LGBTQ History Month: Bayard Rustin stamp backers harness new biopic to press their case

  • by Matthew S. Bajko, Assistant Editor
  • Monday October 2, 2023
Share this Post:
Backers of a postage stamp honoring gay Black civil rights leader Bayard Rustin hope the release of a new film about him will jump-start their efforts. Rendering courtesy International Court System
Backers of a postage stamp honoring gay Black civil rights leader Bayard Rustin hope the release of a new film about him will jump-start their efforts. Rendering courtesy International Court System

For nearly a decade LGBTQ advocates have been calling on the U.S. Postal Service to issue a stamp honoring the deceased gay Black civil rights leader Bayard Rustin. But just as a resolution in support of the effort has gone nowhere in Congress, the calls for a Rustin forever stamp have, so far, fallen on deaf ears among the advisory body that recommends ideas for new postage.

Now, with Netflix releasing a biopic this fall about Rustin, backers of the stamp campaign hope the movie will boost their efforts similar to how the 2008 film "Milk" supercharged the drumbeat for seeing a stamp be issued on behalf of its protagonist, the late gay San Francisco supervisor Harvey Milk. Issued in 2014, the Milk stamp was the first to specifically honor a leader of the LGBTQ rights movement in America.

Bruce Cohen, a gay man who helped produce both films, recently signed on as an honorary co-chair of the national campaign behind the Rustin stamp. He told the Bay Area Reporter by phone September 29 that he and his counterparts will be using various upcoming screenings of "Rustin" to encourage audience members to get behind the stamp campaign and send in letters of support to the postal service's Citizens' Stamp Advisory Committee.

"We are super hopeful and excited that the impact of the movie is really going to help Bayard Rustin get his stamp," said Cohen, who is in the process of sending in his own letter of support to the postage panel.

The new film has another connection to that of "Milk," as its gay Oscar-winning screenwriter, Dustin Lance Black, shares a writing credit on "Rustin" with Julian Breece, who wrote the original screenplay for the film starring Colman Domingo in the title role. Both Breece and Domingo are gay Black men.

The two stamp efforts share a political connection. Among the executive producers of "Rustin," being released in theaters November 3 and globally on Netflix November 17, are former President Barack Obama and former first lady Michelle Obama. During Obama's time in the Oval Office, the White House hosted the unveiling ceremony for the Milk stamp.

Present at it was Stuart Milk, the gay nephew of Harvey Milk who is among the honorary co-chairs of the Rustin stamp campaign. Another co-chair is Walter Naegle, the partner of Rustin, who died at the age of 75 on August 24, 1987.

Nine years ago the International Court System, the drag philanthropy organization founded in San Francisco, and the National LGBTQ Task Force launched the campaign calling for a commemorative U.S. postage stamp in honor of Rustin. Nicole Murray Ramirez, known as the Queen Mother I of the Americas and Nicole the Great within the Imperial Court System, was the initial instigator of the campaign and was put in touch with Cohen via the LGBTQ Victory Fund, the national group that works to elect out candidates to offices across the country.

Murray Ramirez plans to attend the San Francisco screening of "Rustin," set to take place October 30, and speak at it about the stamp effort. Cohen will likewise also be promoting the stamp campaign at a screening of the movie, directed by gay Black playwright George C. Wolfe, that Monday at a film festival in Middleburg, Virginia.

"We deeply appreciate Bruce Cohen reaching out and being supportive of our Bayard Rustin stamp efforts and accepting being a national chair," said Murray Ramirez, a gay San Diego resident and city human rights commissioner. "I also want to thank the Victory Fund for their strong support and connecting Bruce with us."

CA leaders endorse effort

Over the years a number of California leaders have backed the Rustin stamp campaign, from members of the West Hollywood City Council to gay San Diego Mayor Todd Gloria. Back in 2019 California state legislators passed a resolution written by Assemblymember Wendy Carrillo (D-Los Angeles) in support of the Rustin stamp effort and also called on the U.S. Postal Service to issue it.

In 2020, at the urging of then-assemblymember Shirley Weber (D-San Diego), now secretary of state, and gay state Senator Scott Wiener (D-San Francisco), California Governor Gavin Newsom posthumously pardoned Rustin. In 1953 he had been arrested in Pasadena, California on vagrancy charges leading to Rustin spending 50 days in Los Angeles County Jail and being ordered to register as a sex offender.

Newsom's doing so was aimed at removing a possible stumbling block for the issuance of a Rustin stamp. Now, with the movie coming out, Murray Ramirez told the B.A.R. he hopes it has the same positive impact as the film about Milk had in boosting that stamp effort.

"A postal worker I was talking to at the White House unveiling for the Milk stamp said, 'We got even more letters after the movie came out.' I believe the Rustin movie will do the same for our stamp campaign," said Murray Ramirez.

Few people outside of the Bay Area knew about Milk prior to the release of the film starring Sean Penn as the gay civil rights leader, while even fewer people are aware of Rustin, said Cohen, or the role he played in the seminal 1963 March on Washington where the late Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. gave his now iconic "I Have a Dream" speech. According to the Smithsonian's National Postal Museum, the first stamp honoring King was released in 1979.

Not only was Rustin a top adviser to King, he was instrumental in seeing that the protest march and rally took place, as is depicted in the new film, said Cohen.

"The entire history of the civil rights movement, and therefore our country, would be different if it hadn't been for Bayard Rustin," said Cohen, adding, "when you realize it was his idea and he was the one who made it happen that speaks extremely loudly to his historical significance and why he is deserving of a stamp."

Congressmember Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-Washington, D.C.) has made similar points in the resolution she has repeatedly introduced in the U.S. House on behalf of a Rustin stamp. She first announced her Bayard Rustin Stamp Act in 2019 and just reintroduced it in August, as it has yet to be adopted.

Once again gay Black Congressmember Ritchie Torres (D-New York) is a co-sponsor of it. Also sponsoring it are straight allies Shontel Brown (D-Ohio) and Jimmy Gomez (D-Los Angeles). It is currently awaiting a hearing before the House Committee on Oversight and Accountability.

Outside of the U.S. Rustin is little known, said Cohen, adding that the new film hopefully will bring him the international recognition he deserves. As a result, Cohen hopes it will increase support for seeing a Rustin stamp be approved.

"The fact this movie will be available instantly all over the world on November 17 is super exciting, and we hope will be completely transformative for Bayard's legacy," Cohen told the B.A.R.

Other LGBTQs honored

Since the Milk stamp was released, a number of other LGBTQ luminaries have been honored on U.S. postage. A forever stamp honoring the late astronaut Sally Ride, who posthumously came out as a lesbian at the time of her death in 2012, was issued May 23, 2018.

Last year, the postal service on a Black Heritage Forever Stamp featured the late Edmonia Lewis. The first African American and Native American sculptor to earn international recognition in the Western art world, Lewis moved around lesbian art circles in Rome in the late 1860s.

The Gay and Lesbian History on Stamps website has compiled a list of all the stamps ever issued that feature people from the LGBTQ community. Included in its list are also stamps depicting the cartoon character Bugs Bunny in drag, believed to be the first time drag has been featured on U.S. postage.

After they came out in 2020, Murray Ramirez launched a campaign calling on the postal service to create postage featuring the late drag performers José Julio Sarria, Marsha P. Johnson, and Sylvia Rivera. He recently told the B.A.R. that there has been no word on whether the postage panel has considered doing so.

The committee, currently 11 members, meets confidentially four times a year and makes recommendations about new stamps to the U.S. postmaster general, who makes a final determination on which commemorative stamps will be issued. According to the committee's website, ideas for stamp subjects should be received at least three or more years prior to the proposed issuance year.

Only deceased individuals are eligible to be featured on a stamp, and they can't be honored in such a manner until three years following their death. The approval process for new stamps usually takes about three years.

If the committee decides not to recommend a subject for issuance as a stamp, the proposal can be submitted again for reconsideration following a three-year interval, according to its stamp selection process rules. As its website notes, "The Postal Service will honor extraordinary and enduring contributions to American society, history, culture, or environment."

In an emailed reply to the B.A.R. September 28, postal service spokesperson James McKean said announcements on the stamps to be issued in 2024 should be made "later this calendar year." He encouraged those in support of the Rustin stamp, or any other postage suggestions, to write to the stamp advisory panel.

"The Postal Service is always happy to hear about stamps subjects that the public would like to see. If you would like to suggest ideas for future stamps you must contact the Citizens Stamp Advisory Committee," wrote McKean. "The Postal Service's Citizens Stamp Advisory Committee receives over 30,000 suggestions for stamp subjects each year. From those suggestions it makes recommendations to the Postmaster General on each year's stamp program."

For the address to submit letters, visit the advisory committee's website.

Help keep the Bay Area Reporter going in these tough times. To support local, independent, LGBTQ journalism, consider becoming a BAR member.