Taking on Historic Homophobia in Justice System, California Governor Newsom Launches Process for Pardoning People Prosecuted for Being Gay

Move Was Inspired by Advocacy to Posthumously Pardon Bayard Rustin, an Influential Civil Rights Leader

In Launching New Process for Historic LGBTQ Pardons, Governor Newsom Announced the Formal Pardon of Rustin

SACRAMENTO — Governor Gavin Newsom today announced that his office would be launching a new clemency initiative to pardon people who were prosecuted in California for being gay.

The move was inspired by a legislative call to pardon Bayard Rustin, a humanitarian and civil rights leader who was convicted of a misdemeanor vagrancy offense for consensual adult sexual activity. In launching the new clemency initiative, Governor Newsom issued Rustin a posthumous pardon.

In California and across the country, charges like vagrancy, loitering, and sodomy have been used to unjustly target lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer (LGBTQ) people. Law enforcement and prosecutors specifically targeted LGBTQ individuals, communities and community spaces for criminal prosecution. Now, as a proudly LGBTQ-allied state, California is turning the page on historic wrongs.

This new clemency initiative will allow pardons for people like Rustin who were subjected to discriminatory arrest and prosecution for engaging in consensual conduct with people of the same sex. Californians can apply for clemency for people they believe meet the criteria for consideration.

“In California and across the country, many laws have been used as legal tools of oppression, and to stigmatize and punish LGBTQ people and communities and warn others what harm could await them for living authentically,” said Governor Newsom. “I thank those who advocated for Bayard Rustin’s pardon, and I want to encourage others in similar situations to seek a pardon to right this egregious wrong.”

In 1975, California repealed the law which made consensual sex between same-sex adults a crime. In 1997, the state established a process where individuals convicted for engaging in consensual adult sexual conduct could request removal from the California Sex Offender Registry. However, this does not modify the underlying conviction or constitute a pardon.

The new clemency initiative will work to identify eligible pardon candidates, and diligently process applications with the express goal of pardoning eligible individuals. To learn how to apply for a pardon and to receive updates and information on the clemency initiative, sign up at govcdev.sites.ca.gov/clemency.

Bayard Rustin was a visionary champion for peace, equality, and economic justice, and was a key strategist and organizer behind the 1963 March on Washington. Additionally, he worked closely with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. to organize the March and the Montgomery Bus Boycott and was fundamental in integrating nonviolent direct action into the civil rights movement. Rustin, a native of New York, traveled around the country and world to promote civil and human rights, and trained hundreds of people on nonviolence. While in California in 1942, he visited Japanese Americans imprisoned in the Manzanar internment camp and reported on the camp’s humanitarian conditions. On August 8, 2013, President Barack Obama posthumously awarded Rustin the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest civilian honor in the United States, describing him as “an unyielding activist for civil rights, dignity, and equality for all.” Rustin died in 1987.

Rustin’s pardon request was made by the California Legislative Black and LGBTQ Caucuses, whose representatives praise Governor Newsom’s action.

“I’m thrilled that Governor Newsom is pardoning Bayard Rustin and that he acted so quickly and decisively in response to our request. I also applaud the Governor for broadening this work to provide other criminalized LGBT people with a path to clear their records of wrongful convictions on homophobic charges. These actions are consistent with the Governor’s deep and longstanding support for the LGBT community,” said Senator Scott Wiener (D-San Francisco), Chair of the California Legislative LGBTQ Caucus. “Generations of LGBT people – including countless gay men – were branded criminals and sex offenders simply because they had consensual sex. This was often life-ruining, and many languished on the sex offender registry for decades. The Governor’s actions today are a huge step forward in our community’s ongoing quest for full acceptance and justice.”

“On behalf of the Black Caucus, I want to thank the Governor for granting this posthumous pardon. The Arc of Justice is long, but it took nearly 70 years for Bayard Rustin to have his legacy in the Civil Rights movement uncompromised by this incident. Rustin was a great American who was both gay and black at a time when the sheer fact of being either or both could land you in jail,” said Assemblymember Shirley Weber (D-San Diego), Chair of the California Legislative Black Caucus. “This pardon assures his place in history and the Governor’s ongoing commitment to addressing similar convictions shows that California is finally addressing a great injustice.”

The Governor regards clemency as an important part of the criminal justice system that can incentivize accountability and rehabilitation, increase public safety by removing counterproductive barriers to successful reentry, and correct unjust results in the legal system. A copy of the clemency initiative executive order can be found here and a copy of the pardon certificate granted today can be found here. Additional information on executive clemency can be found here.