Bayard Rustin was a gay African-American activist who worked alongside Martin Luther King, Jr., and a leading organizer of the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. Despite Rustin’s key role in the civil rights movement, and his work as an outspoken advocate of LGBTQ rights in the 1970s and 1980s, many remain unaware of his contributions.
His legacy informed an April 2018 decision by the Montgomery County, Md., Board of Education to make Bayard Rustin Elementary School the first school in the state to be named after an openly gay person. The new school in Rockville, Md., is slated to open in September 2018.
The decision followed a months-long campaign by parents, students, educators and community activists, who say the new school name will both honor a courageous African-American activist who embraced his gay identity and underscore the district’s commitment to inclusion and tolerance.
“As a queer student, even in a progressive area, I was raised in a society that still attaches shame to my identity,” said Jamie Griffith, a senior from Montgomery Blair High School in Silver Spring, during testimony before the board in April. “So a Bayard Rustin Elementary School is not only a well-deserved homage to a civil rights leader and hero, but a way to break stigma and give hope to future students who no longer have to feel trapped in the closet.”
“A Bayard Rustin Elementary School is not only a well-deserved homage to a civil rights leader and hero, but a way to break stigma and give hope to future students who no longer have to feel trapped in the closet.”Jamie Griffith
Montgomery Blair High School senior
Parent-activist Mark Eckstein Bernardo was a driving force in the effort to name the school after Rustin. With his husband, he is raising 6-year-old twins who will be in second grade at the new school in the fall.
“That’s why we are so passionate about this,” said Eckstein Berndaro. “What a perfect chance to do it — when kids have no real bias as it is.”
Support for naming the school after Rustin was not universal. Some residents near the school vehemently opposed the idea, especially in comments on a Facebook group, asserting it would be inappropriate and compel parents to have uncomfortable conversations about sexuality with their young children.
However, others underscored the importance of young people of color and/or LGBTQ students having role models they can look up to and learn about, especially when their histories are too often erased.
“For young people to be able to see themselves, and who they are, and see that reflected in their schools and their teachers, that’s important,” said Samir Paul, a computer science teacher at Montgomery Blair High School in Silver Spring, Md.
Jabari Lyles, the executive director of the Maryland chapter of GLESN, a national organization that advocates around K-12 LGBTQ issues, agreed. “It helps them see and believe that there are people like them in the world doing incredible things.”
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When the naming process began last year, Eckstein Bernardo says a few families reached out to the school district and asked that options include at least one name that would honor the LGBTQ community.
“As we dug deeper, there were no names that were LGBTQ at all,” he said, referring to a county list of about 200 options for new school names.
So he began talking with other parents — at the bus stop, at school events, via email, and on social media. Following an informal online survey, and deliberation by a community naming committee appointed by the district, Rustin’s name made a list of five finalists.
Eckstein Bernardo also participated in the naming committee, testified before the school board, and connected with educators, students, elected officials, and community activists. He said his outreach was very targeted, often one-on-one, and driven by a loose network of several hundred people, many of whom had a personal connection to the issue.
This included Lily Qi, a county employee and candidate for state delegate. Her son came out as gay the summer before he began college. During her emotional testimony before the school board, Qi challenged those who questioned the appropriateness of naming the school after a gay man. “Let me be very clear,” she said. “There is nothing vulgar or scandalous about being gay.”
Although the naming committee endorsed a different name, the board overruled the recommendation when it voted to name the school after Rustin.
“It says: ‘You are welcome here. You don’t have to hide. We see you and we value you.’ ”Amy Cavanna
School psychologist and Director at Large for Youth Outreach at NOVA Pride
According to Amy Cavanna, a school psychologist and Director at Large for Youth Outreach at NOVA Pride, the decision “speaks volumes” to LGBTQ parents and students across the district. “It says: ‘You are welcome here. You don’t have to hide. We see you and we value you.’ ”
Student support was an important factor in the board’s decision. In addition to student testimony, several student newspapers editorialized in favor. “Queer representation is a huge factor in making sure our LGBTQ+ students feel comfortable expressing themselves,” read an opinion piece in The Current, the student paper at Watkins Mill High School in Gaithersburg, Md. “Kids should be able to grow up knowing that no matter what their identity, they can achieve anything they believe in.”
Eckstein Bernardo says the decision was truly “a big deal” and sends a proactive message of support and inclusiveness.
“Amid much controversy and pushback,” he added, “the board of education publicly affirmed LGBTQ students in Montgomery County and around the country. This will have a huge impact moving forward, because these marginalized students will now begin to get the respect they deserve.”