Tuesday, January 13, 2015

The Violence of Invisiblization


Photo description: Baynard Ruston, a 51 year old black man with slightly greying hair wearing black rimmed glasses, and a suit with a loosened tie taken at a news briefing on the Civil Rights March on Washington, August 27, 1963


I want you to be introduced to Bayard Ruston, a man who "homophobia almost erased from history". This is a man of such tremendous courage and vision and passion, a man who's honesty and forthrightness about his sexuality was remarkably brave considering he was out and honest long before the idea of 'gay liberation' had been born. There are so many sources of information about this man's accomplishments, I can leave you to those, let me just mention that in 2013 he received the Presidential Medal of Freedom:

"Bayard Rustin (posthumous)
 Bayard Rustin was an unyielding activist for civil rights, dignity, and equality for all. An adviser to the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., he promoted nonviolent resistance, participated in one of the first Freedom Rides, organized the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, and fought tirelessly for marginalized communities at home and abroad. As an openly gay African American, Mr. Rustin stood at the intersection of several of the fights for equal rights."

So, you get it, this is a very cool guy who's life and who's legacy needs to be remembered and honoured. The pressure to remove gay people from history is strong and it needs to be resisted. At all costs.

Therefore, imagine my surprise, when I went to see the movie Selma, knowing that Baynard Ruston was one of the characters who I would be seeing on screen. I wondered how he would be portrayed, I knew the story was not about him, but I also knew that he is a big part of the story, not only of Selma, but of the development of Dr. Martin Luther King's non-violent approach to social change. When the film ended without any indicator that Baynard Ruston was gay, I was OK with that. Maybe it just didn't fit into the story properly.

But.

And it's a very big BUT ...

At the end of the film, as they often do in historical dramas, they had updates and summaries of what various people went on to do or become. Bayard Rustin, whose legacy is enormous, was not one of those mentioned. He was effectively invisiblized. Oprah Winfrey, who interestingly, received the Presidential Medal of Freedom at the same time as Bayard Rustin, starred in the movie and was one of the producers - she certainly knows who he is, what he accomplished and how revered he is for managing to live well at proudly at the intersection of sexuality and race.

But he was left out.

Marginalized.

Imagine Walter Naegle, Rustin's partner of 10 years, who recieved the Presidential Medal of Freedom on his partner's behalf, who has been fighting to keep the legacy of the man he loved alive watching this movie. Seeing him on screen, in a celluloid closet, ignored. Imagine.

In a film about prejudice and about the fight for 'VOICE' for those who have been disenfranchised the producers, writers and director commit an act of violence against someone who fought for their voice and their power.

Selma is a good movie. Honesty would have made it a great one.

4 comments:

Jacqueline said...

I agree that Bayard should have been included in the "what happened later" bit at the end. There were many more who could have been included as well. I thought the portrayal of Bayard in the film was true to life (except that he and A. Philip Randolph were present at the event in Mongomery at the end, and I didn't see him there.) He served as a strategist for those in Selma and organized a march in Harlem in support of the Selma march. I have cowritten a biography of Rustin for young people with Walter Naegle and Michael G. Long (https://www.quakerbooks.org/book/bayard-rustin). I queried Walter about his response to the film, but have not heard back from him.

My hope is that this movie will spark interest in the movement--both past and present--and move people to get involved.

Anonymous said...

It's my understanding that Selmas' depiction of Mr.Ruston is not the only historical figure who's actual role is being skewed in the name of dramatic licence in order to "fit" current political agendas. For me it's simply another disappointing slip from Oprahs' traditional high standards which is something I've come to unfortunately anticipate of late.
Personally I'm electing to vote with my $$ and not see this film.

Belinda Burston said...

Thank you for making sure he is known and honoured here for all that he was and accomplished.

Unknown said...

wow. thanks for this writeup.