"Brother Outsiders": Bayard Rustin and Beyond

Throughout Black History Month, schools and community centers around the country will be screening the documentary film, Brother Outsider. The film chronicles the life of Bayard Rustin, an openly gay African American man who worked for more than 50 years as an advocate and strategist for various human rights initiatives. He most famously advised Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and was the chief organizer of the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom where King made his infamous “I Have a Dream” speech. Yet, because he was gay, Rustin’s work and accomplishments were often carried out behind the scenes, and his legacy remains less well known than that of many of his contemporaries. Today, on the GLAAD blog, we are taking the time to highlight the life of Bayard Rustin, as well as the lives of other ‘brother outsiders’ from our history, who dealt with both racism and homophobia as they paved the way for others.

Bayard Rustin was born in 1912 and grew up in West Chester, Pennsylvania. He became involved with activist work after moving to New York in his early twenties. Rustin joined countless organizations, both domestic and international, throughout his life, and was committed to the pacifist teachings of his Quaker upbringing. He was arrested and incarcerated many times in his life for protesting war, racism in the South, and colonial rule in Africa, among other reasons. While in India, Rustin embraced Gandhi’s policy of non-violence, a practice he persuaded Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and participants in the Montgomery Bus Boycott to adopt.

Billy Strayhorn was a contemporary of Bayard Rustin. He was also an openly gay jazz musician and composer. Though known more for his extraordinary musical career working mostly with Duke Ellington, Strayhorn was also a committed advocate of civil rights and a friend to Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Born in 1915 in Dayton, Ohio, Strayhorn developed his passion for music early on at his grandmother’s piano. At age 23, Strayhorn met Ellington during an impromptu audition and shortly after began composing songs for the Ellington Orchestra. He collaborated with Ellington on a number of famous works, including the pioneering musical, Jump for Joy, which featured an all-African American cast and dealt with issues of racism. In 1963, Strayhorn arranged and conducted the Ellington Orchestra’s performance of “King Fought the Battle of 'Bam’,” which honored Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., as part of the revue, My People. The documentary film, Billy Strayhorn: Lush Life, provides further information about this incredibly talented, yet relatively unknown outside jazz circles, musical impresario.

Another pioneer is writer and visual artist, Richard Bruce Nugent. Nugent was born in Washington D.C. in 1906, but moved with his mother to New York following the death of his father in 1920. While working at various odd jobs, he cultivated his passion for art and soon declared his intention to focus on art fulltime to his mother, who promptly sent him back to Washington D.C. to live with his grandparents. Through befriending poet Georgia Douglas Johnson, Nugent was introduced to Langston Hughes and Alain Locke, both of whom published Nugent’s work, inducting him into the cannon of the Harlem Renaissance. In 1925, Nugent moved back to New York, where he met other Harlem Renaissance visionaries and contributed to the groundbreaking publication, FIRE!! – the only issue of an African American art magazine that featured a short story by Nugent, which many scholars consider the first literary work with openly gay themes written by an African American. Nugent expanded his repertoire, working on murals, using Japanese dyes, incorporating oils and pastels, and later becoming famous for his erotic art-deco drawings. Throughout his life, even in his marriage, Nugent remained open about his sexual orientation. His life is portrayed in part in the film Brother to Brother.

GLAAD encourages the inclusion of black LGBT people in media coverage of Black History Month. For a list of famous and notable LGBT African American people, visit our Black History Month resource kit. GLAAD will continue to highlight the achievements and viewpoints of the black LGBT community.