Millions of Americans marked the 50th anniversary of the 1963 March on Washington on Wednesday, an historic event where Civil Rights leaders demanded equality before the law and Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. delivered his “I Have a Dream” speech. Behind the March’s success was Bayard Rustin, a gay man who brilliantly lead organizing efforts, and who, according to Jamie Manson, in The National Catholic Reporter, offers insights for the Catholic Church today.
The March was an unprecedented protest with over 250,000 people participating. It influenced policymakers to pass civil rights legislation just months afterwards. Bayard Rustin’s pivotal role was nearly forgotten, partly because he was an openly gay man, but is being raised up now by LGBT advocacy groups and others during current commemorations.
Manson explains that it was Rustin who introduced Rev. King to nonviolent resistance. Rustin had begun advocating for civil rights as early as the 1940s, developed the first Freedom Ride, and first thought up the March on Washington. Yet, as influential and respected as Rustin was within the Civil Rights movement’s leadership, being gay meant discrimination of a different kind:
“Fearing that the demonstrations [outside the 1960 Democratic National Convention planned by Rev. King and Rustin] would undermine his own power, Adam Clayton Powell Jr., an African-American congressman from Harlem, N.Y., insisted they cancel the protest. If they refused, Powell threatened to claim Rustin and King were having an affair.
“Of course, there was no affair, but King surrendered to Powell’s demands, and Rustin was forced to resign and remove himself from the movement he helped shape…
“A month before the  march, news of Rustin’s sexuality resurfaced. FBI director J. Edgar Hoover reported Rustin’s morals charge to segregationist Sen. Strom Thurmond. Taking to the Senate floor, Thurmond declared Rustin a “Communist, draft-dodger, and homosexual…”
Fortunately, Strom Thurmond’s antics were repelled by civil rights leaders who supported Rustin in that moment and, Manson points out, it is unlikely that a person’s sexual orientation would cause them censure among contemporary activists. However, Manson wonders about the situation in the Catholic Church and American religious institutions:
“Our churches are home to many LGBT people who make outstanding contributions to the life of the church as lay ministers, teachers, hospital workers, women religious and priests. Many are forced to be silent, however, because some in the church believe their sexual identities discredit or taint their work.
“Anyone who believes that prejudice in our church is passing away is either unaware of or in denial about the hundreds of exceptional LGBT Catholics who, every year, are fired from jobs, uninvited from speaking in churches, or denied participation in church ministry because of their honesty about their sexual orientations or gender identities.
“Rustin’s life reminds us that, not too long ago, most of our culture believed a person’s sexual identity could somehow taint or discredit the knowledge, talent and gifts he or she brings to a community. His story invites us to recognize and challenge the ways in which this toxic and often subconscious belief is still playing out in our churches, communities and families.”
Frequent readers of Bondings 2.0 know experiences of discrimination and exclusion for LGBT Catholics and their allies are all too common in parishes, schools, and social service agencies. Employees with years of job experience are fired for supporting equal rights, couples committed to each other for decades are denied Communion, and priests face expulsion for attempting to offer pastorally-sensitive approaches.
The harm done against these devoted church members is terrible, but just as troubling is the loss of their gifts within our communities and it leaves one thinking: What if the Church is expelling a contemporary Bayard Rustin because she or he is gay, lesbian, bisexual, or transgender? With so much work to be done on behalf of a more just, equitable world, the Church cannot afford this.
–Bob Shine, New Ways Ministry