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Bayard Rustin Community Breakfast Keynote Speech by Globe columnist Renee Graham

Renee Graham Bayard Rustin keynote

Good morning!  

 My thanks to Fenway Health and The Bayard Rustin Community Breakfast Committee for giving me this opportunity to speak with you today and to all who’ve kept this event going for a remarkable 34 years. I’ve been attending these gatherings since they were still at Villa Victoria in the South End — and that very closeted young lesbian I was then would never have imagined that I would be the one standing here attempting to give a keynote address.  

 If you will indulge me for a minute, before I move onto my main theme, I just want to quickly address something that’s been needling me. I’m sure most of you have seen the film “Rustin,” starring the amazing Colman Domingo in the title role for which he received an Academy Award nomination. Nearly every story or review about the movie described Rustin the man with the same word — un-sung or as someone “we” are not familiar with. So let me make clear that Bayard Rustin is not unsung except to those who have refused to listen to the voices that have been singing his name and praises for decades. He is unsung only if we cease doing the work of fighting for civil rights, equality, and human dignity — or if we shun our responsibility to be what Rustin called “the angelic troublemakers” in every community. To anyone out there – and they are certainly not in this room — if you have not read about Rustin, then you are reading the wrong books. If you’ve not heard of Rustin, then you are listening to the wrong people. We in this room have long known who Rustin is and what he did for a country that so often did not deserve him. Everything else is a you problem, not a me problem and certainly not a we problem.  

Okay. Now I can begin. 

 As a young reporter 40 years ago, I interviewed a man named Steven, the first person I ever met with AIDS. I’d found him through a friend of a friend and spent weeks convincing him to speak with me. And I probably spent twice as much time trying to convince my editors that Steven had a story worth sharing with our readers. It was the mid ’80s and needless to say, they doubted that anyone would want to hear from a gay man, let alone one with a disease that was deeply misunderstood and irrationally feared. I even overheard an editor say, “Do we want AIDS in the paper?” 

When I arrived at Steven’s home for our interview, I made a point of sticking my hand out to shake his when he opened his front door. I wanted to show him — and myself — that I wasn’t afraid to be in his presence. I didn’t want to contribute to the discrimination many people living with HIV and AIDS routinely faced.  

I was clearly nervous — I wanted to give his story the respect it deserved. Fortunately Steven, who was about 10 years older than me, quickly put me at ease. He was humorous, forthcoming, and far more patient than anyone should have been with a novice reporter with a journalism degree on which the ink was barely dry. 

After the story ran — a story that hardly resembled the one I turned in because my editors still didn’t really want AIDS or a gay man living with the virus in the paper — I was very surprised when Steven called to thank me for telling his story.  

And then this happened — he kept calling. Every now and then, I would answer the phone and hear Steven’s melodious baritone: “Hello there!” He wasn’t angling for me to write about him again; He. just. wanted. to. talk. And what he — and we — often talked about was the future — not only his, but that of our community. 

We often wondered what would happen when the catastrophe of AIDS was over. And let me tell you, Steven not only believed that there would be a cure, but that he would live to celebrate that glorious moment one, all these years later, we’re still waiting for. Steven talked about how the AIDS crisis was a crucial moment for the queer community and how the impact of our response would alter how others would perceive us and how we perceived ourselves. When this misery lifted all would recognize how loving and determined we were, how we fought with purpose and passion for our lives and those we loved against one of the greatest crises the world had ever known.  

I wasn’t too sure. But even with all Steven was facing, boundless optimism always seemed to be his default setting. 

He helped me look beyond the mourning, fear, and ashes that had come to define our days and toward the stars that he believed shined so bright just over the horizon. Of course, the point was to survive the crisis. But survival was the floor, not the ceiling. To simply continue to exist on other people’s narrow terms was not enough. We had to build for ourselves. To organize our communities. To recognize and address the racism and sexism that denied the diversity and intersectionality of our queer community that mimicked too closely the white patriarchal attitudes from which we sought to free ourselves. 

To love one another fiercely. To abandon shame and embrace our worth and beauty. To stop taking society’s “NO” for an answer. From those ashes we had to build something lasting and new, to make our lives a monument to those we lost. To borrow and lovingly butcher a line from Toni Morrison’s Sula – to know anger, but not despair.  

It would not be enough to survive this crisis. We had to emerge stronger, more unified, and better prepared for the next catastrophe because there is always a next catastrophe. 

 Though it was not a surprise, it was still devastating — Steven wouldn’t live to see any of this. He died about seven months after we first met. And as heartbreaking as his loss was, I tried to find solace in what I came to see as a map he outlined for the road ahead.  

 And what a long and difficult road it has been, but not one without its victories. The fight against AIDS, often waged by the very people who were sick and dying or burying their lovers and friends, finally forced the hand of the government to speed up its process in researching and releasing drugs that have reduced sickness and death. Yet their costs continue to keep them maddeningly out of reach for too many who desperately need them.   

There may someday be a cure for AIDS, but we also need a cure for the persistent lack of access that is its own deadly pandemic.   

 The AIDS crisis cast a harsh spotlight on laws that excluded life partners, who did not have the legal recognition of married spouses for hospital visits or to make health decisions for those they loved. And that helped turbocharge the acrimonious fight for marriage equality which first became legal in Massachusetts 20 years ago next month. 

 It would take more than a decade, but in 2015, marriage equality became the law nationwide. But if there’s anything we as Black folks understand deep in our bones, it’s that progress in America is always – ALWAYS – met with a ferocious backlash. And what helped unleash that backlash also occurred in 2015 — the presidential candidacy of Donald Trump.  

 Now, to be clear, we know Trump did not create this hate. Don’t believe anyone who tries to sell the lie that everything was just fine before Trump entered politics. He did not invent racism, sexism, or anti-LGBTQ sentiments or infect our institutions with them. If they had been eradicated, Trump never would have been elected president. He exploited the groundwork that had been laid centuries ago and has been maintained through legislation and violence ever since.  

 But he emboldened hate. He normalized it. And through his actions, remarks, and in his policies as president, he amplified them from the highest office in the land. That backlash Trump fostered did not end along with his White House tenure. It has continued to roil with a well-financed, well-organized rightwing crusade to erase our history, control our bodies, and strip away even our most basic human rights. 

 The Daily Beast recently reported that trans and gender-nonconforming people are being confronted in Florida bathrooms by self-styled vigilantes. Last year, the state’s evil troll of a governor, Ron DeSantis, signed into law what’s called the “Safety in Private Spaces Act.” And make no mistake, there is no safety afforded trans people. In the “Don’t Say Gay” state, that law bans trans people from using bathrooms or locker rooms that match their gender identities in state-owned facilities. That includes airports, beaches, prisons, public schools, and state and private colleges. Violating this law can result in a year in jail and a $1000 fine.  

  At the same time, according to a report released this week by the American Library Association, most of the books being challenged or banned in schools are written by or about LGBTQ people or examine and explore race. And don’t think because these bans no longer make headlines that books aren’t still disappearing from classroom curriculums and school library shelves.  

 In a New York Times interview, Deborah Caldwell-Stone, the American Library Association’s director of intellectual freedom, said “More and more, we’re seeing challenges that say, simply, ‘This book has a gay character, or, This book deals with L.G.B.T.Q. themes.’ That’s happening even when a book has no sexual content. She said, “We’re seeing those attacks simply on the visibility of and knowledge about L.G.B.T.Q. lives and experiences.” 

 As with so many books by and about Black people and other people or color that are also being removed, this is about the erasure of communities and their history. It’s the blotting out of achievement, tribulation, and the ordinary people who’ve done extraordinary things to educate and move this nation forward. These bans don’t just remove books. They criminalize empathy, imagination, and representation. And I know there’s not a person here who does not understand what it means, how self-affirming it is, to read a book and for the first time see yourself  — or to feel closer to or better relate to someone whose life and circumstances are completely different from your own.  

 What’s happening in Florida and states across the nation is intended to reinforce the false images that so many of us were spoon-fed for much of our formative years — that the greatness of this nation was made by and — ultimately for — straight white men.   

 We also know that far-right extremists — cowards in white masks instead of white hoods — have shown up outside and sometimes inside places hosting Drag Queen Story Hours to intimidate performers, families, and children because they can’t stand to see anyone brave enough to live out loud and be who they are. I always hope that no matter how young those children are, that they will always remember which group made them laugh and sing and which group frightened and terrorized them.  

 And when I see these stories — about families given no choice but to leave one state for another so that their child can receive the gender-affirming care that they need — it has reminded me of Steven and our conversations about whether simply surviving, instead of striving for freedom and peace, was enough. 

  In recent years I’ve devoted my Sunday Boston Globe columns in December to memorializing trans and gender nonconforming people lost to violence that year. To find their stories, I comb through news clips, obituaries and social media — and that’s how I found Elise Malary.  

 Only 31, Elise Malary, a Chicago area antiracism and trans rights activist had been missing for about a week in 2022 before her body was found in Lake Michigan. Like most of those who died by anti-trans violence that year — and every year for which there are statistics — she was young and Black. A Chicago street now has an honorary plaque bearing her name. 

 In the first photo I saw of Elise, she was holding a bouquet of sunflowers and wearing a red T-shirt with words that have stayed with me: “You deserve more than survival.”  

 We all deserve more than survival. We have struggled not only to survive but prosper and grow. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., who learned so much from Bayard Rustin said “Change does not roll in on the wheels of inevitability but comes through continuous struggle. And so we must straighten our backs and work for our freedom.”  

 And there is no survival without the presence of freedom and self determination. 

 There is more work to do — there is ALWAYS more work to do. But we do it for the trans kids who don’t want to choose between being themselves and playing school sports. For a librarian who wants “All Boys Aren’t Blue” and “Beloved” back on their shelves and available to everyone. Oh, and for every Black LGBTQ person who’s had it with the ardent racism that we know exists in the queer community because we experience it, but are criticized for talking about it. 

 And history reminds us that we do it not only for ourselves or for the generations who will someday carry this weight, but in gratitude to the mighty shoulders we are not even worthy to stand upon – Audre Lorde, James Baldwin, Alain Locke, Assotto Saint, Mabel Hampton, Marsha P. Johnson, Lorraine Hansberry, Sylvester, Barbara Jordan, Marlon Riggs, Essex Hemphill, Pat Parker, Joseph Beam, June Jordan, Melvin Dixon, and more names than I can list that shine no less in our galaxies. Also the elders who remain on this plane including Barbara and Beverly Smith, Bill T. Jones, Jewelle Gomez, Alexis DeVeaux, Phill Wilson, Cheryl Clarke, and Samuel R. Delany. All continue to direct us like eternal flames in the darkness.  

 And, of course, Bayard Rustin, the angelic troublemaker, we honor not only today, but in every struggle for equality and peace.   

 Like my dear Steven all those years ago, I now invited you — as he invited me — to look beyond the mourning, fear, and ashes that can define these perilous days and march toward those stars that he always believed shined so bright just over the horizon.  

 As Rustin himself once said, “God does not require us to achieve any of the good tasks that humanity must pursue. What the gods require of us is that we not stop trying.” 


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