As the week winds down, I don't want to miss taking note of this important piece of news: the White House announced two days ago that it's posthumously awarding African-American gay activist Bayard Rustin the Presidential Medal of Freedom. I've written frequently here about Rustin, who has long inspired me. Readers interested in him and anything I may have said about him can click his name in the labels below. Rustin is the source of my logo at Bilgrimage: "We need, in every community, a group of angelic troublemakers."
Rustin was raised in a Quaker family, and the non-violent philosophy he learned as a boy was reinforced by his close study of Gandhi's movement during a period of time Rustin spent in India working with that movement. It was through Rustin that Martin Luther King learned of Gandhi's philosophy of non-violent resistance to injustice, and of the concept of satyagraha.
As a gay African-American civil rights activist, Bayard Rustin spent time on two crosses, as one of his most significant essays tells us. The title of a book of his collected writings takes its name from that essay. Rustin insisted that "prejudice is of a single bit," and in a 1987 interview with the Village Voice, he stated prophetically,
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 . . . . There are great numbers of people who will accept all kinds of people: blacks, Hispanics, and Jews, but who won’t accept fags. That is what makes the homosexual central to the whole political apparatus as to how far we can go in human rights.
As my ongoing struggle to get liberal Catholic elites in the U.S., including those who steer the Commonweal and National Catholic Reporter ships, to pay even a scintilla of respectful attention to the voices of their LGBT brothers and sisters as they make all sorts of astonishing declarations about who we are and what we do illustrates, Rustin is still pertinent to conversations about human rights in the U.S. today. And I could not be more delighted at the choice to award him the Presidential Medal of Freedom