Standing on the Shoulders of Bayard Rustin | Equitas Health

Blog 2/27/24

Standing on the Shoulders of Bayard Rustin

When you walk into the Bayard Rustin LGBTQ+ Resource Center in Akron, Ohio, you can’t miss the photo of the center’s namesake. A rainbow backdrop highlights the black and white portrait of the often forgotten civil rights leader.

It doesn’t bother the center’s executive director that many visitors have never heard of Rustin. “It’s a teachable moment,” said Steve Arrington.

 The 6,000 square foot center is located next door to the Equitas Health Community Health Center & Pharmacy at 636 W. Exchange St. This partnership with Equitas Health is a vital resource for Akron’s Black and Brown LGBTQ+ communities. People come to the center for meals, housing assistance, clothing, and support. If they need an HIV test or have other healthcare needs, center staff can direct them to Equitas Health just steps away.

The center is named for the late Bayard Rustin. He was the main organizer of the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom in 1963. Most remember the march for Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech. Rustin was a friend and close adviser to King. Raised a Quaker in Pennsylvania, Rustin is said to have inspired King’s work in non-violent activism.

History often lessens Rustin’s work because he was gay. In 1953, he was arrested and jailed for “publicly engaging in homosexual activity.” As a result, some in the civil rights movement tried to distance themselves from Rustin and rejected his ideas.

Rustin’s legacy has become more widely known since the release of the 2023 Netflix film Rustin. It stars Colman Domingo. Barack and Michelle Obama produced the film. Domingo is up for an Oscar Award for his portrayal of the civil rights and LGBTQ+ rights activist. If he wins, Domingo will be the first openly gay Black man to win an Oscar.

Carrying on Rustin’s Legacy

For Arrington, Rustin has always been an important figure in Black history. “I identify with people like me. He was gay and Black, and he didn’t endure the pain for himself. He endured the pain for me and for all who came after him,” he said.

Arrington’s family also participated in the civil rights movement during the 1960s.

“I had first cousins who marched in Mississippi. Another cousin was a founding member of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC). They remember the murders of the civil rights activists who came to Mississippi in 1964 to register voters,” he said.

While a student at Bowling Green State University in the 1970s, Arrington took a class in Black literature from distinguished visiting professor James Baldwin. Baldwin’s writing and activism also impacted Arrington, who started BGSU’s Black Student Union.

“I was a nerd who read a lot and paid attention to Black history,” said Arrington. He shares that love for history with the center. Photos of notable Black, LGBTQ+ figures line the hallway leading from the center’s front door. Arrington wants people to know about writers and activists like Audra Lorde, Phill Wilson, Wade Davis II, and CeCe McDonald, among others.

Arrington gave the Bayard Rustin LGBTQ+ Resource Center its name five years ago. A center brochure calls it “Akron’s premier multicultural LGBTQ+ resource center.” It started as the Brother’s Circle 25 years ago, providing support and resources for Black gay men living with HIV/AIDS. Realizing they needed funds to continue their work, they formed a non-profit organization called the Akron AIDS Collaborative (AAC). Over the years, the group met in Arrington’s home, a church, and older homes that needed paint and repair. They have received federal, state, and local grants to help people get housing, transportation, and basic services. They also received funding to help fight anti-LGBTQ+ violence.

One reason for the name change is the ongoing stigma of HIV/AIDS, said Arrington.

“It was a lot easier to put up a sign with the name Bayard Rustin on it, than the Akron AIDS Collaborative,” he said.

People don’t come to the center just for HIV/AIDS services, he added. Some need help getting a social security card. Others are living on the street, and they just want a place to watch TV. Anywhere from 2 to 200 people come to the center for a weekly hot meal.

Bayard Rustin LGBTQ+ Center & Equitas Health Move into the Future

Equitas Health has worked with the Akron AIDS Collaborative since Equitas Health came to Akron as AIDS Resource Center Ohio. The two organizations often worked together to provide HIV prevention and education at community events like Akron Black Pride and the city’s African American Festival.

The relationship became even more important with the opening of Equitas Health’s new Akron Community Health Center & Pharmacy in the fall of 2023.

“Steve is the gateway to care when it comes to the Black and Brown communities in Akron. He knows who to connect to Equitas Health,” said Gregory Price, northeast associate director of Clinical Operations for Equitas Health.

“One person recently came to the center for a meal and some clothes. Steve learned he hadn’t been on his HIV meds and needed care. He brought the person next door to Equitas Health,” said Price.

Last year, the Bayard Rustin center served 501 clients. In the quarter from October to December 2023, they found housing for 69 clients and provided support to 101. That support included meals, transportation, and help getting people a driver’s license or social security card. That support now includes a link to medical care.

“My goal is not to duplicate services, but to add to, enhance, and support what Steve is already doing here. Together, we can be the premiere collaborative health services center in the Akron area,” said Price.

He sees the model of a health center and an LGBTQ+ resource center in one place as an ideal model. One they hope to share with other communities.

“We are making history,” Price added.

They’re also continuing Rustin’s legacy.

“Bayard Rustin was about action and fighting for the rights of others. We stand on his shoulders,” said Arrington.