled him to leave the Fellowship of Reconciliation, a U.S.-based interfaith peace organization, and to leave his position as a lead organizer alongside Dr. King in the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. Many Civil Rights leaders at the time worried that Rustin’s sodomy conviction would compromise the integrity of the movement.

Nevertheless, Rustin went on to serve as a lead organizer of the 1963 March on Washington, a pivotal demonstration in the nation’s Civil Rights history which drew thousands of people in a peaceful protest of racial inequality and injustice.

In an attempt to embarrass Rustin following the march, U.S. Sen. Strom Thurmond (R) read Rustin’s 1953 “sex perversion” conviction on the Senate floor, for the record.

In 2003, Rustin’s life was chronicled in director Marc Weiss’ documentary Brother Outsider: The Life of Bayard Rustin. In 2013, then-President Barack Obama honored Rustin with the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the same honor Donald Trump gave Rush Limbaugh last night.

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