ActivismPoliticsRaceSex & Gender

bhm: bayard rustin’s desire and the effects of shame

February 4, 2019
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Nothing is more dangerous than desire — except shame. Black shame, specifically, is lethal. From the murders of Black trans women at the hands of men who desire them, to the isolation many Black gay men experience from Black society, due to their gender performance and sexuality. This makes Black gay men more vulnerable to predation and violence, and to shame.

Sometimes those deaths are not literal, but social. Bayard Rustin was finding pleasure and desire with another man in 1953 in Pasadena, California, and was arrested. In that moment, Rustin’s desire was turned criminal, and his truth became many folks’ shame, including Black people’s. So he was asked to die, but with his heart continuing to beat. Rustin, an early leader in the Civil Rights Movement and labor-rights organizer, was disappeared for three years, only to be asked to assist with 1963’s March on Washington, though it was A. Philip Randolph who was asked to be the director of the March. Rustin was appointed as Randolph’s deputy for no other reason but to keep Rustin further from the movement he had helped design. When I think of Rustin’s circumstances, his social death feels exhausting.

To be erased from what your mind and hands have crafted is difficult, I’m sure, but for it to be framed as a Jesus-like sacrifice for Black people must’ve been even harder to reconcile. The idea is that if you keep your work and genius to yourself, then you are prioritizing yourself and ego — and maybe even your personal boundaries around what’s righteous and wrong — over the revolutionary pursuits of Black people’s equity. So, Rustin agreed, and, to me, died in many ways.

Rustin’s times are unimaginable for me. Yet his story does make me consider a more stubborn Rustin, and what our world would look like if, in that moment, he prioritized the self. How it could have influenced the Black community’s engagement and shame around Black queerness, had Rustin refused the social death on offer and screamed about his work — not just out of ego, but from a relentless commitment that nobody who fails Black cishet patriarchy will be erased. And the work would be credited to the hands and minds that imagined it.

I understand the sacrifice, but I am also curious about what today’s Black world would look like if Rustin saw his subjective experiences as not just his own, but part of a bigger, hidden community that would remain shamed, disappeared and made vulnerable in the future because someone didn’t risk actual death to challenge homophobic narratives. This responsibility and expectation must not rest on Bayard Rustin’s legacy, but it does offer us a way to engage someone that shifted history, and how we might be able to take it that much further.

As I think about the things that I write, create, and advocate for, I think of Bayard Rustin, and of our need to engage the things about ourselves we might let die. They do not simply serve us if we are unshakable about it, but also influence generations of people with similar identities and circumstances. Maybe, they’d live a life where no part of them needs to die — before the entirety of them shuffles off this mortal coil.