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Resist and love: Bayard Rustin and the gay marriage debate

Pamphlet Cover

On March 26, I watched Facebook turn red as friend after friend switched their profile picture to a red and pink equal sign, a graphic first posted by the Human Rights Campaign (HRC) in support of gay marriage during the Supreme Court’s ruling over the fate of California’s Proposition 8.

What followed on my newsfeed was not a string of peaceful “likes” and affirmative comments, but rather intense debate among liberals and progressives about the relevance of the HRC symbol and the legitimacy of the gay marriage campaign more broadly.

Some backstory:  Earlier that day, the HRC was accused of muting the voices of transgendered and undocumented-immigrant activists during the protest rallies in Washington D.C. out of fear that creating space for these issues would dilute the strength of the marriage equality platform.  Although the HRC later apologized for their actions, it was too late in the eyes of many; the HRC’s focus on the battle of marriage equality rather than the struggle for equal rights for all people, suggested to many that the organization has skewed priorities. 

Pamphlet advertising one of Rustin's speaking
engagements as part of his work with AFSC.

Many people also debated the legitimacy of the entire campaign for marriage equality, not only questioning its large corporate backers and majority white leaders, but also challenging the basic assumption that people should be afforded more rights if and when they are married by law. As the group Against Equality states, “Gay marriage apes hetero privilege and allows everyone to forget that marriage ought not to be the guarantor of rights like health care.”

Many, I’m sure, rolled their eyes at this critique, casting the concern aside as the hopeless dissatisfaction of idealistic activists. But as a Quaker, as someone committed to truth and integrity, I felt moved by these critiques. Because it is not enough to simply support or resist legislation; we must see clearly the structures that are devaluing human life.  And then resist those structures.

Bayard Rustin, an African-American Quaker who lived in the early 20th century, spent his life resisting structures of oppression; his resistance included a yearlong prison stay for refusing to register for the draft in 1943.  AFSC’s archives houses Rustin's original letter to his New York draft board, a beautiful and powerful statement that outlines the reasons for his resistance, many of which are rooted firmly in the draft’s contradictions with the teachings of Jesus. The conscription, Rustin wrote, “springs from a moral impossibility—that ends justify means, that from unfriendly acts a new and friendly world can emerge.”

Poster advertising Rustin's tour with AFSC
sharing his experiences in Africa.

Rustin did not simply refuse to fight; he refused to take part in the process of war: “I became convinced that conscription as well as war equally is inconsistent with the teachings of Jesus.” Therefore, he said, “I must resist conscription also.”

Bayard Rustin was also gay. He was fairly open with his sexual identity, and most Quakers accepted him into their communities. Rustin’s sexual orientation did not stop AFSC from inviting him to be part of developing “Speak Truth to Power,” a statement against war and for the de-militarization of the state. After he was arrested in the Bay Area for “inappropriate behavior” with other men, however, AFSC and members of the drafting committee debated among themselves whether it would be a good idea to identify him as one of its authors. (It was the 1950s; homosexuality was an issue that derailed and delegitimized many arguments.) After intense deliberation with both detractors and supporters within AFSC, Rustin assented to remove his name so that the publication of the paper could move forward.

The irony of the situation—that AFSC could not actually “speak truth to power” on a document with that very name—does not escape me. In many ways, AFSC did what many today accuse the HRC of doing around gay marriage—compromising the basic human rights of all people in the name of a “higher” or “larger” cause. What if Rustin’s name had remained as one of the paper’s authors? Would we be closer or further from a world at peace?

Rustin spoke around the country about his
experiences in nonviolent peacemaking abroad.

Perhaps all of us make compromises, choosing the lesser of two evils when it comes to our professions, our purchases, and our politics. There doesn’t seem to be much of an option in our increasingly globalized society. And we’re rarely clear what to resist in the first place.

But we can be clear that there must be room for everyone’s story, not just the sterilized and polished ones. We can be certain that love, not fear, must motivate all of our actions. When we draw distinctions between our own progress and the progress of others in order to protect our personal agendas, we are participating in a culture of opposition and difference. As Rustin states in his letter, “that which separates man from his brother is evil and must be resisted.”  

So what would Bayard Rustin have to say about the gay marriage debate?  An impossible question to answer, of course.  But surely he would agree that peace and justice can only be attained by boldly resisting fear and joining hands.