Saturday, May 13, 2006

Bayard Rustin & the Birth of Creative Trouble!

As one might imagine I've been, as a relatively nascent blogger, wrestling with titles for this site all week. There was a time when it was going to be called Queerly Political; I'd even claimed the link and started setting stuff up. But I quickly ditched the site and the name. Several friends whom I deeply trust thought it would 'pin' me and my writings too decidedly.

Hearing that from others confirmed a feeling I had already had, yet one I resisted. As I've struggled with how much to let my queer identity define me and my life/life's work, I've often felt a very real need to assert my perspective as a queer one, to defy the silencing of queer voices by asserting my own voice as a queer one. Yet I knew that putting 'queer' in a blog title would automatically consign it to the category of queer blog. And, as bogus as that sort of labeling is, I felt that on some level I have to avoid it if I want to be effective.

Isn't that ridiculous? The content of this blog is certainly going to be queer. Believe me, you'll be hearing that word, its meanings, its complexities, its possibilities examined a lot. As I think more about it, I'm not really sure if it makes a huge difference if the title contains 'queer.' Maybe from first impressions. The fact that the wider world that might stumble upon this amalgamation of leftist ideas and opinions wouldn't automatically know I'm queer might make a difference in whether or not they choose to read it. But does that change the second they find the phrase "as a queer ______" ? I think it probably does. I don't shy away from being a known queer, but I refuse to deny, unlike someone like Andrew Sullivan, that it has bearing on who I am and how I am perceived - as do my other identites, as male, as gay, as Jewish, as atheist, as activist, as lover of literature, as feminist, and so on. Yet these identities all operate and intersect in different ways and have different degrees of bearing on myself and the world in which I inhabit.

So as I kept searching for meaningful quotes or other ways to cleverly and effectively title my blog, I found myself arriving at the figure of Bayard Rustin. The principal organizer of the 1963 March on Washington and the man who convinced MLK that non-violence was the answer, Bayard Rustin was also an openly gay black man, a socialist and a Quaker. He was someone who profoundly understood the cultural, political and economic meaning of difference.

As an openly gay man back when homosexuality was truly taboo, he struggled to find a safe space within the civil rights and labor movements he occupied, and constantly faced questions, both from people outside the movement and within it, about his sexuality (as well as his former Communist affilliations). Difference meant something very profound for him both personally and in his social and political interactions with others. Yet for all of the struggle and hardship his difference caused him, Rustin never shied away from being who he was, and never shied away from pursuing justice, understanding (as I do) that our oppressions are multiple and interconnected; that, as Martin Luther King, Jr. once said, "Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere." And all this, despite the fact that his difference meant that he has received little historical or cultural credit for his huge contributions to the civil rights movement - both then and now.

Rustin's story is an incredible one - and one that I frankly do not even know enough about - yet it is one that few Americans have ever or will ever know. His life and his legacy are profoundly important and significant. So why do I use his words to title my blog? I don't want to be perceived as somehow claiming his legacy as my own, or somehow seeing myself as an heir to him. I do think, however, that I am someone who lives, in many ways, on the edge of multiple identities and allegiances in the way that he did; and who, becuase of a real committment to truth and integrity, questions and struggles with the role of those identities in shaping my life, my beliefs, my actions and my politics. And I guess that, in this blog world where everyone struggles to find a niche and everyone is making a claim as to having unique things to say, is where I come into all of this.

Ultimately, in the course of examining and questioning events and narratives in American and international politics, and in my own life as an organizer, I hope to contribute something to a growing conversation in America about identity, politics and culture. Through my experiences as a queer man in the labor movement, a labor activist in the queer movement, a student organizer in a relatively disfunctional student political movement, and so on, I hope to elucidate some feelings and insights that can help move that conversation, currently being dominated by cultural conservatives and Ivory Tower academics, in a more - useful? - direction.

And, at the very least, I want to create a little more of an understanding of what exactly Bayard Rustin was talking about when, many years ago, he professed a belief in "social dislocation and creative trouble."


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