Bayard Rustin, a gay black man, was MLK Jr.’s closest advisor, as well as his proofreader, ghostwriter, philosophy teacher, and nonviolence strategist. He organized and led the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. He co-founded the Congress of Racial Equality and had a successful tenure with the Fellowship Reconciliation (FOR). Among his accomplishments, Rustin wrote much of King’s memoir, Stride Toward Freedom, but refused to be credited in the book because he feared that his sexuality would negatively impact King’s activism.
Why Don’t We Know Bayard Rustin’s Legacy?
Today, people are beginning to learn about Rustin’s contributions to the civil rights movement, which is good and long overdue. But to truly honor his legacy of justice is to not only recognize his advocacy and teachings, but to acknowledge and address interlocking systems of oppression. While these systems permeate our culture and society, it is important to recognize how these injustices show up in the homelessness field, too.
Racism, homophobia, and transphobia compound both the Black, Indigenous, and People of Color (BIPOC) and LGBTQ+ communities. We certainly have seen this dynamic in homelessness. For example, youth that identify as both BIPOC and LGBTQIA+ experience some of the highest rates of homelessness. When we are doing equity work in our systems and programs, are we analyzing intersectionality and the impact of oppressive systems on various populations of people experiencing homelessness? Are we rethinking service provision and practices to remove barriers, and to meet those needs? If not, we need to take steps to get there.
The Work Continues
In its work, the Alliance has a strong focus on racial equity in acknowledging the disproportionalities and unique perspectives of BIPOC individuals experiencing homelessness. However, this work is not always completed with an intersectional lens. People hold multiple identities, including those in historically and systemically marginalized groups. And those overlapping identities mean that people encounter barriers within the homelessness system in different ways.
Racial equity is only one component of equity and justice work overall. It’s vital to pay attention to the multitude of identities that BIPOC people experiencing homelessness may hold, especially LGBTQ+ identities. The Alliance is growing in this area, but recognizes the need to be more intentional in both its internal and external work. Internally, Alliance staff and leadership are in the process of implementing practices that will help staff be more aware of LGBTQ+ issues both in the workplace and in the broader homelessness field.
Acknowledging Black History Month by Recognizing All People in the Community
Black history is highlighted throughout the month of February, though often Black queer history is left out. But why? Black history is nuanced, it’s layered, and it’s queer – and this history is not often discussed in an intersectional manner. When we talk about racial equity, we need to be sure we are addressing not only the issues based on the color of a person’s skin, but are also addressing issues that may intersect with their other identities.
BIPOC experiencing homelessness can also be queer, and those two identities have separate and overlapping issues that need to be addressed in homeless service systems. The field must develop a broader lens that focuses on the unique challenges that queer BIPOC face while experiencing homelessness and work to address them. The Alliance is not exempt from this work, but is actively working to ensure that people who hold multiple identities can move from homelessness to housing in the most equitable manner possible.
Housing is a human right. It’s also about justice, and that should include everyone. The spirit of Bayard Rustin tells us that.