Grand Rapids judge leaves church after being denied communion for being gay

Judge Sara Smolenski

By Alexis Stark

On Nov. 23, 2019, Judge Sara Smolenski received a call from the Rev. Scott Nolan at St. Stephen Catholic Church.

Nolan requested that Smolenski, who presides over Grand Rapids’ 63rd District Court, abide by the teachings of the Roman Catholic church and not take communion because she is married to a woman. Some churches have taken similar action against leaders who support abortion rights.

“It felt like being invited to someone’s house for dinner, but you can’t eat the food,” Smolenski said.

After local media covered her marriage to Linda Burpee, Smolenski did not expect her sexual orientation to be an issue in her home parish. During an interview with WOOD-TV, Nolan said Catholic teaching gave him no choice in making his decision.

Since that phone call, Smolenski’s story of discrimination reached local and national media outlets. She also faced responses from people who accused her of going to the media.

“I never called the media, but when they reached out, I chose to speak out,” Smolenski said.

In response to Nolan’s decision, some parishioners wrote a letter urging the community to write to Grand Rapids Bishop David Walkowiak and Detroit Archbishop Allen Vigneron.

Rev. Scott Nolan

“The St. Stephen community is experiencing a crisis of leadership involving selective discrimination against gay parishioners … these acts have been destructive to the culture of inclusion and diversity that are hallmarks of St. Stephen,” the letter read.

Smolenski said there were other parishioners who didn’t question the incident. St. Stephens also kept mailing parish contribution envelopes to Smolenski’s home, even after she and her spouse stopped attending mass. Nolan didn’t respond to a request for comment for the story.

“For months, I was so sad,” Smolenski said. “I’m still very sad about it. I stopped going to St. Stephens because it makes me feel too sad. Then I became angry. Now I think I’m past the anger because I know that’s not how all priests feel.”

When Fountain Street Church’s Minister for Spiritual Life and Learning, the Rev. Christopher Roe, first heard about Smolenski’s story last year, he responded with grief and sadness.

“I found it so disappointing that someone would experience such discrimination in their spiritual home,” Roe said. “I’m not Catholic, but I understand Catholics to be deeply rooted in tradition; it’s embedded in your identity and your family’s identity.”

Roe also reflected on the vulnerability and ripple effects of someone in the public sphere experiencing discrimination because of their identity.

“For anyone who has experienced any kind of trauma in their life, there are different things that can trigger it. With Sara’s situation, whether you’re Catholic or not, I think it stirred up a lot of trauma, specifically experiences of rejection or discrimination, for a lot of people in our church and the spiritual community,” Roe said.

As much as the last six months have dampened her spirits, Smolenski’s faith remains unshaken. Depending on how the COVID-19 pandemic progresses, when churches begin opening their doors again, she is unsure about what church she will call home.

Despite the Catholic church’s theological understanding that same-sex marriages live in opposition of biblical teachings, Smolenski continued attending the church she was baptized and raised in because it fit for her.

“I grew up in that church. It helped form my faith. I never had a priest tell me I wasn’t welcome or could not be a part of the church because of I was gay,” Smolenski asserted.

This incident also further solidified her doubts regarding the Catholic church’s institutional view on who is worthy of communion and by extension, God’s love.

“It’s not perfect; I’m not perfect,” Smolenski said. “When that priest told me I couldn’t have communion, I really felt like I knew what discrimination meant. It becomes personal when someone says you aren’t welcome.”

As a Catholic, Smolenski chooses to believe in the Christian teachings that God does not make mistakes and Jesus loves and accepts all people, regardless of sexual orientation, race, or background.

“I’m not ashamed of who I am; I’m proud. Jesus doesn’t make mistakes, so none of us were born as mistakes,” Smolenski said.

Though hurt by the incident, Smolenski felt encouraged by the support from her community and across the country. She even received an invitation from a Catholic church in Ireland.

“A man named Angus from Ireland wrote me a letter telling me I was welcome to his village’s Catholic church anytime,” Smolenski said. “I kept a notebook full of hundreds of notes, emails and handwritten letters of support. They were so powerful.”

Today, Smolenski questions the Catholic church’s discrimination, arguing that it excludes God’s children from practicing their faith in their church community.

“How can this rule be applied so discriminately? Why are the rules different from one church to another, priest to priest,” Smolenski said.

Earlier this month, the Detroit Archdiocese fired Terry Gonda, St. John Fisher Catholic Church’s music director, for being married to a woman. According to the Detroit Free Press, her firing occurred nine days after the U.S. Supreme Court granted federal job protections for LGBTQ employees, although churches are exempt.

Given the increased progressive activism during the Trump era and the Black Lives Matter movement’s increased visibility, Smolenski reflected on her role in creating change and challenging institutional discrimination.

“We have to use our voice, especially white people, because that’s how change is going to happen with any form of discrimination,” she said. “We need to do what is right and I don’t think that’s what the Catholic church is doing.”

Complete Article HERE!

Eyebrows raised as Swiss bishop taps woman for senior job

Marianne Pohl Henzen smiles in the Saint Paul sisters church in Fribourg, Switzerland, Wednesday, June 3, 2020. A Swiss bishop’s appointment of Marianne Pohl Henzen, a lay mother of three, to a senior administrative post previously held by a priest has raised eyebrows in conservative Catholic circles, at a time when a strengthened role for women in the church is under debate in other European countries.

By NADINE ACHOUI-LESAGE and JAMEY KEATEN

A Swiss bishop’s appointment of a lay mother of three to a senior administrative post previously held by a priest has raised eyebrows in conservative Catholic circles, at a time when a strengthened role for women in the church is under debate in other European countries.

Marianne Pohl-Henzen will serve as an “episcopal delegate” in the diocese of Lausanne, Geneva and Fribourg, and will also be joining Bishop Charles Morerod’s episcopal council, the main governance advisory body which is traditionally made up of priests and bishops.

Pope Francis has insisted women should be given greater decision-making roles in church governance. He has recently reconstituted a study commission on whether women can be ordained deacons, but has upheld a ban on women priests and counts no women among his top advisers.

Church conservatives are particularly sensitive to any moves involving women in decision-making roles usually reserved for men, fearing they could set in changes motion that could eventually lead to women being ordained priests.

Swiss church leaders insist Pohl-Henzen’s role as “episcopal delegate” for the German-speaking part of the Fribourg canton, or region, will be different from that of her predecessor. He had been an “episcopal vicar,” which under church law is an ordained priest whose main task is to help the bishop govern a part of his diocese, including with authority over priests.

Pohl-Henzen, who had been the vicar’s No. 2 for years, is simply rising to the top job on Aug. 1. She says she obviously won’t carry out key religious duties that only a priest could.

“It’s a small step,” she said in an interview. “If others steps happen when it comes to women in the church, it will be through men first. For example, perhaps the requirement of the celibacy of priests will fall. The next step could be women as deacons. And maybe far, far later, women as priests.”

“But we know many people don’t want that to happen so we cannot push much,” she added. “We need to take it step by step.”

Catholic doctrine reserves the priesthood for men, and church tradition requires Latin rite priests to be celibate.

Like many countries in western Europe, Switzerland has seen a steady collapse in the number of Catholic priestly vocations, with fewer than a dozen new diocesan priests ordained each year for the past several years, according to Vatican statistics.

Morerod said his move was about letting “priests do the job of priests” and outsourcing administrative matters to a layperson — irrespective of gender. In a phone interview, Morerod said he hadn’t received any “reproach” from the Vatican over Pohl-Henzen’s appointment.

Pohl-Henzen said some “not very flattering” comments were made about Morerod after her appointment was announced last month, but added that many in her community have congratulated her over it.

Some conservative and traditionalist Catholic commentators in Italy and the United States have claimed that the appointment is ambiguous, since she apparently will be doing the work of a vicar but with a different title.

But the Rev. Robert Gahl, a moral theologian at the Opus Dei-run Pontifical Holy Cross University in Rome, said the title change is crucial, and Morerod clearly is not making her a vicar.

“Marianne Pohl-Henzen seems to have proven her capabilities in bridging diverse language groups that sometimes have conflicts,” he said by e-mail, adding “It’s wonderful that she has the confidence of the bishop.”

Gahl said her appointment to the episcopal council was also to be welcomed, saying it brings “the possibility to offer a new perspective.”

Conservatives’ fear has been heightened because of a push in neighboring Germany to open up even more leadership roles to women and an official dialogue process launched earlier this year between Germany’s bishops and a powerful lay group that is demanding change.

Even traditionally Catholic France is seeing women increasingly protest their second-class status in the church, fueled in part by clergy sexual abuse and cover-up scandals.

In Lyon, Anne Soupa has made a splash with her unprecedented, symbolic, and self-admittedly impossible bid to take up the post of archbishop left vacant after the resignation of former Cardinal Philippe Barbarin. He was convicted, then acquitted, of covering up for a pedophile priest.

Barbarin resigned anyway, saying it was time for change, and Francis accepted the resignation in January.

“My candidacy is not for me, it’s so that other women can take this opportunity and apply,” Soupa said. “So that tomorrow, other women can say ‘I could be bishop, I could be nuncio, I could be priest, I could be deacon.'”

“I think there is a blindness problem inside the Catholic Church,” she added by video call. “Canon law has been written by men and for men, and it’s inconceivable to put women in it. And we are not even given the freedom to think that it could be different.”

Soupa has no chance, since the church’s in-house law and centuries of doctrine say only ordained priests can be bishops and archbishops, since bishops must trace their lineage to Christ’s original apostles.

In addition, one doesn’t campaign to be a bishop, since the vetting process is conducted in secret and directed by the Vatican’s ambassador in consultation with the country’s bishops, for a final decision by the pope.

Complete Article HERE!

I lost my faith trying to ‘pray myself straight’

The author was 13 years-old the first time he tried to “pray the gay away”. Lying in bed one night, he started talking to God, and begged him to make him straight.

by Patrick Kelleher

I had a number of theories about my sexuality in my early years. At one point, I believed that God had made me gay as a challenge to see if I could overcome my same-sex desire. Later, about a year and a half into my efforts to pray myself straight, I thought that he might have just made some horrendous mistake. But even believing that was difficult, because I knew that God didn’t make mistakes. So, the theory I ultimately settled on was that my attraction to other boys was actually just a phase – it would pass in time and then, finally, I would be just like everybody else.

Needless to say, that didn’t happen.

Today, I am 26 years-old and I am openly and confidently gay. But I still look back on that teenager who so desperately wanted to change who he was and wonder: how did it get to that point? There were many reasons, of course; homophobic bullying, a hostile society – but my intense Catholic faith also played a big part in making me hate myself.

Many of us in Ireland talk about being “raised Catholic”, but this means different things for different people. Some people have intense religious childhoods where any deviation from their faith is met with punishment and shame. For others, it means stepping into a church for the odd communion or confirmation, but little else.

My childhood fell somewhere in the middle of these extremes. My parents, while not exactly devout Catholics themselves, brought us to mass most weekends. We were cultural Catholics, but religion was also a big part of our lives. It was how we came together and it allowed us to connect to something bigger than ourselves.

I lapped it all up. I was a voracious reader, and while I never successfully managed to read the Bible (I tried), I adored the stories I heard in mass. When I was a child, religion seemed exciting, thrilling, and – at its core – obvious. Why wouldn’t I believe in God? He loved me unconditionally. It was a glorious safety net for a child who was, from an early age, prone to anxiety.

I started praying to God every night early on in childhood. Prayer was part of my daily ritual and I looked forward to it. When I think back on that time, I remember feeling so close to God – I felt innately connected with something important. It was a comforting feeling, and I still miss it sometimes.

I didn’t yet know I was gay, but there were plenty of signs indicating that I was different from other children. When I was nine years old, in the playground, another child referred to something as “gay”. I didn’t know what it meant, but I knew by the way he said it that it was a bad thing. When I asked, he explained that it was when two boys liked each other. I distinctly remember how I squirmed and thought to myself: “I hope that isn’t me.”

At 11 years-old, when most boys my age started having crushes on girls, I started having crushes on boys. By the time I was 12, my sexuality was in full swing – and I despised myself for it. I ventured onto Google and quickly established that being gay was not only socially unacceptable, but my church – the religion I cared so passionately about – strictly forbade it. I became increasingly aware of just how hated gay people were within Catholicism. It was an incredibly isolating and alienating feeling, to feel rejected from a place in which I had always felt so at home. I was too young to see the Catholic church’s anti-LGBT+ views for what they are: bigoted, normative, hateful. Instead, I told myself that I was the problem – that I needed to be fixed.

It was in that context that I started asking God to help me, to try to pray myself straight. My efforts were not without their complications; by that point, my faith was starting to crumble around me. I had backed myself into a theological corner, and it was patently clear that there was no easy way out of it. If God never makes mistakes, and makes us in his image, how could he have gone so far wrong with me? Why would he voluntarily create somebody who was intrinsically disordered when he makes everybody in his image? And if he truly loved me, as I had always been told he did, then why would he put me through this unbearable suffering? These questions did not have easy answers, and even while I continued to pray myself straight, they pushed me gently towards the exit door of atheism.

But I held out some hope. I took to crying myself to sleep, forgoing my nightly prayer routine for songs that made me feel less alone. When I was 13, I finally came up with a plan of action – I decided I would ask God to take this burden from me. To my dismay, my efforts to pray myself straight only made me more miserable. I felt utterly hopeless, and started to wonder if I would be better off dead. I contemplated suicide on numerous occasions as a teenager; whether to die or stay alive became a constant grappling point. I often wondered which would hurt my parents more: me dying or me coming out as gay.

Just before my 15th birthday, as I yet again tried to pray myself straight, I told God it would be the last time I would ask him to fix me. I told him I had had enough – I had tried hard enough to rid myself of these feelings. I asked him to rescue me – and he didn’t. That finally put an end to my belief in a higher power.

I’m sure that I will never fully understand the extent of the damage growing up Catholic and gay had on me. Like many queer people, I still, on occasion, feel a deep, internalised shame about my sexuality, and I still feel hatred, anger and betrayal wash over me every time I step inside a church. It is like visiting a childhood home and learning that things are not the same as they were. It is an intensely alienating feeling, standing in a beautiful Catholic church, remembering all the times I tried to pray myself straight, all the times I asked God, Jesus and the Virgin Mary to rescue me.

Today, I am firmly an atheist and the only masses I attend are the odd Catholic wedding. I’m not necessarily happy I’m an atheist, but I am happy that I’m no longer part of an organisation that is not just intolerant, but is actively hostile to LGBT+ people. I now understand that I, like all queer people, deserve so much better than what the Catholic church is prepared to offer us. I still hold out hope that one day, the church will change its teachings on LGBT+ issues, but that hope dims by the day. Every time it looks like Pope Francis is starting to move towards greater acceptance, he imminently throws more discrimination our way.

While my hope has dimmed, it has not died completely. I don’t keep that flame alive for my own benefit – I no longer care what the Catholic church thinks of me. I keep my hope alive for all the other children growing up in that institution. It breaks my heart that they have to learn that they are not loved unconditionally like their straight and cisgender peers. I hope that one day, young queer people will no longer contemplate suicide because the church that was supposed to love them rejected them. I hope that they will be able to go to mass and won’t feel alienated in the way so many queer people do.

But right now, change looks a long way off. The Catholic church of today is an intensely backwards organisation that endeavours to keep people inside tiny boxes. But queer people cannot – and will not – thrive inside boxes.

If you have been affected by this story, you can contact any of the following by clicking on the link:

LGBT Helpline
Aware 
Pieta House 
Mental Health Ireland

Complete Article HERE!

Confessions of a Gay Priest – Book Review

by Linda LaScola

Editor’s Note: Last autumn, Alexis Record and Tom Rastrelli appeared together in one of many blog posts here that commemorated The Clergy Project’s 1000 Member Milestone. I thought they were a good example of the variety of religious backgrounds that people who leave religion come from. Now they are back together in what I think is even a more interesting way – a former fundamentalist reviewing the memoir of a former Catholic priest.  /Linda LaScola, Editor

First, with permission from the publisher, Alexis starts with excerpts from the prologue:

            The Church needed something new. In January, the Boston Globe had exposed Cardinal Bernard Francis Law for covering up the sexual abuse of minors by priests. As the months before my ordination passed, a mounting number of bishops fell in shame. I doubted my calling. But the Church was different in Dubuque. My archbishop hadn’t harbored pedophiles. He’d turned them over to the police. He’d offered their victims support and healing. I would do the same. 

            After the archbishop completed the prayer, a priest lifted the deacon’s stole from my shoulder and replaced it with a priest’s stole. Over my head, he lowered a chasuble with gold-and-blue embroidery matching the archbishop’s. I crossed from the center of the sanctuary to the cathedra, the ornately carved oak throne where the archbishop sat. I knelt before him. From a crystal pitcher, he poured syrupy chrism–holy oil scented with balsam–over my upturned hands. Pressing his palms against mine, the archbishop smeared large crosses as he prayed: “The Father anointed Our Lord Jesus Christ through the power of the Holy Spirit. May Jesus preserve you to sanctify the Christian people and to offer sacrifice to God.” He folded his glistening hands around mine. His dark eyes were absolution. I would sacrifice myself for him, for God.

            Hands dripping with chrism, I stood, turned, and walked to my spot at the foot of the altar. I glanced at the front row into my parents’ eyes. They were crying, grinning. I smiled through tears. I was a priest. 

[—]

            Less than two years later, I turned my back on the archbishop. This time, I held my tears. I rushed from his office into February’s darkness. The frigid night air burned my cheeks. In the corner of the icy parking lot, my black pickup offered refuge. My only private space, it was where I retreated to sing, talk on my phone, and cry–all the things a young priest didn’t want his pastor or cleaning lady to witness. I drove through blocks of Catholic neighborhoods, people who trusted the archbishop. Now, I had to obey his command by covering up sexual abuse.

[…] 

            On the north end of town, a boat ramp would provide easy access to the frozen Mississippi. My plan: drive until the ice buckled under the weight of the truck. 

Tom Rastrelli

Confessions of a Gay Priest: A Memoir of Sex, Love, Abuse, and Scandal in the Catholic Seminary

By Alexis Record

For half a decade now I have been a Free Hugs Mom at our local Pride parade with Sunday Assembly San Diego. I become everyone’s mom despite age differences and embrace hundreds of people while making sure they’re drinking water and wearing sunscreen in the summer sun, you know, Mom concerns. Most importantly of all, I tell folks I’m proud of them. Most laugh or smile at my apron, some cry, and a few collapse into my arms as if a stranger’s acceptance might squeeze their fractured parts into some semblance of wholeness. As our group discussed doing an emotionally exhausting two-day Pride event this year, I was still recovering from finishing my tear-stained advanced copy of Tom Rastrelli’s book, Confessions of a Gay Priest: A Memoir of Sex, Love, Abuse, and Scandal in the Catholic Seminary. It solidified my resolve to love on those kids.

Recently it felt as if an additional child was in my home: young Tom Rastrelli. I poured my love and support into him as he navigated pure hell. “Oh baby,” I’d tell him as he doubled down on homophobic lessons and planted deeper roots into his own victimization, like a vulnerable plant choosing the darkest corner where growth was promised.

What makes Rastrelli’s story so compelling are his flourishes of detail. His experiences are incredibly visceral–a real strength of his writing–which in turn make the abuses he suffered that much more excruciating. Each page is pure beauty and heartbreak. I found myself unable to put it down, needing to know what happens next. Needing to know Tom would be okay.

Rastrelli excavates the darker parts of his theology and clerical experiences without being anti-Catholic. In fact, I was struck with the humanity of his fellow seminarians and priests. The religious boy’s club included drinking, swearing, smoking, sexism, and jokes about pedophilia as the topic of the day which would not look out of place among a group of men in any other part of society. These boys grow through spiritual practice into priests. They are portrayed with a fair hand, not as monsters, but as loving servants of congregants who become unwitting facilitators of abusive and inhumane doctrines. They encouraged counseling, but not from women who pointed out sexism within the system. They practiced forgiveness, but used it to sweep grievous abuses under the rug. They offered real friendship, but caused their friends to hate their sexualities. They were real people, good people, doing the best they could with the tools they had. It made me want to take my local priest out to coffee to see how he’s holding up.

I’ve never been Catholic. The closest I’ve come is years ago working as a priest’s sign language interpreter during Mass. I outed myself as protestant by signing each word of “Father, Son, and Holy Spirit” instead of crossing myself and as a result wasn’t asked back. Yet, I did not need to be completely familiar with all aspects of Catholic tradition to follow this story. Any conservative Christian will recognize, as I did, the strong desire to be lost in God’s presence, the pressure to cover up for the sins of godly men, and the deep self loathing after every masturbatory orgasm.

Rastrelli takes the reader on a unique journey most of the faithful never see. Like many of the other wide-eyed liberal students who loved the Church, he set out to affect change from within it only to be gradually and incessantly chiseled into the very shape of those hard beliefs he did not think reflected Christ. Seminarians during this process swallowed larger and larger boluses of cognitive dissonance until they were either consumed from within or vomited out of God’s presence. They were told not to make waves and not to confuse the faithful with their own doubts about the system. It was amazing to me just how so many good people became unwilling participants in facilitating horrific evils. Offering a holy profession for homosexual men who would never be allowed to have sex within the confines of that system and then laying all the blame for child predation upon the gays is just one of those evils.

The brutal parts of this story include the author’s homophobia recounted from his early years and directed selfward like a knife at his own throat, the sexual abuse the reader voyeuristically shares, and, almost worse, the excusing and minimizing of that abuse by the very men supposedly speaking and acting for God himself. Worshipping a tortured savior meant suffering throughout the story was almost always mistaken for love. Oh baby.

Silent no longer, Tom Rastrelli bravely reopens wounds and lays bare scars for all to see. His memoir is a breathtaking, priceless treasure–a bright light in the darkness. I’m proud to recommend it to believers and unbelievers alike. For victims of abuse, I suggest being gentle with yourself while reading. Also, drink some water, wear your sunblock, and avoid hazardous religious systems.

Confessions will be available April, 2020. Preorders available now, from Amazon.

Complete Article HERE!

Arrested for having sex with men, this gay civil rights leader could finally be pardoned in California

Gay civil rights leader Bayard Rustin, who helped plan the 1963 March on Washington, is photographed in his New York office in 1969.

By Samantha Schmidt

A decade before Bayard Rustin became a chief organizer of the 1963 March on Washington, the civil rights activist was booked into a Los Angeles County jail on suspicion of “lewd vagrancy.”

On that night in January 1953, hours after Rustin had given a speech in Pasadena, Calif., police officers spotted him in a parked car, having sex with one of the other two men in the car. Rustin was sentenced to 60 days in jail and forced to register as a sex offender for the “morals charge,” which was often used to target gay people in those years.

Rustin would ultimately become one of the key leaders of the civil rights movement. He advised the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. on nonviolent tactics, helped organize the Montgomery, Ala., bus boycott and helped create the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. But the arrest remained a stain on his record, nearly exiling him from the movement he helped build.

Now, on the anniversary of his arrest, lawmakers in California are asking Gov. Gavin Newsom (D) to posthumously pardon Rustin and “right this wrong.”

“There’s a cloud hanging over him because of this unfair, discriminatory conviction, a conviction that never should have happened, a conviction that happened only because he was a gay man,” said state Sen. Scott Wiener, chair of California’s legislative LGBTQ caucus.

In a news conference Tuesday, Wiener joined with Assemblywoman Shirley Weber, chair of the state’s legislative black caucus, to formally ask the governor for the pardon.

While the state has repealed many of the discriminatory laws that targeted black and LGBTQ people such as Rustin, Wiener wrote in a letter to the governor, “we must acknowledge and make amends for the harm that California’s past actions have had on so many people. Pardoning Mr. Rustin will be a positive step toward reconciliation.”

In response, Newsom released a statement Tuesday afternoon saying he “will be closely considering their request and the corresponding case.”

“History is clear. In California and across the country, sodomy laws were used as legal tools of oppression,” Newsom said in the statement. “They were used to stigmatize and punish LGBTQ individuals and communities and warn others what harm could await them for living authentically. I thank those who are advocating for Mr. Bayard Rustin’s pardon.”

Wiener came up with the idea over a breakfast with longtime LGBTQ activist Nicole Ramirez, who has spent years seeking a postage stamp dedicated to Rustin. Ramirez said he has heard concerns from some officials that Rustin’s arrest record could get in the way of the stamp approval process.

The stamp, Ramirez said, would help honor a leader who paid a steep price for living authentically as a gay man at a time when he could be arrested, fired and even hospitalized for his sexuality.

“For him to come and speak out and be openly gay, can you imagine that?” Ramirez said. “He was subjecting himself to more than that arrest but to commitment to a state hospital.”

Ramirez met Rustin briefly during a march in Washington in 1987, shortly before Rustin’s death. But at the time, Ramirez didn’t know who Rustin was, he said.

For decades, Rustin has been overlooked as a key strategist of the civil rights movement, historians say.

“Early on, he wasn’t so well known because the civil rights leaders tried to keep him in the shadows … they were fearful of being tainted by Bayard’s gay sexuality,” said Michael Long, who wrote a young-adult book about Rustin and edited a collection of letters by the civil rights leader.

From left, the Rev. Ralph Abernathy, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and Bayard Rustin, leaders of the bus boycott in Montgomery, Ala., leave the Montgomery County Courthouse on Feb. 24, 1956.

After his arrest in California in 1953, Rustin’s career nearly derailed. He was forced to cancel all upcoming speaking engagements and resign from his position with a pacifist organization, the Fellowship for Reconciliation, Long said. He struggled to find work, and even began doing manual labor as a furniture mover, said Walter Naegle, Rustin’s partner for the last decade of his life.

Naegle described the fallout from his arrest as a “very dark period.”

“I remember him saying he would be walking around in the streets and checking phone booths for loose change,” said Naegle, now 70.

Rustin had been arrested before, for nonviolent protests that included refusing to leave white areas of local movie theaters and restaurants. But it was this arrest that was used to humiliate him and tarnish his reputation. While Rustin never hid his sexuality, he was deeply aware of the way it could affect his work.

In a letter written in March 1953, about three months after his arrest, Rustin wrote: “I know now that for me sex must be sublimated if I am to live with myself and in this world longer.”

Rustin eventually landed a role with the War Resisters League, launching him back into the civil rights movement, Long said. But his sexuality continued to threaten to sideline him. In 1960, after threats from powerful Rep. Adam Clayton Powell (N.Y.), King pushed Rustin out of his inner circle, and Rustin resigned from the Southern Christian Leadership Conference.

But then, in 1963, as leaders planned the March on Washington, Rustin’s longtime mentor, A. Philip Randolph, appointed him as a key organizer of the gathering. Rustin was tasked with steering the logistics of the massive event, coordinating between civil rights groups and recruiting off-duty law enforcement personnel to serve as marshals.

As the march approached, Sen. Strom Thurmond (S.C.) attacked “Mr. March-on-Washington himself” on the Senate floor, dredging up Rustin’s arrest record from Pasadena.

“The words ‘morals charge’ are true. But this again is a clear-cut case of toning down the charge,” Thurmond said on the Senate floor. “The conviction was sex perversion and a subsequent arrest of vagrancy and lewdness.”

At a news conference in 1963, Bayard Rustin points to a map showing the path of the March on Washington, where Martin Luther King Jr. delivered his famous “I Have a Dream” speech.

But this time, the organizers of the march — including King — stood by Rustin. And even as his sexuality was repeatedly used against him, Rustin never shied away from it, Naegle said.

“They really picked the wrong guy,” Naegle said. “The thing that separated Bayard from many people was he wasn’t going to be silenced.”

In a recently released interview with the Washington Blade, Rustin said: “It was an absolute necessity for me to declare homosexuality because if I didn’t I was a part of the prejudice. I was aiding and abetting … the prejudice that was a part of the effort to destroy me.” He couldn’t be a “free whole person,” he said, living in the closet.

The week after the March on Washington, the cover of Life magazine featured not a photo of King, but of Randolph and Rustin, standing in front of the Lincoln Memorial.

More than two decades later, upon his death in 1987, Rustin’s obituary was featured on the front page of the New York Times, identifying him as a civil rights activist and chief organizer of the March on Washington.

But it barely mentioned his identity as a gay man. In the obituary, Naegle was referred to not as Rustin’s partner but as his “administrative assistant and adopted son.”

It wasn’t until recent years that Rustin began to receive recognition not only as a major civil rights leader but as a rare example of an openly gay leader at the time.

Ahead of the 50th anniversary of the 1963 March on Washington, Naegle traveled across the country organizing programs dedicated to spreading the word of Rustin’s legacy. And in 2013, Obama posthumously honored Rustin with the Presidential Medal of Freedom, noting his role as an openly gay African American who “stood at the intersection of several of the fights for equal rights.”

A pardon from the California governor would represent much more than personal vindication for Rustin, Naegle said. It would recognize the injustice and damage done to scores of other members of the LGBTQ community who never received the same level of recognition as Rustin.

“He survived, he thrived, he did fine, but there were a lot of people that didn’t,” Naegle said.

To Long, a pardon would be “an affirmation of what Rustin knew all along: that he was not a criminal for being gay.”

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