Political Notebook: Time for Rustin stamp, national LGBTQ Black leader says

  • by Matthew S. Bajko, Assistant Editor
  • Wednesday October 25, 2023
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David Johns, Ph.D., is executive director of the National Black Justice Coalition. Photo: Courtesy NBJC
David Johns, Ph.D., is executive director of the National Black Justice Coalition. Photo: Courtesy NBJC

For the past several years the National Black Justice Coalition has called for the U.S. Postal Service to honor deceased gay Black civil rights leader Bayard Rustin with a stamp. A top adviser to the late Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Rustin died August 24, 1987, at the age of 75.

The LGBTQ+/SGL, short for same-gender loving, advocacy group had hoped to see postage featuring Rustin be announced last year in honor of the 110th anniversary of his birth. Rustin's birthday is observed each March 17.

With 2023 marking the 60th anniversary of the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, for which Rustin had played a major role in organizing, the coalition again had hoped to see an announcement be timed with the commemorations of the historic event. But again, none came.

Monday, the postal service announced 26 stamps it will be releasing throughout 2024, with one being the 47th stamp in the Black Heritage series honoring Constance Baker Motley, the first African American woman to argue before the U.S. Supreme Court and serve as a federal judge who died in 2005. None feature Rustin, though the list is partial, with more stamps set for issuance next year to be released in the coming weeks and months.

"I find it frustrating that this year especially, as we marked the 60th anniversary of a seminal moment that reflects Bayard's brilliance and leadership in spite of seemingly intractable problems we are still grappling with, that he hasn't been honored in that way," said David Johns, Ph.D., executive director of the coalition, during a recent phone interview with the Bay Area Reporter.

Johns, a Black, same-gender-loving man who grew up in Inglewood, California, now lives in Washington, D.C. His organization had called on Congress last year to pass the Bayard Rustin Stamp Act, authored by Congressmember Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-Washington, D.C.), which would require the U.S. Postal Service to issue a forever stamp depicting Rustin.

Since it was first introduced in 2019, the legislation has never been brought up for a hearing before the House Committee on Oversight and Accountability. Norton reintroduced it in August, with gay Black Congressmember Ritchie Torres (D-New York) again a co-sponsor, along with straight allies Shontel Brown (D-Ohio) and Jimmy Gomez (D-Los Angeles).

"At this moment the U.S. House of Representatives is under siege by a very small and very loud group of fascists ... white supremacist fascists who are intentional and clear in obstructing the advancement of any public policy that is the result of, and would otherwise benefit, members of marginalized communities," said Johns, who spoke with the B.A.R. two days after Congressmember Kevin McCarthy (R-Bakersfield) had been removed as speaker of the body. "Beyond that, the good Congresswoman is continuing to fight for representation in a district that is suffering, especially this legislative cycle under the thumb of those fascist representatives."

Johns told the B.A.R. he finds it perplexing that 36 years since Rustin died, they need to renew their calls for a stamp to be issued for him. He noted that the postal service had released October 2 a Forever stamp for the late Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg three years after her death at the age of 87 on September 18, 2020, due to complications from metastatic pancreatic cancer.

Hearing that the Ginsburg stamp was being released "was hard," said Johns, because it was another reminder that "the continued erasure of the contributions to our democracy in this country and our shared history is very real. It is both maddening and frustrating."

Nine years ago the International Court System, the drag philanthropy organization founded in San Francisco, and the National LGBTQ Task Force had first launched the campaign (https://internationalcourtsystem.org/projects/bayard-rustin-national-stamp-campaign/) calling for a commemorative U.S. postage stamp in honor of Rustin. Among the co-chairs is Walter Naegle, the partner of Rustin.

LGBTQ support for stamp

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 Netflix releasing the biopic "Rustin" next week, backers of the stamp campaign hope the movie will boost their efforts similar to how the 2008 movie "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, is now an honorary co-chair of the national campaign behind the Rustin stamp.

"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," said Cohen.

Julian Breece wrote the original screenplay for the film starring Colman Domingo in the title role. Both Breece and Domingo are gay Black men, as is the director, playwright George C. Wolfe. Dustin Lance Black, the gay Oscar-winning screenwriter of "Milk," shares a writing credit on "Rustin" with Breece.

As the B.A.R.'s online Political Notes column first reported October 2, the producers of the "Rustin" movie have been using film screenings of it to encourage audience members to get behind the Rustin stamp campaign. The film will be shown at invite-only events for the LGBTQ community in San Francisco and Oakland next week.

"I am very much appreciative of the gift of the film. It is beautiful," said Johns, who saw it at a special screening held in D.C.

Since the Milk stamp was released, a number of other LGBTQ luminaries have been honored on U.S. postage. 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. It is long past due for seeing Rustin be included, argued Johns, who told the B.A.R. he is "hopeful" that Rustin's story will reach a global audience via Netflix's platform.

"I am excited about people who report to care about Black people encountering Bayard's unapologetic embracing of his super powers of being a Black, same-gender loving man," said Johns.

And he hopes it leads people to send in letters of support to the postal service's Citizens' Stamp Advisory Committee. The secretive body, currently with 11 members, meets quarterly behind closed doors to decide what stamp ideas to recommend to the U.S. postmaster general.

The leader of the postal service makes the final determination on which commemorative stamps are issued each year. 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. in late September, postal service spokesperson James McKean encouraged those in support of the Rustin stamp or any others to send letters 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.

Web Extra: For more queer political news, be sure to check http://www.ebar.com Monday mornings for Political Notes, the notebook's online companion. This week's column reported on Congressmember Barbara Lee (D-Oakland) picking up LGBTQ support for her U.S. senate bid.

Keep abreast of the latest LGBTQ political news by following the Political Notebook on Threads @ https://www.threads.net/@matthewbajko.

Got a tip on LGBTQ politics? Call Matthew S. Bajko at (415) 829-8836 or e-mail [email protected]

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