Story at a glance
- Civil rights advocate Bayard Rustin was arrested in California for having consensual same-sex relations and charged with vagrancy.
- Rustin, who died in 1987, has been granted a pardon by California Governor Gavin Newsom.
- Governor Newsom has announced a new initiative to grant clemency to other LGBTQ+ people arrested for consensual sex with same-sex partners.
Bayard Rustin died before he could fully enjoy many of the rights he fought for as a civil and gay rights activist. It was 2013 when the man who helped organize the March on Washington was granted a Presidential Medal of Freedom by Barack Obama; it was 2015 when he would legally be allowed to marry the partner he instead adopted to establish a legal relationship.
And in 2020, Rustin, who died in 1987 at 75, has been posthumously pardoned by California Governor Gavin Newsom as part of a new clemency initiative for those who have been prosecuted in California for being gay.
“The Arc of Justice is long, but it took nearly 70 years for Bayard Rustin to have his legacy in the Civil Rights movement uncompromised by this incident. Rustin was a great American who was both gay and black at a time when the sheer fact of being either or both could land you in jail,” said Assemblymember Shirley Weber, Chair of the California Legislative Black Caucus, in a statement.
Rustin had been arrested in 1953 for having sex with two men in a parked car in Pasadena, Calif., where he was visiting as part of a lecture tour on anti-colonial struggles in West Africa. He was cited for vagrancy, a charge that the governor recognized was often used to target LGBTQ+ people. After serving 50 days in Los Angeles County Jail, Rustin returned home to New York, but was ordered to register as a sex offender.
On the 67th anniversary of his arrest, Weber and Senator Scott Wiener, Chair of the California Legislative LGBTQ Caucus, asked the governor to grant a posthumous pardon.
“In California and across the country, many laws have been used as legal tools of oppression, and to stigmatize and punish LGBTQ people and communities and warn others what harm could await them for living authentically,” said Governor Newsom in a statement. “I thank those who advocated for Bayard Rustin’s pardon, and I want to encourage others in similar situations to seek a pardon to right this egregious wrong.”
California repealed the law outlawing consensual sex between same-sex adults in 1975 and allowed those who were convicted to request removal from the California Sex Offender Registry — but the conviction would remain on their record. As part of the new clemency initiative, people who were arrested and charged under such laws in California can apply for a pardon.
Wiener said in a statement, “Generations of LGBT people – including countless gay men – were branded criminals and sex offenders simply because they had consensual sex. This was often life-ruining, and many languished on the sex offender registry for decades. The governor’s actions today are a huge step forward in our community’s ongoing quest for full acceptance and justice.”