Excerpt from “Wrestling with Rustin, or The Left will Rise Again, Maybe”

Four years ago, CLAGS sponsored a conference on the state of gay and lesbian history. I was one of several presenters in a session on biography. None of us on the panel had consulted beforehand. But by the beginning of the third or fourth presentation, a common pattern had emerged, and the audience erupted with laughter. Each one of us had opened our remarks with a mixture of apology and denial: we each were not, we assured the audience, writing a biography! At the time the motives behind the denial seemed pretty obvious to me. Most of us on the panel would have defined ourselves as activist-scholars. We saw the work we did as intellectual endeavors closely tied to a project of social change. In writing about Bayard Rustin, for instance, I was much less interested in recounting the life of an individual than I was in exploring a period of radical social movements. To see my purpose as the telling of one man’s life story seemed unworthy of the years of effort that a biography takes. Beyond that, gay and lesbian scholarship in the 90s was falling under the sign of the queer. Its methods were those of the intellectual avant-garde while biography was as traditional and boring a genre as one could imagine. From the obligatory opening about the grandparents of the subject to the closing at the memorial service, biographies unfold in a fashion too linear and predictable for the end of the millenium.

Some time after the conference, I began to have dreams about Rustin. This invasion of my psyche gave me another angle for understanding the refusal to own up to my status as a biographer. I have cared passionately about everything that I have researched and written, but for the most part, I have been able to write history from a comfortable emotional distance. Yes, I can remember feelings of disgust as conservative gay men in the McCarthy era stole the Mattachine Society from my beloved Communist founders. But this was a short-term encounter with characters and episodes that I left behind quickly as I moved on to the next chapter in the story. Not so with Rustin. We have been living together now for most of this decade. He’s there when I wake up in the morning and when I go to bed at night. We have a long-term committed relationship, and I haven’t been able to treat his life and his experience, with the kind of detachment that I’ve brought to the study of history.

In our postmodern world where fractured selves and fluid identities somehow keep peskily asserting themselves, it is hardly original to acknowledge that biography is never just about the life whose story gets told. The experience, the concerns, the identities, the subjectivity of the author are also always present, weaving their way into the structure, presentation, and content of the biography, even when invisible. Biography fails when this dual subjectivity goes unacknowledged, when we delude ourselves into believing that we can reconstruct another life uncontaminated by our own. But it can succeed amazingly well when the passions of the biographer are thoughtfully mobilized, when identity and difference, empathy and incomprehension, work dynamically with and against each other to produce flashes of insight and sparks of tension on the page.

Last spring, when Jill Dolan let me know that I had been selected to give this year’s Kessler lecture, it came not only as an honor, but as an opportunity. I don’t want to go so far as to claim that Rustin and I had been engaged in mortal combat. But the easy part of his life—easy at least for me—was over. As I approached the period that had most drawn me to the project in the first place, I found myself stuck in a way that is unusual for me. I was trapped in a place for which “writer’s block” is not an accurate description. My dreams about Rustin, which had stopped long before this, offered something of a clue to what was going on. The setting was always a rattily furnished, frenetically busy activist office. The emotional tone was one of urgency. The plot line was always the same. Bayard and I were both there, he was engaged with something and I was desperately trying to get his attention. My reaction to the first dream was something like “Oh, Jesus. What kind of a biography will I write if I’m this obsessed with pleasing my subject?”But by the third or fourth replay it became clear that approval was not the issue. Rustin and I were in struggle. I am trying to force him to stop and pay attention to me. The urgency, the desperation is about my perception that something is terribly wrong.

All of the research I’ve done has grown from very immediate concerns. My projects have mixed political and personal interests that have struck close to home. I decided to write about the pre-Stonewall movement because of the experience of being an activist here, in New York City, in the early and mid-1970s. Those days were thrilling, but also bewildering. The excitement of reimagining and, in the process reinventing, our lives was balanced at times by a sense of being rudderless, of having not a clue as to what we were doing or where we were going, of having no history or tradition in which to anchor our activities. Bayard Rustin captured my interest because of how his life and his career seemed to speak to issues that were absorbing me at the turn of the last decade. At the end of the 1980s something fairly remarkable (and almost never commented upon) was happening in the lesbian and gay movement. The executive directors, the key staff, and sometimes the board leadership of many major organizations were men and women who, if asked, would have identified themselves as of the left. Yet there they were, running large community centers that provided social services and were dependent on government contracts, or at the helm of organizations that lobbied legislatures and worked through the courts.

To paraphrase a nineteenth-century homosexual emancipationist, they were radical souls trapped within the bodies of reformers. At a time when American civic culture left little room for an oppositional politics, here was a serendipitously creative effort by an assortment of movement types to experiment strategically. Women and men committed to a transformative social vision were engaging institutional structures in ways that seemed, at quick glance, as traditional as one could imagine. But look more closely, and you would have noticed a more complicated scenario. For instance, in the context of the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force, whose board I chaired, it seemed that insider and outsider tactics were intentionally being played off one another. Street activists and lobbyists, the Stonewall generation and its successor, were in dialogue, and were choreographing a new kind of social movement dance. They were mobilizing and insinuating, rabblerousing and negotiating, dreaming boldly and plodding methodically, simultaneously. And it seemed to me that there weren’t many models for this kind of movement activism. Instead, the history of social movements more often reflected the tensions that erupted when self-defined radicals and reformers squared off against one another.

Meanwhile, my teaching had been evolving so that half of what I was doing was connected to the 1960s. If any of you have worked with students on the 60s, you know how exciting the classroom can become. Undergraduates who gravitate toward these courses tend to be young women and men who are in some way at war with contemporary America. They are struggling to resist the conservative times in which we live. They are looking for any handle they can grasp to support their desire to care. They love the optimism, passion, and hopefulness of the 60s. They love the sense of community. They love the idea that students like themselves were making history.

But pedagogy alone wasn’t drawing me to the sixties. The trajectory of my own life was forever altered by those times. The personal transformations set in motion by the radical politics and culture of the sixties were what made me receptive later to the message of gay liberation.

My awakening happened here at Columbia. I arrived on Morningside Heights in 1966, an overly intellectual boy from the Bronx soaked in the patriotism of Cold War Catholicism. My first week here I learned from the Protestant campus minister that God was dead. The senior who was assigned to orient me to campus life turned out to be a Dorothy-Day-style Catholic who took me on retreats filled with renegade priests and nuns contemplating marriage and agonizing over the war in Vietnam. Before long I was booing Selective Service representatives who visited thecampus, and had eggs thrown at me by campus jocks who were angry for different reasons. In this building I learned conversational Italian with an instructor who had us talking about student strikes in Rome and factory takeovers in Turin. Meanwhile, late at night in what passed for the campus coffeehouse, I met and talked with men who wanted men. In the corridors of Butler Library I cruised the man who became my first lover. I made my first gay friends on the 6th floor corridor of John Jay Hall where I was living. When students shut down the university for several weeks in 1968, I divided my time between heated political discussions in the dorms, and equally heated explorations of the West Village, which I was discovering for the first time. Becoming gay and becoming a political radical are inseparably linked in my experience—and completely bound up for me with the 1960s.

If my imagination presents the sixties to me as a moment of awakening, the classroom exposed a different subterranean emotional drama. No matter how I planned the course, somehow what emerged was a story of loss and devastation, a declension narrative that took my students through the rise— and then fall—of hope and optimism. The “good sixties” ofsit-ins, freedom rides, and a war to end poverty were followed by the “bad sixties” of burning cities, Watergate, and a war in Asia. The good sixties are uplifting, while the bad sixties are wrenchingly demoralizing—even as they also thrill.

This is not a narrative that I invented. It defines much of the historical writing on the 1960s, and is the story that a subset of my generation has spun out over and over and over. In my work on gay history I have certainly proven that I can disrupt other “traditional” or well-established narratives. But the means to disrupt this one was eluding me.

And so I came upon Rustin with a set of hopes and expectations. At the time I began researching his life, almost nothing historical had been written about him. Mostly he had a brief walk-on part as the man who organized the historic 1963 March on Washington. But he was the centerpiece of one chapter in a journalistic account of protest in the sixties, and what was there intrigued me. Rustin’s life looked to be the ideal material for constructing a different narrative of the sixties at the same time that his career resonated with the contemporary concerns of the queer movement. Rustin bridged two generations of radicalism in the United States. To youth activists of the late 50s and early 60s, he brought the experience of having organized during the heady years of the 1930s . His activism was suffused by deep moral conviction. He wove Quaker traditions and Gandhian principles into a seamless ethical system that shaped his dealings with Southern sheriffs, American military officers, and restaurant owners in northern cities. Rustin, more than anyone, brought Gandhi to the United States. He presided over the transformation of direct action tactics from the cherished possession of a few initiates to its embrace by masses of Americans….

…. Rustin challenges us to scrutinize orthodoxy in whatever form we encounter, or defend, it. He challenges us to recognize the emptiness of rhetorical militancy. He challenges us to take the call for coalition seriously, and apply it in ways that make many leftists, and progressives, uncomfortable. He asks us to discipline our untamed emotions, not so that we become like unfeeling robots, but so that our politics are shaped by critical thinking. He insists that there is a universalism that can flatten the differences of identity, and that this universalism will be found on a field of justice….

John D’Emilio
University of Illinois—Chicago
Copyright © 1999 by John D’Emilio. All rights reserved.