When I watched President Obama speaking to ABC’s Robin Roberts about his position on same-sex marriage, I didn’t think about it being another moment in history so much as I thought of another historic figure: Bayard Rustin.
Rustin, who died in 1987, is remembered as the principal organizer of the March on Washington in 1963. As one of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s closest lieutenants, he was one of the primary architects of the civil rights movement, even said to have introduced King to Gandhi’s nonviolent-protest philosophies.
But he was also openly gay at a time when the very concept was largely unmentionable. It was all he could do to pursue human rights for African Americans who suffered oppressive discrimination in America, let alone ask for the same rights for people who loved the same gender.
The reaction of the black body politic of the time to men like Rustin, despite what he stood for, wasn’t necessarily tarring and feathering, or even outing him. (There were, however, instances where he had to take less-public positions in various campaigns.) Instead, for some black folks of the civil rights years, guided and influenced by the church, there was a de facto “Don’t ask, don’t tell” policy.
For them, being gay was defined biblically as sin, an abomination. So the best response often was just to shut up about it. Listen to the preacher as he railed against homosexuality (even if he was in the closet himself), and hide behind a clergy-sanctioned veil of secrecy.
But this cultural behavior did not benefit anyone but authors and publishing houses (see J.L. King), because that attitude only served to spawn closeted gay men and women living double lives, the so-called down-low. Eventually it made us afraid to talk about HIV/AIDS, which so far has killed 240,627 blacks in America, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s latest figures.
Enter President Obama. Whether he was forced to say something by Vice President Joe Biden’s pronouncement supporting same-sex marriage, whether it was a political ploy or whether he really did the soul-searching he spoke about to come to the conclusion that gay people should be able to marry, his speaking out placed the issue squarely in the faces of African Americans, and it is making us address this whole thing.