Bayard Rustin was an openly gay leader in the civil rights movement. His career as an activist began at very young age. He grew up in a house where activists like W.E.B. Du Bois and James Weldon Johnson were frequent guests. Rustin was active in the socialist party. He organized freedom rides to protest the unconstitutional segregation of public buses. He is most well known for his collaboration with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Together they founded the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. Although he was officially listed as the second in command, Rustin was the key organizer of the famous 1963 March on Washington. This march drew a quarter of a million people, and was the cite of King’s historic “I Have a Dream” speech. In the 1970s Rustin focused more of his energy on labor organizing. Although he wasn’t directly involved in the queer liberation movement until the 1980s, he was open about his sexuality throughout the majority of his tenure as an activist.
Although he was open about his sexuality, Rustin was not able to make that choice for himself. He was arrested in 1953 and charged with sodomy. Because his sexuality was made public after the arrest, his contributions to civil rights were primarily behind the scenes as many of his colleagues saw him as a “liability”. Throughout his career as an activist he was silenced, arrested, and beaten. His former partner from 1940, Davis Platt, described how Rustin never “felt any shame or guilt about his homosexuality. That was rare in those days. Rare.”