Black History Month, Bayard Rustin and Intersectionality
February 21, 2014 by Guest contributor
The following post, part of HRC’s Black History Month series, comes from civil rights advocate and policy analyst Preston Mitchum:
“If I didn’t define myself for myself, I would be crunched into other people’s fantasies for me and eaten alive.” – Audre Lorde
My first introduction to this quote was in 1999 while watching one of my favorite movies, The Best Man. This 13-year-old Black boy who should have been focusing on his latest Algebra assignment was instead focusing on a quote that peaked his interest because of a deep, dark secret: he was gay, he was exhausted with being eaten alive by other people’s fantasies, and this had to change.
I wish I could say that I always understood what it meant to stand at the intersection of being Black and queer, but alas that isn’t my truth. Like many other black LGBT youth, Audre Lorde, James Baldwin, and Marsha P. Johnson were never featured in my history books. Not only that, but being raised in a heteronormative society, it was difficult to pursue what I never knew existed. I never knew it was possible to unapologetically stand at the intersection of being Black and queer; and even if this invisible intersection presented itself, from my view, I never imagined someone could stand there proudly. That is until I was introduced to the work of my personal Black gay hero, Bayard Rustin.
Previously, when I walked into spaces with my Black peers, I would no longer be gay, and when I walked into LGBT spaces, I would no longer be Black. My existence was an entire silo fraught with the fear of understanding myself wholly. It was a struggle until the fall of 2006 when a professor introduced me to Brother Outsider: The Life of Bayard Rustin. Watching this documentary gave me the aha! moment I needed: that it was possible to identity with myself fully without feeling the need to take off layers when entering into various spaces, especially when the media depicted those spaces as in conflict. Luckily I learned the power of intersectional frameworks, even if impliedly.
Intersectionality is more than a buzzword, it is a real word that has actual meaning and failing to understand it will undoubtedly lead to consequences that negatively affect marginalized communities. If the discussion of what intersectionality means occurred every day, let alone during Black History Month, that would still never be enough. Intersectionality is the study of multiple systems of oppression and discrimination be it due to race, gender, religion, sexual orientation, and gender identity or expression. Like privilege, oppression does not exist in silos and examining the totality of our oppression, Rustin taught me implicitly, is one of the many ways to advance progress. Rustin also taught me that the experience of being Black and being gay could not be understood independently, but must include the interactions of our multiple identities that frequently occur together.
Rustin’s identity alone isn’t what impressed me most about him though. Instead, it was his thought leadership, movement-building strategies, and understanding of equality (and equity) that resonated with me. In honor of Bayard Rustin, thank you for your many lessons and showing me and other Black LGBT people the importance of intersectionality and walking in your truth.
Indeed, “we need in every community of group of angelic troublemakers.” Thank you for being that for me.
Preston Mitchum is a civil rights advocate and policy analyst in Washington, DC. He has written for The Atlantic, Ebony, Huffington Post, and Think Progress. Preston is obsessed with incorporating intersectional frameworks into laws and policies. Follow him on Twitter @PrestonMitchum.
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