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California Governor Pardons Gay Civil Rights Leader Bayard Rustin 67 Years After Arrest

Governor Gavin Newsom of California has posthumously pardoned Bayard Rustin, a civil rights leader convicted under anti-LGBTQ laws in 1953. Rustin worked closely with Martin Luther King Jr. and was the lead organizer of the 1963 March on Washington.

Rustin was arrested for having consensual sex with a man in a parked car and convicted under a vagrancy law used to target LGBTQ people. He spent 60 days in a Los Angeles County jail and had to register as a sex offender, making finding jobs difficult and providing fuel for efforts to delegitimize the civil rights movement.

Rustin’s arrest is one of many cases of police and prosecutors using laws to criminalize LGBTQ people. Loitering laws, for example, are still used to persecute transgender people through what have been called “walking while trans” arrests. The pardon is part of a Newsom administration initiative to offer clemency to those targeted by anti-LGBTQ policing.

“In California and across the country, charges like vagrancy, loitering, and sodomy have been used to unjustly target lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer (LGBTQ) people,” said Newsom’s office. “Law enforcement and prosecutors specifically targeted LGBTQ individuals, communities and community spaces for criminal prosecution. Now, as a proudly LGBTQ-allied state, California is turning the page on historic wrongs.”

Rustin died in 1987 after a lifetime of activism, mainly in the civil rights movement. He was arrested for anti-war organizing during World War II and for protesting segregation in the South. He helped organize the 1956 Montgomery bus boycott and was one of the key figures behind the push for nonviolence in the civil rights movement. In the 1980s, Rustin took on gay rights advocacy. Barack Obama awarded Rustin a posthumous Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2013.

Sources: New York Times 2/5/20; The Guardian 2/5/20; CNN 2/5/20

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