Sabrina Sojourner: I’m very familiar with Bayard Rustin’s story. I’m honored that I twice have been given an award in his name and I also was asked to speak to a group in Boston at a luncheon in his honor, so I’m very familiar with him.
POV: How long have you known about his life? And how is it meaningful to you?
Sojourner: I feel like I’ve known his story forever. It’s been more than twenty years since I first heard of him, and I knew his name long before I knew he was a gay man, having grown up in the civil rights era. I knew he was really the principal architect behind the March on Washington, and I also knew that he was principal organizer and that a lot of people had a lot of respect for him. And I think I was in college, or even after college, that I found out that he was gay.
POV: Did you have any particular role models when you were thinking about a career in the public sector?
Sojourner: Interestingly enough my role model was Harvey Milk, because he, like myself, started out in drama and theater. And when I moved from Santa Barbara back to the Bay Area, I met Harvey at a political event, no, I take that back, I met him at a theater event. And we got into a long discussion about theater and politics, and that really was my initial role model.
POV: What was it particularly about him other than that shared interest?
Sojourner: His bravery… well, yes, it is bravery. The fact that for him, being a gay man was natural. And he didn’t take on other people’s stuff about that. And that’s what really caught my attention. And the fact that he was clear about what it meant to be a politician and what it meant to be a gay man who was a politician.
POV: So you’re saying he was oriented to his own sense of himself, regardless of what that meant to other people?
Sojourner: No, I think it was bigger than that, because Harvey had something that continues to be missed, by a lot of gay politicians and a lot of gay people in general… in that he understood that he was a part of a community, and that he had something to offer the community, in terms of the larger San Francisco community, and that yes, he was a gay man, and he was going to be out about that because he was not going to let that get in the way in what he had to offer the community.
POV: Did you ever consider being out as a challenge to your career in politics?
Sojourner: I think that I was afraid that it would be more of an issue than it was. I was clear that I was going to take basically the Harvey Milk approach, which was I have a lot to offer my community, in terms of the District of Columbia, and that I was going to be out about my orientation so as to not make it an issue. When I encountered reporters who wanted to always talk to me about my orientation I started asking them how much do they ask my straight counterparts? About their orientation. The first time that one said “lesbian activist” I called him on it. I said, you know, you don’t say this about heterosexual activists, and I am much, much more than that. I am a published writer, I am a director, a singer, a mother, there’s lots of things you can put there, why are you just focusing on my orientation?
POV: What did he say?
Sojourner: Well, after that he dropped it. And he never did it again.
POV: So you found that strategy to be successful, as well as the only one you could take?
Sojourner: Yes. The challenges I continue to have are, as on a wide range of acceptance in the political establishment in Washington DC — and the Washington DC I’m talking about is my hometown, not the capitol — the struggle that I continue to encounter has much more to do with the white gay community than with the black heterosexual community. There are struggles that exist within the African-American community, and they’re on a different level. They are much more with some, and not all, the ministers, and with some, and not all, congregations. And with some, and not all, religious black people. However, the struggles I encounter, and the place where I find myself most often under attack is from the white gay male community.
POV: Do you think that’s something you experience particularly in the DC area, or do you think that’s certainly something that’s being struggled with across the country?
Sojourner: Absolutely. This whole thing with Trent Lott is interesting in terms of all the different discussions of race that it is bringing up. And race and racism within the, for lack of a better phrase, “mainstream gay community” is still very prevalent.
POV: And unquestioned?
Sojourner: And absolutely unquestioned.
POV: So what do you think Bayard would say about these issues today? Do you think it’s a different landscape today than it was then?
Sojourner: Well, I think that Bayard has much more to say for African-Americans who are out as being gay or lesbian, bisexual, or transgendered, than he does for probably other people. I think he’s a model for everyone. The thing I love dearly about Barney Frank is he gets that he’s a citizen of the world who is a gay man. And that he has a responsibility to the gay community, however, that’s not the only place that he has a responsibility. And that’s certainly, when I look at the people who I consider my contemporaries, Barney, Phil Wilson in L.A., even Ken Reeves, we get that we are out as gay people, we are out as African-American gay people, however we are also citizens of a larger world, a larger universe than the mainstream gay community. And I also think that’s been the tension between us and the mainstream gay community.
POV: Well, to ask you where you see the gay rights movement headed, it sounds like, I could ask you that and I could also ask you where you see many other movements headed, because that’s equally relevant to you! But for this feature, do you want to speak to that?
Sojourner: I would like to speak to that, because I think they are interrelated, and that’s something I’ve been puzzling out for myself. I believe right now that all of the “freedom movements” have boxed themselves into a type of orthodoxy that is not serving them. To only look at things from a gay perspective, to only look at things from a black perspective or a Latino perspective, it feeds into a kind of monolithic thinking that doesn’t exist in any of these communities. The African-American community continues to be described as a monolithic community but it is so incredibly diverse. That same kind of diversity exists in the women’s movement, the gay/lesbian/bisexual/transgender movement, we are not monolithic in terms of our approach. So I think that there needs to continue to be opportunities to have autonomous ways in which we work, and there needs to be a group of people, and do I think it needs to be a group of people, who are willing to say that this is part of a larger scheme of what we want our country and our world to be. That it’s not about freedom for any one group, it’s about freedom for all groups.
I know a lot of people have a lot of problems with Bill Clinton, but the truth of the matter is that he was one of the few people who truly got that idea. Really, it was because he did have such humble beginnings, so he understood that intrinsically, that we either all float together or we sink together. Yes, there were times where he didn’t have whatever we would have liked him to have to be more courageous, but he did a lot better than a lot of his predecessors, so to not honor him for at least what he did is also to dishonor people like Bayard Rustin, because there would not have been an opportunity for someone like a Bill Clinton if there had not been a Bayard Rustin.