Democrat politicians want to posthumously pardon iconic gay civil rights activist Bayard Rustin

Bayard Rustin

Sixty-seven years ago today, the gay Black civil rights activist Bayard Rustin was arrested in California for having consensual sex with two other men.

Now, two Californian politicians are fighting for a posthumous pardon for Rustin, who was jailed for 50 days and forced to register as a sex offender for having consensual gay sex.

California’s state senator, Scott Wiener, and assembly member Shirley Weber are asking California governor Gavin Newsom to pardon Rustin.

Wiener is chair of the senate LGBTQ caucus, while Weber is chair of the senate Black Caucus.

“Governor Newsom pardoning Bayard Rustin will send a profound and powerful message that California is moving away from our ugly past in terms of how we treat LGBTQ people,” Wiener, who co-sponsored 2017’s HIV decriminalisation law, told The Advocate.

After his arrest, and as part of an effort to discredit the civil rights movement, Rustin’s entire arrest file was read into the Congressional record by a South Carolina senator called Storm Thurmond.

This led to several civil rights leaders publicly distancing themselves from Rustin – despite the key role he had played.

Rustin was a close confidante of Martin Luther King Jr, and one of the key organisers of the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom.

At the time, Rustin said: “It is difficult for me to know what Dr King felt about gayness except to say that I’m sure he would have been sympathetic and would not have had the prejudicial view.

“My being gay was not a problem for Dr King but a problem for the movement.”

After being sidelined from the civil rights movement for being gay, Rustin became an unsung hero among queer people of colour.

“I think this is a pretty clear cut case of severe injustice,”  Wiener said.

“Bayard Rustin did not hurt anyone. He was simply criminalised, like countless other of gay men have been criminalised, for having sex. Countless of LGBTQ people have been criminalised in general. The history of the LGBTQ community has been a history of criminalisation. It’s society’s efforts to eliminate us.”

Rustin was arrested on January 21, 1953, after being discovered having sex with two men in a parked car. The arrest came just hours after he’d given a speech in Pasadena as part of a lecture tour on anti-colonial struggles in West Africa.

After 50 days in Los Angeles county jail, Rustin was charged with vagrancy – a common charge against LGBT+ people at that time – and forced to register as a sex offender.

The conviction, like that of many gay and bisexual men at the time, jaunted Rustin for the rest of his life. He died in 1987.