Montgomery County’s newest public school will be called Bayard Rustin Elementary, honoring a civil rights champion and becoming the district’s first school named for an openly gay individual.
The Board of Education chose the name for the Rockville school on Thursday by a 6-2 vote that followed passionate testimony from parents, students and advocates who urged officials not to underestimate the power of a name.
“As a queer student, even in a progressive area, I was raised in a society that still attaches shame to my identity,” Jamie Griffith, a senior from Montgomery Blair High School in Silver Spring, testified to the board. “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.”
Naming the school after Rustin would also raise awareness of an activist who’s largely been ignored by history because of his identity, advocates said Thursday. Rustin stood alongside Martin Luther King Jr. during the civil rights movement and was a leading organizer of the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom in 1963.
It wasn’t until 2013, long after Rustin’s death, that President Barack Obama awarded him the Presidential Medal of Freedom, and many people still remain unaware of his contributions.
“When I first learned about the story of Bayard Rustin, I cried. It was an emotional experience for me,” Jabari Lyles, executive director of GLSEN Maryland, said in a Thursday phone interview.
Lyles, whose organization advocates on LGBTQ issues in grade schools, said he didn’t have gay, black role models when he was growing up. Naming a school after Rustin will spotlight a courageous and accomplished African-American man who embraced his gay identity, he said.
Lyles said he doesn’t know of any other schools in Maryland named for an openly gay person.
Local parents and advocates, led in part by parent Mark Eckstein Bernardo, have spent weeks pressing officials to commemorate Rustin. But still the school board’s decision went against the wishes of a naming committee. The committee, a group of parents representing the school community, had conducted a survey and reached out to students and families to determine their preference. After two meetings, the 13-person committee voted to recommend Lillian Brown Elementary, in recognition of a prominent local educator. Rustin’s name was fourth on the committee’s ranked list of options.
Some parents also questioned whether naming the school after Rustin would generate conversations that would be inappropriate for elementary-age children.
Griffith and others pushed back emphatically against this argument in their testimonies.
“Our identities are not taboo or inappropriate or harmful for young kids,” he said.
The recognition of LGBTQ identities is gaining additional significance in the current political climate, testified Gabriel Acevero, a Montgomery Village resident who is running for state delegate.
“We have a hostile administration that is intent on erasing LGBTQ folks, recently taking us off the Census and banning transgender Americans from serving their country,” Acevero said. “Now more than ever we need to affirm LGBTQ youth, and that’s why Bayard Rustin is such a powerful name for this school.”
Board member Jill Ortman-Fouse agreed that it sent a much-needed message that “no matter what your background is, no matter who you love, you are a part of the MCPS family.”
Board President Michael Durso and board member Jeanette Dixon cast the dissenting votes in the naming decision. Dixon said she wasn’t opposed to naming the school after Rustin, but was uncomfortable going against the committee’s wishes.
She also noted that a Montgomery County school is named after Sally Ride, a female astronaut who was lesbian.
Ride’s sexual identity did not become publicly known until after her death.
Bayard Rustin Elementary at 332 W. Edmonston Drive is scheduled to open in September.