On Wednesday, California Gov. Gavin Newsom (D) issued a posthumous pardon for Rustin.
Inspired by a call from lawmakers to pardon the civil rights leader, Newsom also announced a clemency initiative that would help clear the records of other people who faced discriminatory charges for consensual activity with people of the same sex.
“In California and across the country, many laws have been used as legal tools of oppression, and to stigmatize and punish LGBTQ people and communities and warn others what harm could await them for living authentically,” Newsom said in a statement. “I thank those who advocated for Bayard Rustin’s pardon, and I want to encourage others in similar situations to seek a pardon to right this egregious wrong.”
In states across the country, charges such as vagrancy, loitering and sodomy were used to target and prosecute LGBTQ people, and force them to register as sex offenders. Gay men in particular faced humiliating police entrapment in public places such as bars, parks and sidewalks.
In 1975, California repealed the law that criminalized consensual sex between same-sex adults. In 1997, the state created a process for people convicted of these crimes to request removal from the state’s sex offender registry. But until now, a process didn’t exist for pardoning such convictions, according to the governor’s office.
The new clemency initiative will focus on identifying eligible candidates for pardons and will accept applications on behalf of people who meet the criteria for consideration, the governor’s office said.
Last month, on the anniversary of Rustin’s arrest, state lawmakers wrote a letter to the governor asking him to pardon the civil rights leader, to “make amends for the harm that California’s past actions have had on so many people.”
Sen. Scott Wiener, chair of California’s legislative LGBTQ caucus, said he came up with the idea over a breakfast with longtime LGBTQ activist Nicole Ramirez, who has spent years seeking a postage stamp dedicated to Rustin. Following the news of the governor’s pardon, Wiener said he was thrilled Newsom was also creating a pathway for other people like Rustin to clear their records of “wrongful convictions on homophobic charges.”
“Generations of LGBT people — including countless gay men — were branded criminals and sex offenders simply because they had consensual sex,” Wiener said in a statement. “This was often life-ruining, and many languished on the sex offender registry for decades. The Governor’s actions today are a huge step forward in our community’s ongoing quest for full acceptance and justice.”
On the night of Rustin’s arrest in January 1953, he had just given a speech in Pasadena when police officers spotted him in a parked car, having sex with one of the other two men in the car. Rustin was convicted of a misdemeanor vagrancy offense, sentenced to 60 days in jail and forced to register as a sex offender. His career was nearly derailed. He was forced to cancel all upcoming speaking engagements and resign from his position with a pacifist organization, the Fellowship of Reconciliation.
While Rustin ultimately continued to play key roles in the civil rights movement, other leaders “tried to keep him in the shadows,” said Michael Long, who wrote a young-adult book about Rustin and edited a collection of letters by the civil rights leader. “They were fearful of being tainted by Bayard’s gay sexuality.”
In 1960, after threats from powerful Rep. Adam Clayton Powell Jr. (D-N.Y.), King temporarily pushed Rustin out of his inner circle, and Rustin resigned from the Southern Christian Leadership Conference.
Even after he was appointed as a key organizer of the March on Washington, the 1953 arrest was used against him. As the march approached, Sen. Strom Thurmond (R-S.C.) attacked “Mr. March-on-Washington himself” on the Senate floor, dredging up Rustin’s conviction and referring to it as “sex perversion.”
But Thurmond’s attempts to discredit Rustin did not stop him from leading the logistics of the massive march. And a week later, the cover of Life magazine featured a photo of Rustin, standing in front of the Lincoln Memorial alongside his mentor and fellow march organizer, A. Philip Randolph.
While Rustin was deeply aware of the impact of his sexuality on his work, he never tried to hide it, Walter Naegle, Rustin’s partner for the last decade of his life, said in an interview last month with The Washington Post.
In recent years he has begun to receive recognition for his work across two civil rights movements. In 2013, Obama posthumously honored Rustin with the Presidential Medal of Freedom, noting his role as an openly gay African American who “stood at the intersection of several of the fights for equal rights.”
A pardon, Naegle said, would help vindicate not only Rustin but many others who suffered as a result of the discriminatory laws of the era.
“He survived, he thrived, he did fine,” Naegle said, “but there were a lot of people that didn’t.”
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