The California governor [Gavin Newsom] has launched an initiative to grant clemency to people historically prosecuted for being gay, starting with a posthumous pardon for Bayard Rustin, a celebrated gay civil rights leader.
Rustin, who worked alongside Martin Luther King Jr and helped organize the March on Washington, was arrested in 1953 for having consensual sex, convicted under a “vagrancy” law long used to prosecute LGBTQ+ people.
Governor Gavin Newsom announced on Wednesday that his office would pardon Rustin, who died in 1987, and also allow others subjected to this kind of discriminatory policing to apply for clemency. Rustin, who also helped organize the Montgomery bus boycott and who was given a posthumous presidential medal of freedom by Barack Obama, was sentenced to 60 days in jail and forced to register as a sex offender after his arrest.
Black and LGBTQ+ lawmakers praised the pardon for Rustin, which some of them had formally requested. Some activists and civil rights attorneys, however, said they were eager to see the governor move beyond largely symbolic measures – and address the harms facing queer and transgender people incarcerated today.
“The governor has so much power,” said Colby Lenz, a legal advocate for LGBTQ+ prisoners in California. “It’s great he’s doing this initiative, but it’s painful when I think about visiting so many queer and trans people who are incarcerated who continue to face so many barriers to release.”
Lenz, who is part of a coalition that lobbies the governor’s office for the release of trans prisoners, says she would like to see the pardon effort extend to currently imprisoned trans people, who are disproportionately represented in the system, and can face high rates of violence and abuse inside.
Survived and Punished is one of the partner groups, which advocates for survivors of abuse and domestic violence who were incarcerated after defending themselves, such as the famous case of Cyntoia Brown, sentenced to life at age 16 for murder, but recently released. There are numerous trans women incarcerated with similar cases in California, said Lenz, who estimated that Newsom has received at least 50 clemency requests on behalf of trans prisoners but has yet to grant any.
Janetta Johnson, a trans rights activist in San Francisco who was formerly incarcerated, agrees that for the trans community “their crimes are survival crimes because of lack of opportunities, lack of access to employment and housing”. Some end up in prison because they fought their abusers, she said, and trans people often face harsher sentences. “[The governor] needs to acknowledge the discrimination and punitive punishment for the queer and trans community.”
Read the full article. Image above: Bayard Rustin, leader of the March on Washington in New York City in 1963. Photograph: Eddie Adams/AP