After astronaut Sally Ride died earlier this week, Andrew Sullivan put up a column criticizing her for remaining closeted as a lesbian until her death. Though her achievements would “vastly outshine” her “flaws,” he wrote, “the truth remains: she had a chance to expand people’s horizons and young lesbians’ hope and self-esteem, and she chose not to.”
When a lesbian wrote to him to say that it was precisely because Ride wasn’t openly gay that she was available (in the writer’s conservative family and community) as a strong, independent, feminist role model growing up, and that “her closet is part of the reason I escaped mine,” Sullivan sneered:
“Which makes Sally Ride what? A role model for staying silent so as not to disturb the status quo? Once you accept the logic of prejudice, even as a tool for other laudable goals, you’ve given the game away.”
And that makes his most recent post on the subject really really weird.
This morning Sullivan returned to the subject of Sally Ride (for I believe the sixth time) to apologize for the tone of some of his earlier comments but to affirm his basic perspective.
“Perhaps a better way of putting this is to point to another American icon, Bayard Rustin. Rustin was both black and gay and was integral to the organization behind the civil rights movement. But because he was gay, and had been arrested for public sex, he chose to be in the background of the movement and not be a spokesman, in case it would do more harm than good. But in his later life, he became a towering figure for many of us looking for role models as out gay men. He was a pragmatist but also deeply principled, like the late Frank Kameny. He faced, like Ride, several layers of discrimination, but he found the strength to break through all of them. …
“No one is required to be a hero. But no one either should be judged too weak or oppressed for heroism. Sally Ride had a choice, as did Bayard Rustin. They are both heroes to my mind in many ways – and far more distinguished human beings than I could ever be. But Rustin’s shoulders are higher and broader. You can see the future from them.”
This is completely wrongheaded.
Bayard Rustin didn’t simply “choose to be in the background of the movement … because he was gay, and had been arrested for public sex.” He was pushed to the background of the movement after his conviction revealed his sexuality to the public.
As a closeted gay man, Rustin had been a prominent organizer within the nascent civil rights movement. As a known homosexual, he was fired from the Fellowship of Reconciliation, shunned by former allies, forced to contribute anonymously or surreptitiously or not at all. His involuntary ejection from one closet, in other words, had the effect of forcing him into another.
This is “the logic of prejudice,” and it’s a logic that Rustin well understood. Rustin didn’t choose, and wouldn’t have chosen, to go public as a gay man in the fifties. That choice was made for him, and it had exactly the negative effect on his life’s work that Ride must have feared disclosure would have had on hers. Bayard Rustin’s life stands as a refutation of Sullivan’s stance, not an affirmation of it.
And Sullivan compounds his error with his use of a fragmentary Rustin quote, apparently lifted from Wikipedia:
“Today, blacks are no longer the litmus paper or the barometer of social change. Blacks are in every segment of society and there are laws that help to protect them from racial discrimination. The new “niggers” are gays. . . . It is in this sense that gay people are the new barometer for social change. . . . The question of social change should be framed with the most vulnerable group in mind: gay people. “
The first thing that needs to be said about this quote is that it’s taken from a speech which Rustin gave when he was seventy-four years old, while Sally Ride died at sixty-one. So to present his words as an attack on Ride’s silence is shoddy and ugly.
But beyond that, Sullivan’s version of the speech is so chopped down as to render its true meaning unrecognizable. Rustin wasn’t arguing, as the excerpt seems to suggest, that the fight against racism had been won. Rather, he was saying that it was because overt racism had been largely driven underground — because “nobody would dare to say any number of things about blacks that they are perfectly prepared to say about gay people” — attitudes toward gays had become the “barometer” of public opinion on social justice issues.
And Rustin went on to identify this position as leaving gays with an obligation to other social justice movements, in an analysis that rebukes Sullivan’s. “Because we stand in the center of progress toward democracy,” he declared, “we have a terrifying responsibility to the whole society.” The gay community, he said, “cannot work for justice for itself alone,” cannot tolerate prejudice in its ranks, and must “recognize that we cannot fight for the rights of gays unless … we are ready to fight for a radicalization of this society.”
A society that leaves young children and the elderly in poverty, Rustin said, is a society that will never grant justice to gays. And so “these economic concerns must go hand-in-hand and, to a degree, precede the possibility of dealing with the most grievous problem — which is sexual prejudice.”
This, like all of Rustin’s life work, is an eloquent statement of the interconnectedness of struggles for change. Where Sullivan claims that marshaling your energy for your chosen battles is “giving the game away,” Rustin understood that any movement to uplift the oppressed must operate strategically, consciously, mindfully. Where Sullivan excoriates Sally Ride for her apparent calculation that she could do more to change society for the better from within the closet than outside, Bayard Rustin would have nodded. He would have understood.
He would have embraced her as a friend, a comrade, a hero.