Out of the Celluloid Closet

Two Films To Watch On Martin Luther King Jr. Day For A Queer Perspective

· Updated on January 13, 2023

The legacy of Martin Luther King Jr. is one that is solely situated in political action.

The southern pastor and civil rights leader is credited with much of the Civil Rights Movement in the 20th century alongside others like Malcom X or Nelson Mandela. And his assassination is a symbol of not only the lengths in which many have gone to allow us the freedoms we have today, but it’s also a reminder of what others are willing to do to block us from them.

So, it makes sense to honor this man every year. But today, we at INTO find it important to not only honor King, but to also spotlight a queer man who was integral to the Civil Rights Movement alongside him: Bayard Rustin.

Rustin, who was an activist and “troublemaker,” according to the FBI, was the right-hand man to King during some of his biggest moments in American History including leading the organization of the March on Washington. However, due to Rustin’s sexuality, he was erased by the movement.

Below are two films that explore why that happened and how each through a separate lens.

The first is a look at him solely through archival footage, FBI records, and interviews with those that organized alongside him. The second is a look at his personal life through the lens of his living partner, Walter Naegle.

Both are powerful. Both important. And both allow all of us to remember that in all movements and actions, queer people are not only present but many times helping lead the way.

Brother Outsider: The Life of Bayard Rustin

“During his 60-year career as an activist, organizer and “troublemaker,” Bayard Rustin formulated many of the strategies that propelled the American civil rights movement.

His passionate belief in Gandhi’s philosophy of nonviolence drew Martin Luther King Jr. and other leaders to him in the 1940’s and 50’s; his practice of those beliefs drew the attention of the FBI and police. In 1963, Rustin brought his unique skills to the crowning glory of his civil rights career: his work organizing the March on Washington, the biggest protest America had ever seen.

But his open homosexuality forced him to remain in the background, marking him again and again as a “brother outsider.”

Bayard & Me

“The only way for Bayard Rustin to legalize his gay relationship was to adopt his partner.

Bayard & Me is a short doc about how the openly gay civil rights activist Bayard Rustin, best known for organizing the March on Washington and advising Martin Luther King Jr., adopted his partner Walter Naegle in the 1980s for legal protections. In this story, Walter remembers Bayard and how they had to work around the system decades before gay marriage was legalized. He also reflects on intergenerational gay adoption and its connection to the civil rights movement.

Matt Wolf is an award-winning director in New York. His films include Wild Combination, about the avant-garde cellist and disco producer Arthur Russell, and Teenage about the birth of youth culture. His most recent shorts include HBO’s It’s Me, Hilary and The Face of AIDS for TIME Magazine.”

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