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California Gov. Gavin Newsom has pardoned gay civil rights leader Bayard Rustin for violating the state’s anti-sodomy laws, and announced a new pardon process for others who were convicted under those now-outdated laws.
Rustin was convicted of “vagrancy” and sentenced to jail for 50 days after being caught having sex with two men in a parked car in Pasadena in 1953. The other men involved in the consensual sexual encounter, both of whom were white, were never charged.
After he was released, Rustin was forced to register as a sex offender before returning to his home state of New York.
Rustin was a close confidant of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and a key organizer behind many actions or demonstrations calling for full civil rights for African-Americans and people of color, including the first “Freedom Ride” in 1947, the 1955 Montgomery bus boycott, the 1963 March on Washington where King gave his famous “I Have a Dream” speech, and the 1965 boycott of the New York City School system. He was posthumously honored with the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President Obama in 2013.
In pardoning Rustin, Newsom, a longtime LGBTQ ally, noted that police and prosecutors across the United States often used charges like vagrancy, loitering, and sodomy to punish LGBTQ people, reports the Associated Press.
Even though California’s sodomy laws were repealed in 1975, and individuals who had been forced to register as sex offenders were able to remove themselves from the Sex Offender Registry in 1997, neither action changed the original convictions.
Newsom also used the occasion to issue an executive order creating a process to identify people who were convicted under anti-gay sodomy laws and allow them to apply for pardons in an expedient manner. Those who believe they qualify may apply through an online website.
Newsom’s pardon of Rustin came after the California Legislature’s LGBTQ and black caucuses asked for it, noting that, despite his myriad contributions to the civil rights movement, Rustin was often shunned or hidden from the spotlight, in part because of his arrest record.
“Generations of LGBT people — including countless gay men — were branded criminals and sex offenders simply because they had consensual sex. This was often life-ruining, and many languished on the sex offender registry for decades,” Sen. Scott Wiener (D-San Francisco), one of two legislative leaders who took the lead on demanding the pardon for Rustin. “The Governor’s actions today are a huge step forward in our community’s ongoing quest for full acceptance and justice.”
“Rustin was a great American who was both gay and black at a time when the sheer fact of being either or both could land you in jail,” Assemblywoman Shirley Weber (D-San Diego), the other leader behind the pardon, said in a statement. “This pardon assures his place in history.”
Rebecca Isaacs, the executive director of Equality Federation, applauded Newsom for issuing the pardon and extending a hand to those wrongly convicted through the new clemency initiative, but noted that more needs to be done to achieve full lived equality for LGBTQ people.
“This is a positive step towards correcting a historical wrong, but more action is needed to correct the inequality and injustices faced by LGBTQ people today,” Isaacs said. “We need to pass the federal Equality Act, so that going forward no one is denied employment, housing, or public accommodations for being who they are.”
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