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The Gay Man Who Organized For MLK Took His Fight For Human Rights Around The World

Bayard Rustin's long-time partner spoke to BuzzFeed News about a new fund that he hopes boosts the work of LGBT activists he sees as Rustin's successors.

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But Rustin, whose role in the civil rights movement was long downplayed because he was gay, was also an international activist whose work spanned five decades and five continents.

Courtesy of Walter Naegel.

One of his earliest international efforts was supporting India's independence movement in the 1940s. As a staffer with the interfaith peace organization Fellowship of Reconciliation, he first visited several months after the assassination of independence leader and philosopher of non-violence Mohandas Gandhi.

In this picture from 1948 Rustin speaks with Jawaharlal Nehru, India's first prime minister after it won independence from Great Britain in 1947.

Last month, a new project was launched to honor Rustin's international legacy as well as his work in the 1980s speaking out for LGBT rights. Called the Rustin Fund for Global Equality, it will provide direct support for LGBT rights abroad.

Started by veteran HIV, LGBT, and human rights activists, the fund's first fundraising goal is to raise $10,000 by mid-September for the Jamaican LGBT rights organization J-FLAG, organizer Kent Klindera told BuzzFeed News. Jamaica, which just celebrated its first pride festival this year, has high rates of anti-LGBT violence in the Americas and still has a colonial-era law criminalizing homosexuality on its books.


The fund "represents the idea that you can start out small," said Rustin's partner, Walter Naegel, in an interview with BuzzFeed News. "Just because you're small and you don't know where it's going to lead doesn't mean you shouldn't make the attempt."

Courtesy of Walter Naegel

Naegel — pictured in the center of this photograph from 1986 with Rustin and South African anti-apartheid activists — told BuzzFeed News that many LGBT activists in hostile countries are in a situation not unlike the one Rustin himself faced when he first started organizing protests against segregation in the U.S. South in the 1940s.

"Sometimes you can really be a lone voice out there in the wilderness speaking. That's really where Bayard often was in the 1940s... You see that these movements can build on the shoulders of earlier activists," Naegel said. Rustin believed "change can especially happen from the ground up."

In honor of the Rustin Fund for Global Equality, Naegel shared these images of Rustin's overseas work with BuzzFeed News.

Courtesy of Walter Naegel.

This photograph taken in India in 1948 shows Rustin with British pacifist and friend of Gandhi Muriel Lester.

Here Rustin meets with Kwame Nkrumah in 1952. Nkrumah was then leading Ghana's fight for independence from Great Britain, and would become the country's first president in 1957.

Courtesy of Walter Naegel.

Rustin met with several anti-colonial leaders during this 1952 visit to Africa on behalf of the Fellowship for Reconciliation.


In the 1970s, Rustin became vice-chairman of the International Rescue Committee, an organization that supports refugees. These photos from 1979 shows him visiting with people from Vietnam and Cambodia in a Thai refugee camp.

The last overseas trip Rustin made before he died in 1987 was to Haiti, where thousands were attempting to flee to the United States during a political crisis in the Caribbean nation.

Courtesy of Walter Naegel

This photo shows Rustin with Haitian journalist and democracy activist Jean Léopold Dominique, who was assassinated in 2000.

The Haitian refugees who made it to the United States were met with panic over the still poorly understood HIV virus; Hatians, like gay men, were one of the early groups considered carriers of the disease.

Naegel said that he never heard Rustin connect his work on Haiti with the gay rights movement that became more public in the face of HIV, but he was working on Haitian issues around the same time that he first began speaking out on LGBT rights and tried to build support among African American leaders.

In an interview shortly before he died, Rustin said, "Twenty-five, thirty years ago, the barometer of human rights in the United States were black people. That is no longer true. The barometer for judging the character of people in regard to human rights is now those who consider themselves gay, homosexual, lesbian. We are all one. And if we don't know it, we will learn it the hard way."

For more about the Rustin Fund for Global Equality, visit their website.

A documentary about Rustin's life, Brother Outsider can also be streamed for free on PBS's website.

J. Lester Feder is a world correspondent for BuzzFeed News and is based in Washington, DC. His secure PGP fingerprint is 2353 DB68 8AA6 92BD 67B8 94DF 37D8 0A6F D70B 7211

Contact J. Lester Feder at

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