Out in Politics
The documentary Brother Outsider: The Life of Bayard Rustin (produced/directed by Nancy Kates and Bennett Singer) chronicles Rustin's complex life as an African-American gay man who shaped the civil-rights movement's strategy of non-violence and was a longtime advisor to Martin Luther King, Jr.
Kenneth Reeves offers PBS POV his perspective on the Bayard Rustin story and what it means to be out in politics today.
POV: Did you have any particular role models when you were thinking about a career in the public sector?
Kenneth Reeves: I'm originally from Detroit, Michigan, and I've been here in Cambridge for over 30 years. Growing up as a kid, and knowing I was gay, we had a black State Representative who my mother, who was a very innocent lady, knew was gay, and I kind of knew from the fact of him that I could be gay and in politics, that it didn't foreclose that possibility... I also had a wonderful, wonderful gay Sunday School teacher for much of my high school time. He also led our church youth group, and I think really, if I had a role model, it's him... Because he made it very clear that you have a special gift, and as long as you lead your life with dignity, and are a human being of your word, and you have good character, the world cannot deny you. I had the best "coming out" I ever heard of, and to have that involve one's Sunday School teacher in a positive way — given all this scandal in the Catholic church, I in the Episcopal church had just a very different experience.
You've opened the box of role models; there are probably two other people who, for me, define what is a good life and who I have tried to emulate. One is certainly James Baldwin, who was black and gay. This is a much longer conversation... but being black and gay is sometimes different, and I think Baldwin was able to articulate it in a way that no one else had, that it's a peculiar walk even within the realities of being gay or lesbian. James Baldwin was one of the truly brilliant Americans, and he was one of the first people in this country's intellectual history who had a global view in the 50s, and an inclusive view in the 50s. And you know, he articulated these things like, "How can there be a 'white'?" There is so much difference between the Russian, the Canadian, the Englishman and the Pole. How do you make that "white"? Baldwin was brilliant, brilliantly gay, gifted as a writer, and often in my times of trial I pick up any of his books and there is something there that is lucid. The other person is not someone who is gay — W.E.B. DuBois, who I think is our preeminent man in American intellectual history. He is a role model mostly because he was a black person who said at the beginning of this century that if you say we have no history and no accomplishments, I will go and write down what they were and tell you the story back. He was the founder of the NAACP, a magnificent, magnificent man in many ways, and I think he also grappled with this status issue and tried to find his way in America and ended up in Ghana...
POV: And what did Bayard Rustin's story mean to you?
Reeves: Bayard Rustin was unusual in many ways. He was a Quaker, which was quite unusual for an African American, and a pacifist, again, unusual enough, and he was a marvelous first example of how you could be black, gay, involved with a church-based movement and succeed, because the talent that you have could not be denied. That's very important — Martin Luther King was aware of his talent and he knew he needed his particular skill set to make this "civil rights" move. And he knew that he could not do without him, and when the leading-the-way-backwards preachers attempted to oust Bayard, Martin found a way for that not to be. Even today, the black church is a magnificent institution, but it has to wrestle with the question of gays and lesbians within it. I think it is still wrestling in many instances. The example of what happened with Bayard Rustin within the context of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference is an important milestone in this journey, for how the church will get to love all of the kinds of people that God has made.
It's funny to me that Bayard Rustin has an uncertain place in history, in a way. He is not talked about enough, in either black or white history. So that's why I think your program is important at a time that's not Black History Month. There are not a lot of black gay leaders within even the "gay pantheon." I'm, again, glad that we all know James Baldwin, and we all know Audre Lorde, but we should all know Bayard Rustin. Here in Boston we have an annual Bayard Rustin Breakfast. Our AIDS Action Committee has done this for, oh, I don't know, approaching more than 15 years. It's an annual occasion where we all get together and celebrate the black gay and lesbian, bisexual and transgendered communities and it's an occasion to explain who he was, and what he did, and on a couple of occasions the speaker has been someone who actually knew Bayard Rustin, and that has made the event even more special.
POV: What's your view of the major advances and setbacks in the past twenty years?
Reeves: The major advances are obviously that the gay civil rights movement rose up. It has become very strong, without completely being successful yet, but I am amazed at the way this movement has been able to mainstream itself and become a part of the national consciousness. Now, that's an advance, but let me say a bit about some of the missteps along the way... I do feel that white gays and lesbians who make more than $50,000 a year seem to be doing real good. The people who can put on a tuxedo and go to the HRC (Human Rights Committee) dinner, I'm not so worried about them. White working class gays and lesbians haven't been heard from at all. I'm thinking of people from our traditional Dorchester and North End. The basic working-class ethnic Italian or Irish experience within the gay and lesbian experience isn't discussed. That has been a mistake — reality for everyone isn't a $250 ticket and a tuxedo. I lived long enough where I've been to my early HRC dinners and I would be the only black person and there would be a half a table of women. So things have been coming along slowly. Now you have men and women and I'm not sure you have a full table of black people, but you have some. I have recently come back from a wedding of my good friend Professor E. Nathaniel Gates in Montreal, where they do have a form of gay civil union which is a part of the law in Canada. And rights, in this case, citizenship rights, are in fact affected by it. In the North American context, and I realize that here and there in Europe you can do something in Sweden or Denmark or Holland, it is an advance to sincerely see that marriage or something substantially similar will come. A setback, in my own city, Cambridge, Massachusetts, is that we had a domestic-partnership ordinance which covered also the employees of the city, and based on a ten tax-payer suit that was prompted largely by people not from this city, it was questioned and now those benefits have gone away. I find that extraordinary because those benefits covered so many not only spouses but children! Bad people would be against health benefits. At least I can say that. So that is a setback that will be addressed.
When I see the future, I see this marriage possibility. I came to it very reluctantly. I have had a wonderful partner for now 33 years, my college roommate, and we've never been sure if marriage is what we need. Now that I've become smarter I realize that the fact that we can't get married means that somebody has a comment on the quality of our love, which is, for me, unbearable. I reject that comment and I would like to be equally treated. The thing that we've got to address is this canceling of pension rights amongst GLBT couples. It is absolutely ridiculous that I or anyone else would labor next to somebody in a corporate or public setting and when someone else passes away there's a pension that can go to his survivors but there is not the same in my instance. This isn't much discussed because there's talk that "well, insurance would have to be re-rated," and my response is "so what?" As gays and lesbians increasingly have families that are with children, I think that is a societal malfunction to be addressed. I really see a future where people will understand that love makes a family, and families have many different definitions, and the most recent census has shown some real evolution in family patterns. I'm not saying it's good in all ways, but the African American family is becoming rarer with each decade. The Ozzie and Harriet white family is too. We seem to be evolving in part away from that structure, I don't know to what, and I'm traditional enough to wonder if it's possible. But if you play sociologists at all you'll see that family structures have changed drastically, partly due to work but partly due to mobility and what else? I don't know but I can see the results. I would hope that there is a stronger emergence of the Black lesbian and gay voice along with the Latino and Asian voices. This is not a monolithic community. All these sets of experiences are important, and in the most global sense if we include everyone in the conversations we'll probably have the best conversation.