Thursday, February 26, 2009

Always remembering Bayard

Bayard Rustin: Offensive lineman for freedom

Bayard Rustin, who became a gay activist later in life, was a brilliant, charismatic, passionately courageous man who was Dr. Martin Luther King’s chief strategist and right-hand man.

By Patricia Nell

Barack Obama’s election as America’s first black President is a good time for refreshing our memory on LGBT figures in the black civil-rights movement. Bayard Rustin is an obvious choice – a brilliant, charismatic, passionately courageous man who was Dr. Martin Luther King’s chief strategist and right-hand man.

The sports angle: Rustin started his activist career way back around 1929, when he first played high-school football. This chapter in his life is a "Remember the Titans" kind of story.

The word “activist” rolls off our tongues easily today. But in 1920s and 1930s America, taking a stand on human-rights issues automatically made you a target for the FBI.

You were pegged as a communist or a socialist agitator – terms that were used as deadkt weapons against anybody who tried to challenge the status quo, whether it was race relations or unionizing or veterans’ rights.

Bayard’s close-knit family was rooted in eastern Pennsylvania, in the small town of West Chester. When his mother was 17, she got pregnant out of wedlock. Bayard was born in 1912. Since his father never stepped forward to accept responsibility, Florence’s parents, Julia and Janifer Rustin, adopted the boy as their own.

Slender, intense Julia was well-educated – one of the first blacks in the county to finish high school. She worked for a prominent Quaker family and made herself visible in community service. When the NAACP was founded in 1910, Julia was a charter member. Though she belonged to the local African Methodist church, Julia was part Delaware Indian. Her family were Quakers and free people of color who had lived in Pennsylvania for generations.

From his grandmother, Bye – as he was called at home – soaked up that powerful example of community activism, as well as a keen consciousness of America’s dissenter heritage.

In the mid-1600s, the pacifist Friends (as Quakers called themselves) had begun streaming to the North American colonies to escape persecution in Anglican-ruled England. After the American Revolution, Quaker leaders influenced our founders’ decision to adopt the First Amendment principle of freedom of conscience. Outraged at slavery, the Friends helped organize the “underground railroad” that enabled thousands of escaped slaves to get out of the South and establish themselves in freedom. That old escape route had run right through Bayard’s home town.

Ironically, in spite of all this history, segregation had seeped into Pennsylvania from the South. So West Chester was a city where many businesses and institutions enforced Jim Crow. As the only high school in the county, West Chester Senior High School was uneasily integrated, with a small number of blacks among its 600 students.

A Renaissance Athlete

Rustin was one of those rare students who did well at everything. He was a good-looking 6-footer, popular with both black and white students -- straight-A student, mainstay of the debating team, award-winning essayist, and outstanding singer (tenor). He even wrote poetry. In short, according to biographer John D’Emilio, he was “West Chester’s version of a Renaissance man.”

Most important, Pinhead – as he was nicknamed by friends – was the best athlete in the school. At first it was just tennis, track and basketball where he beat everybody. But tennis was viewed as a pansy sport, and Bayard was already aware of his attraction to other males and worried about his masculinity. So he went out for football to prove his own manliness to himself.

With his speed and smarts, a movie script might have made him star quarterback of the West Chester Warriors. Instead Bayard chose to play offensive lineman, left tackle. In basic football strategy, all five linemen have the job of protecting the quarterback. But the two tackles have an extra-tough job, because they have to anchor the two ends of that offensive line, blocking multiple hits from opposing players and preventing them from making a blitz.

Bayard’s sheer will to use his strength and psychic force for the team’s benefit made him the Warriors’ MVP. Later a teammate remembered what it was like to run up against Pinhead in a scrimmage. He said, “I found it impossible to get by him. Sometimes, after knocking me down on my face, he would gently help me to my feet and quote a line from a poem.”

Another teammate added in, “He was the toughest hitter on the front line. I wouldn’t have expected that of a young man whose grandmother was raising him to be nonviolent. Yet I could never hit as hard as he did.”

Yet another teammate reminisced ruefully, “I never blocked him once … his bones and his muscles were like steel … he was tough.”

By his junior year, that toughness had made Bayard an all-county lineman, and won him letters in both football and track. During his senior year, 1932-33, he helped carry the track team to the state mile championship at the Penn Relays. That same year, the West Chester Warriors had a 10-game winning streak, with the local paper enthusing, “Bayard Rustin played his usual fine game at left tackle, working splendidly with left end Bruno.”

An Activist Is Born

On that extraordinary team, some strong black-white friendships were born. But off campus, the boys ran into Jim Crow. All the team members were welcome at Julia’s house. But one of Bayard’s best friends was a white boy whose parents wouldn’t let their son invite Bayard to their home. The black team members weren’t allowed in the YMCA or certain restaurants. They had to sit in the segregated balcony at the movie theater. For games out of town, the black players couldn’t stay at the same hotel as their white teammates. Some schools even refused to let their all-white teams play West Chester.

The moment came when Bayard had enough. One weekend, just before the Warriors were to play in a neighboring town, he organized his black teammates into a protest squad. They told the coach that, if they couldn’t have the same accommodations as their white teammates, they weren’t going to play. The coach buckled – though he later retaliated by holding back some track awards that the boys had earned.

After that, there was no stopping Rustin. He led his special team of protesters all over West Chester – into stores, restaurants, the YMCA. The boys were usually thrown out, but they kept trying. One of his followers remembered later, “Bayard’s determination was frightening. But we looked up to him as our leader. He was persuasive. He could sell you anything.”

Eventually Bayard was arrested for the first time in his life, for trying to sit in the white section of the movie theater.

In 1932, when Bayard graduated as class valedictorian, nobody would have predicted that he’d become a valued player in global civil-rights activism. They figured he’d be a singer, or a pro athlete … even a poet. But no local organizations made scholarships available for a talented black kid. So his grandmother Julia wangled him an out-of-town scholarship that sent him to Wilberforce in Ohio – one of the oldest black colleges in the U.S.

By then, Bayard had already had his first sexual experiences with other boys, and knew that he was gay. “I never felt any guilt,” he said later. Indeed, he took the offensive in cruising for one-time experiences. But this was something that had to be kept hidden at all costs.

A Role Model in India

In college, Rustin first started hearing about Mohandas Gandhi, a young Indian lawyer who lived on the other side of the world. Gandhi was emerging as a freedom leader, first against apartheid in South Africa, then against British colonial rule in his native India. Freedom-bent American blacks were thrilled to read about the exploits of this brown-skinned man who was fighting for people of color halfway around the world. By the end of World War II, Gandhi’s organizing had united millions of peaceful but determined Hindus and Muslims, convincing the British to grant India her independence without a fight.

For Rustin, the challenge was clear – to graft Gandhi’s concepts of pacifist non-violent activism onto the Quaker pacifism that he’d learned from Julia.

In 1937, Rustin discovered New York City, and fell in love with it. Initially, he lived with his aunt in Harlem, which had exploded into a center of music and arts creativity. His activist career started with work in the pacifist and labor movements.

From college onwards, Rustin’s long and action-packed career veered away from sports. Yet he always carried himself like an athlete – lean, graceful yet powerful, and always elegantly dressed. His 6-foot frame was impressive at the speakers’ podium.

Rustin approached everything with a keen sense of strategy that he must have honed on those football fields in eastern Pennsylvania. Arrested numerous times for both cruising and freedom protests, he was still so tough that he survived a number of brutal beatings by police. That toughness also carried him through incarceration. In 1944, federal authorities sentenced him to three years for refusing to serve in uniform during World War II. In 1947, after being arrested during a Freedom ride, Rustin did 30 days in a Southern chain gang. The experience was so horrific that the exposé he wrote for a magazine stirred up a public outcry.

In the late 1940s, the prison experience prompted Rustin to start speaking out about the cruelty and injustice that faced American homosexuals. Making no secret of his sexual orientation, he was having his first real relationship with a young white man, handsome blond Davis Platt, who was a movement co-worker. In 1947, the two of them settled down in an apartment in 124th Street in New York City. Their place became a center for artists, writers and activists.

“Bayard was fun to be with,” said Platt later. But the relationship finally foundered on Rustin’s penchant for cruising, and the two men broke up after a year.

Marching on Washington D.C.

By the 1960s, Rustin was working with emerging black leader Reverend Martin Luther King. Rustin had been pondering Gandhi’s strategies, with their foundation in Hindu spirituality. How could those principles be applied in the U.S. in a way that could draw support from liberal Christian spirituality, given the fact that ultraconservative white Christians usually supported Jim Crow? It was during the 1955 Montgomery bus boycott that Rustin first counseled Dr. King on non-violent activism. By 1963, he was helping King to organize that historic March on Washington that kicked the black civil-rights movement into higher gear.

Though Rustin was a compelling speaker and could have been a leader in his own right, he stayed behind the scenes. His sexual orientation had gotten negative public attention after a 1953 California arrest for “indecency.” Puritanical church people started pressuring King to get rid of the “commie queer.” He was booted out of the pacifist organization, Fellowship for Reconciliation, for which he’d worked so hard.

“After that,” comments historian E. P. Lovejoy at Epinions, “Rustin refrained voluntarily from speaking out about oppression of homosexuals because he wanted to protect the racial civil rights movement into which he had invested so much. He knew that his homosexuality, about which was never secret even when he was not outspoken, could be used against the movement. It was, especially by J. Edgar Hoover's FBI and by the segregationist U.S. Senator Strom Thurmond.

“Rustin also faced enemies within the movement, chief among them Adam Clayton Powell, the U.S. Representative from Harlem. Powell sought to gain for himself a more influential position by denigrating Rustin. He threatened to leak fabricated allegations of a sexual affair between Rustin and King. Powell demanded that King distance himself from Rustin. King gave in and was rebuked by James Baldwin and others who rallied to Rustin's defense. King and Rustin worked together after that, and Rustin accompanied King to Oslo in 1964 when King received the Nobel Prize for Peace, but their friendship never fully recovered.”

Intriguingly, the positioning that Rustin accepted in the black civil-rights movement was a rerun of his positioning in high-school football. Dr. King was the quarterback who carried the ball, and Rustin was his loyal left tackle.

But Rustin was not the only homosexual in King’s organization. A lesbian friend of mine, Cherokee medicine woman Earth Thunder, recalls being one of the young workers in that organization in the late 1960s. As a Native American, she felt that King’s “I have a dream” was meant for all people of color. Earth Thunder told me: “I can recollect some joyful times with Bayard in a private gathering in Harlem, probably 1968. We were resting between pushes to get ready for the August Democratic explosion. Rustin was with some other friends and they were singing. Some were in drag. But for most of the movement, I knew little of any of the gay friends pushing the envelope.” Meaning that they were all keeping a low profile like Rustin did.

After Dr. King was assassinated in 1968, Rustin hurled himself into offensive-lineman work in other countries where people of color were fighting for freedom. With his counsel, he supported native leaders everywhere with their freedom movements -- in Ghana, Nigeria, Zimbabwe, Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia, Haiti, El Salvador, and Grenada. He also worked for the freedom of Soviet Jews.

Finally a Gay Activist

In 1977, Rustin settled into his happiest and most enduring relationship, with a younger man named Walter Naegle. He was still lean and handsome, but with hair going powerfully white. The two settled in New York City's Chelsea district.

By then, anti-gay feeling in the U.S. had softened just enough that Rustin felt able to work openly for the LGBT cause without hurting other causes. During an effort for gay-friendly legislation in New York City, he testified at hearings and made a statement that sounds prophetic today. He said, “There are very few liberal Christians today who would dare say anything other than blacks are our brothers and they should be treated so, but they will make all kinds of hideous distinctions when it comes to our gay brothers. ... That is what makes the homosexual central to the whole political apparatus as to how far we can go in human rights.”

Sadly, many in the gay community dismissed Rustin’s efforts, considering him a Johnny-come-lately. One commentator described him as “gay, activist but sadly, not a gay activist.”

In 1987, shortly after yet another trip abroad, Rustin took ill and died. He had just turned 75. Walter Naegle continues to tend the flame of his partner’s achievements as executor and archivist for the Bayard Rustin estate.

For some years, Rustin was undeservedly forgotten by many in the LGBT movement. Yet today our younger activists are rediscovering Rustin. In the late 1990s, when I was working with LGBT students in the Los Angeles Unified School District, I found that LGBT students of color were hungry to know that they had some towering historical role models like Rustin. To a black kid who was one of the school district’s student commissioners at the time, I gave a copy of a biography about Rustin. He devoured the book, and told me that he cried all the way through it.

“It’s just awesome,” the student said, “that an openly gay black man was Martin Luther King’s head guy.”

Biographer John D’Emilio sums up Rustin’s life in a few deft words. He says, “Rustin displayed courage under circumstances that are terrifying to contemplate. His life reminds us that the most important stories from the past are often those that have been forgotten and that from obscure origins can emerge individuals with the power to change the world.”


Thanks to Walter Naegle for his gracious help and helpful information. Also thanks to producer-director Bennett Singer for providing me with a DVD of "Brother Outsider," and giving permission for reproduction of the image from the film that accompanies this article.

Further reading:

Lost Prophet: The Life and Times of Bayard Rustin, by John D’Emilio (University of Chicago Free Press, 2003).

Time on Two Crosses: The Collected Writings of Bayard Rustin, edited by Devon W. Cabardo and Donald Weise (Cleis Press, 2003).

We Are One: The Story of Bayard Rustin, by Larry Dane Brimner (Calkins Creek Books, 2007)

Bayard Rustin: Troubles I’ve Seen, by Jervis Anderson (University of California Press, 1998).

Brother Outsider: The Life of Bayard Rustin
Produced and directed by Bennett Singer and Nancy D. Kates . Premiered at the Sundance Film Festival, broadcast on PBS’ P.O.V. series and LOGO cable network. To date the film has won 20 film festival awards.

Web pages
Bayard Rustin Fund

Video about Rustin

Monday, February 23, 2009

R&B Singer Rahsaan Patterson...On Being Gay

R&B music is having a banner year for more reasons than one. Of course there were the much anticipated releases from Jill Scott, Angie Stone, Eric Roberson, and now Alicia Keys. But along with the good music came the admission from R&B singer Donnie just days after the release of his sophomore album The Daily News (Soulthought Records) this year, that he was gay. And maybe it’s because I’ve been soooo busy these past few weeks, but I missed the long awaited coming out of R&B’s Rahsaan Patterson. Now Rahsaan being gay is not news to me, but him coming out publicly is.

On October 7, 2007, just several days after the release of his latest album Wine & Spirits, in an exclusive interview with’s John Murph, Rahsaan followed fellow R&B singer Donnie’s lead and broke his silence about not only his sexuality but his thoughts on homophobia. Congrats Rahsaan!

Here's an excerpt:

BET J: Are you dealing with your sexuality?

Patterson: Exactly. When your body is fringed upon and you had no say so in the matter, the years that follow have nothing to do with who you initially could have been or would be.

Personally, I believe when that happens to you – a spirit attaches itself to you then you reside in a world where you have this stigma on you. When you’re a child, you don’t know what the hell is going on. Then you grow up with all these issues and with all these people who put these issues on you; and block you mentally from obtaining who you really could be. It’s an issue as Black people that we really don’t like to deal with; it’s an issue that a lot of gay people don’t want to break down.

Some people believe that they were born that way. But I’m not the person who feels like they have to justify myself or my beliefs to have people applaud me or buy my records. I’m very well aware of people’s opinions about me. Some people are right; some people are wrong. But that does not define who I am. That is not all of who I am. It’s really redundant and tired at this point.

BET J: Do you think that the R&B is as homophobic as the press makes it out to be? Or is it the press and record companies that are actually the more homophobic?

Patterson: When you come out as openly gay in the music world, you become, “Oh that’s they gay artist.” What is that about? It’s a cheap shot. Personally, I feel that it’s degrading and disrespectful, because it lessens the power of who an individual is. It’s unfortunate that we need labels – you got to be Jewish or you got to be whatever the label is.

BET J: So you don’t think identifying oneself as openly gay gives a sense of empowerment?

Patterson: It does. I remember talking to Meshell Ndegeocello and she told me that her record label took it upon itself to market her as the “bi-sexual R&B artist.” It wasn’t about her denying it or hiding it; her sexuality was what it was. Someone’s sexuality doesn’t have to be a selling point.

I realize that people need a leader who stands for something they believe in. I get that. I just don’t choose to be that leader. If I’m going to lead anything, I’m going to lead in way that’s going to bring us to a higher place of existence and really acknowledge how powerful we really are, and how limiting those labels can be. I’m just tired of people having issues with my sexuality.

My struggle has been to come to a point of clarification in which I can sit and articulate it and fully be conscious of how I feel about it as opposed to someone trying to catch me off guard and asking me.

BET J: Do you feel that a lot of people want you to be the gay poster child for R&B.

Some do. And to be honest, I’m the poster child already for a whole lot of people and for a whole lot of sh*t. I want to be the poster child for freedom and for someone who is cool with themselves and who doesn’t need someone else to agree or applaud. I think it shows in my music.

Particularly in the Black community, hang-ups on sexuality is retarded to me, like when you have one-on-one conversations with some people and everything is cool, but when you add four more people in the mix, sh*t changes. People start retreating, fronting, and changing their swagger, lowering their voices. I ain’t got time for that.

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Love Is Like A Cigarette! A Joint About Leslie "Hutch" Hutchinson!

Back in the 1920's and 30's, cigarettes were a dime a dozen. They were lit afire, enjoyed, and gone through one after another. Sometimes they were used as embellishment; a glamourous adornment just for show. After the pleasure was over, they were estinguished and forgotten just like any other fag. Isn't that what the British called them? Ask Leslie "Hutch" Hutchinson. It seems that he burned and enjoyed the pleasure of many a fag in his day. And ever so cavalier, when he was done with them, it is said that he promptly smashed them underfoot.

Leslie Hutchinson, commonly known as "Hutch" in his heyday of the 20's and 30's, immigrated to the UK by way of Harlem by way of Grenada to become one of Britain's most popular and highest paid cabaret entertainers. While in Harlem, Hutch immersed himself in the renaissance and the jazz of the age as a peer alongside Duke Ellington and Fats Waller.

Legend has it that he was run out of America on a rail and into expatriate status by a Ku Klux Klan rally in Florida. Heading off to Paris in 1924, he hung out with Josephine Baker and found a gay lover in composer Cole Porter. Reaching London in 1927, his rise to fame (and notoriety) was extraordinary. Sexy mellow yellow and immaculate in white tie and tails, his smooth velvet crooning and skilled improvisation on the piano seduced many fans in the upper echelons of society both male and female. Appearing at the most exclusive clubs throughout Europe, his savoir faire allowed him to almost transcend the era's racial attitudes and bias. Hutch launched a most successful recording career, kicked it with the Prince of Wales and knocked up society debutantes. He was satirized in literature, fluently bi-lingual and fragrantly bisexual. He had forgotten his black wife, and was now moving almost exclusively among white high-society, living on grand scale. They coveted his exoticism, and he frequently and freely satiated their thirsts. Among those with the fever for the flavor were the legendary British actor Ivor Novello, and Hollywood mulatto temptress Merle Oberon.

If you've never heard of Leslie Hutchinson you are not alone. His musicianship has all but been erased from recent memory. Hutch's skills, however, were not confined to the cabarets. His bedroom talents were as equally efficient and enjoyed as well. Mr. Hutchinson carried an instrument in his pants that he played as as well as he did the ivories. Described as "like a tree trunk" his lack of control over something that provided him with so much pleasure would ultimately end up destroying him socially and professionally. There were dalliances here and there with British royalty (the Queen's aunt, Princess Marina, the Duchess of Kent, and later Princess Margaret, sister of the Queen, may have been notches on Hutch's bedpost). But right in between was a notorious and nearly 30-year affair that demanded Hutch pay a heavy price for; the affections of Lady Edwina Mountbatten, wife of the Queen's cousin, Lord Louis Mountbatten.

Dickie and Edwina Mountbatten were equally bisexual, and their ten-year "open marriage" was the subject of gossip and scandal ever since it had begun. A local paper alleged that Lady Mountbatten was whoring all over town with a well-known "colored" singer and that Buckingham Palace had issued orders for her to leave town and let the steam from the affair die down. It just so happened that at the same time, the Mountbattens were out of town when the headlines broke. King George V ordered them home immediately to address the brewing scandal to clear the Royal Family of the allegation that Edwina had been ordered out of Britan, and the suggestion that she had a black male lover. The papers had it only half-right and Edwina sued; they identified the man as the world-renowned concert singer Paul Robeson. The truth was that it was Hutch Hutchinson. She showered him in luxury and with jewelry. It's claimed that she commissioned Cartier to design a diamond-encrusted sheath to protect those famous family jewels of his. And then, locked literally in the heat of passion, they were rushed to the hospital for vaginismus, a rare sexual phenom which led to them being whisked in flagrante delicto from the Mountbatten residence, and to a private hospital where they were seperated by doctors. Buckingham Palace had had enough! Backlash was imminent and severe! They issued orders that his name was never to be mentioned again in the local press, and he was forbidden to appear on any of the Royal Command Performance bills, and his World War II contributions were never officially recognized. Add to this the decline of the music hall style that he'd become famous for, and his own extravagances and excesses. Leslie Hutchinson performed well into his last days, but his peak years were behind him by the end of the 1940's.

All official biographies of Lord and Lady Mountbatten are Establishment-friendly and omit clear evidence of their own sexual proclivities and antics. But then in 1999, Charlotte Breese wrote the definitive biography on Hutch, and there was a renewal of interest.

Folks started to remember, so well in fact, that by 2008, a sensational documentary called High Society's Favorite Gigolo aired on British television. It was the profile of a beautiful, brilliant but profoundly insecure black man with a callous love 'em and leave 'em mentality. Comprised of vintage footage, wonderful photographs, and re-enactments, there were interviews with the many children he left behind. By 1967, with his bloated, heavily made-up face and dyed hair, Hutchinson was a caricature of the once beautiful black Adonis that conquered the heights of British society and stardom. He died in 1969 of 'overwhelming pneumonia' and virtually penniless. Only 42 mourners showed up for his funeral.

Leslie "Hutch" Hutchinson is no longer forgotten and Black Gay History continues on I'll Keep You Posted! Thanks Richard for turning me on!