A Candid Conversation About Queers in the Labor Movement with Longtime Union Activists Miriam Frank and Desma Holcomb

Miriam Frank is the author of Out in the Union: A Labor History of Queer America. Published in 2014, the book is a robust historical analysis of the history of LGBTQ workers in the labor movement, based on more than 100 interviews Miriam conducted with unionized nurses, bus drivers, retail workers, and more. Through stories of workplace harassment, thrilling actions such as the union fashion show organized for members at Barney’s, and complicated depictions of how queer and union life intersect — like the union drive at the Whitman Walker AIDS Clinic — the message is clear: Queers have always been not just present, but essential to the labor movement.

Miriam and I met in 2018 at the annual conference held by LaborNotes, an organizing project and media site for building militant union members. I was there with some former coworkers from the sex toy store Babeland, to talk about our successful union drive the year before (#DildosUnited!). Miriam and I had been connected online for a while (I suppose through some sort of gay union mafia?), though we had not yet met in person. When she looked at me skeptically by the merch table, I volunteered, “I helped organize the Babeland union?” She shouted, “Oh, THANK YOU guys for doing that!” and clutched me to her.

Two years later, on a cold and sunny Sunday in February, I took the A train way up to the top of Manhattan, near the Cloisters. Miriam walked me past a wide and beautiful view of the Hudson River to the apartment she and her wife, Desma Holcomb, have owned together for more than 25 years. Real estate developers have tried to buy them out many times. “We just tell them to go to hell!” she says.

Miriam Frank, author of book on queers in the labor movement, poses in front of the Hudson River

Miriam Frank // contributed by Lena Ruth Solow

Miriam told me her book arose from a “naughty little pamphlet” that she and Desma self-published in 1990. “Pamphlet” really downplays it — Pride at Work: Organizing for Gay and Lesbian Rights in Unions, is a 100-page booklet with historical examples and practical advice for organizing within unions. Its lessons feel particularly prescient today, with a focus on domestic partner benefits to secure healthcare, and grappling with the AIDS crisis at work. It was really, as Desma describes it, designed to be a “hands-on organizing handbook.”

The Pride at Work pamphlet was itself born out of the New York City Lesbian and Gay Labor Network, one of three city-based gay labor organizations that formed in the 80s (the other two were in Boston and San Francisco). Eventually, these groups would form the AFL-CIO constituency group Pride at Work in 1994, which now has chapters in more than 20 cities working to highlight LGBTQ worker fights. The people Desma and Miriam met through creating the pamphlet formed the first group of interviewees for Miriam’s book.

Now, for the first time, the pamphlet is being released online, both here at Autostraddle and at LaborNotes. Take a look (click through the cover image to access the full 100-page PDF!):

The cover page of Pride at Work: Organizing for Gay and Lesbian Rights in Unions, a 100-page booklet with historical examples and practical advice for organizing within unions

Cover Logo by Riva Danzig, Illustrations by David Mashni

I sat with Miriam and Desma (and their two cats!) for more than two hours, drinking seltzer, eating clementines, and talking about their lives, this naughty little pamphlet, and the future of queer labor organizing. What follows is an edited and condensed version of our conversation.

Desma, Miriam, and Lena Ruth

Desma, Miriam, and Lena Ruth // contributed by Lena Ruth Solow

Lena: First, I want to know your story! I’m curious about how you all met and ended up here, and how the pamphlet came to be.

Miriam: I picked her up on the subway on gay pride day. We were living in the same neighborhood—

Desma: On the pier.

M: —and everyone was waiting for the subway that had stuff on that said “I’m going downtown to have a good time with my queer brothers and sisters and aunts and uncles.” I was single at the time, and I just decided to say, “Are you going where I’m going?” And I said that to a couple of people, and I said it to her and she said, [in a skeptical voice] “Yeeees?” It turned out that she was with a person—do you know Irene Soloway, the carpenter? She’s a carpenter, and she was a forefront person on women in the trades. And so [Irene] had been thinking maybe we would get along or something like that, so I knew who you were when you told me your name.

D: And vice versa.

M: So, she had to go downtown to break up with a person she was with… not because I sent her there! And then, you know, we were living on the same street. It was really fortunate.

D: And you invited me over for—

M+D together: —fruit salad.

D: That’s how it started. And then to her union picnic.

M: Yeah, the first date was a union picnic of Local 3882, up at the Rockefeller State Park in Westchester. I had been a member of that union. I wasn’t anymore but I stayed very loyal and I was always on their picket lines.

D: And I was a leader in a white-collar union at the National Council of Churches at the time. So we were both really into union stuff and queer stuff. [To Miriam] You were working at the archive then! Because she was doing—

M: A survey.

D: Right, a survey of union records. So, basically to be able to have a list of what the historical documents were of every union, most of which were in place in their union headquarters. So, I said, “Oh, well! You should come survey the records of our little local union at the National Council of Churches!” So I paraded her around to meet all my friends under the guise of sharing union records. She’s like, “Uh, are there any records in this office?” and I’d say, “Oh, no, no, we’ll get there soon.”

M: And then it was like, I really wasn’t getting anywhere with dating at that point because I just wasn’t meeting the right person. I had moved from California to New York, and I had a whole world of friends that I knew from having gone to NYU. So, I had a strong firmament of friends and there was only one thing missing!

D (laughing): Oh, my god!

M: Our age difference is what?

D: Nine years.

M: Yeah nine years.

D: So, we really hit it off! We had these little bachelor pads like two blocks apart. We were very nervous about moving in together because, you know, you live with people and you know you fight over the phone and the toothbrush and the dishes.

M: And you live in your rent-stabilized apartment!

D: Right, it’s really a jump. So, then we started to talk about having a baby, and all of our friends who were parents said, “You have to move in together! You can’t raise a child in two separate apartments!” So, we decided we would live together for a year and see how it went before we took the plunge with the baby. And… it went well!

M: And [the baby’s] now a 30-year-old union member!

D: We were getting pregnant the same day that [Pride at Work] came off the presses! So, the book was born and nine months later the baby was born, let’s put it like that!

We needed money to get it printed. And Debra Bernhardt, who was the chief archivist at the Robert F. Wagner Labor Archives was also a very stone peacenik and she got the War Resisters League, they had a grant they wanted to spend and they gave us like $600 to print this thing.

M: We would shlep it down to the post office! It was very mom and mom.

D: We distributed it out of our home, but we put notices about the existence of this resource in LaborNotes and circulated it to the other cities by word of mouth. So, the phone starts ringing and people from all over the country would call and they would not only say, “Can I have your book?” but “Can you give me some advice? We’re trying to bargain partner benefits or we’re trying to bargain a non-discrimination clause or—

M: “They’re trying to kill me at the auto plant!”

page 9 from Pride At Work pamphlet

Pride At Work, page 9

M: There was a vibe that people were starting to talk about this at all kinds of level of law and civic practice. There were queer caucuses—we didn’t use that word at all then—“lesbian and gay” caucuses in church groups and in all kinds of public organizations, not just the labor movement.

The thing is that there were some local unions that had non-discrimination clauses very, very early. The Ann Arbor bus drivers, famously, and Local 3882 had it, and that’s how it was. District 65 was always odd, there were sexist people in it but there were lots and lots of gay people!

D: That’s where I went to work from 87-88ish. They represented The Village Voice. They had the first partner benefits ever. I was the negotiator with the Museum of Modern Art who was trying to get partner benefits and having a hard time of it. So, I started to do this for my job.

page 46 from Pride At Work pamphlet

Pride At Work, page 46

L: What other kinds of advice did you give?

D: Well, I think one of the principles that we developed as union queer people is that it’s not just about identity politics, it’s about bringing people together with common interests. So, in the public sector union in NYC they decided to call it the Lesbian and Gay Issues Committee, not the Lesbian and Gay Committee. They wanted to be open to the parents of queer people in the union, and the children of queer people in the union, and anybody who thought this was a righteous idea in the union.

M: They had great parties!

D: Miriam! I’m making a serious point here.

M: Those parties are a serious point! OK, go ahead.

D: So, they got support from the retiree committee for partner benefits, because if you’re a widow and you have your spouse’s social security and you marry someone else you LOSE your former spouse’s social security. So, there’s a serious economic hit to getting married for straight people who are old. The disability rights committee was also involved because they have a similar situation where they get certain benefits, but if you marry someone and you have more income you lose that. And that affects your economic autonomy within the relationship and your independence.

I remember someone from Minnesota calling and saying, “I want to bargain partner benefits. What do we do?” And we always recommended bargaining for gay and straight partner benefits. You will more than double your coalition of individuals who care about this benefit. There are lots of legitimate reasons that straight people, especially if they’ve been divorced, might not want to get married again, even if they’ve been together for 10 or 20 years and they really need these health benefits.

It’s a winning approach and people would do that. That’s like a union head—it’s not an identity politics head—to think that way, so I think that was really important. Like in New York State, we’d had a liberal governor and then a conservative governor, and the conservative governor tried to repeal partner benefits. And all these blue collar people are like, “My members have this and none of them are gay and get your hands off my benefits!” It sets you up for a broader coalition to defend it.

And, lo and behold, marriage equality comes along, and every place where partner benefits was only for gay people because they couldn’t get married, it’s disappearing! Because well you can get married, so why should I have domestic partner benefits? So, the whole idea that there might be more than one reason to not be married but be in a committed relationship is in jeopardy because of narrow thinking about this question.

M: There was a whole period where all of a sudden the big three, the auto makers [General Motors, Ford, and Chrysler], wanted to have partner benefits because there’s plenty of queer executives. And [the executives] did not want to bring along straight people and the UAW just said mm-mm [no]! The [execs] didn’t like it when the UAW caucuses started saying—we want to have partner benefits. They really had a hard time swallowing it. It was not an easy negotiation but we really saw that the bourgeoisie really didn’t want to do partner benefits, they wanted to do marriage.

D: Well, and the whole question of why is health insurance based on having a job or being married to someone who has a job with good benefits, that whole structure is like a mess. Medicare for all! Woo! But seriously!

L: So, I want to read you a quote from your book, and I’m curious what either or both of you think about this now. You’re talking about ways that sometimes queer people in labor have a hard time finding their place in either movement, and it says: “The cultural scene of individual expression and sexual freedom was not so easily balanced with union processes that favored economic progress through solidarity, and the queer world’s spontaneous community-oriented organizing style did not work smoothly into labor’s more formal modes of national resolutions, collective bargaining cycles, and conventional electoral campaigns.” Where do you see that today?

M: Well, that cultural difference is sort of where all the excitement is and where the conversations can happen. Because you know people have profoundly dull lives until they don’t. And unions have wonderful mechanisms by which amazing things can happen. I’ll tell you where the most recent place I saw this happen was the last Pride parade, where we had the bourgeois sacred Stonewall march with all the stars of Stonewall, some of whom are great working-class heroes, but they signed up to be on, you know—

D : A corporate float.

M: Right! A corporate float. So, the fact that the [Queer Liberation March] then had a wild and crazy march up 6th avenue, instead of marching down 5th Avenue… There weren’t even any contingents, there weren’t even any, you know, flutes and drums. It was just—everybody was just out there! They were from all over the country, and they marched into the park. Everywhere that I was in that parade I saw someone I knew from labor. You were with me, yes?

D: Yes.

M: And we didn’t lose each other?

D: No.

M: So, all that is to say there are going to be touchpoints, there’s going to be moments, there’s going to be rallies where we’re all, like, really there. Is that the question you’re asking?

L: [Laughing] …not really!

D: No! Can I try? So, when Miriam says that’s where all the excitement happens? The labor movement when it gets organized and moves has a lot of power. But it can become sort of routine and it can become something that their own members are not always that excited about!

Meanwhile, the labor movement’s been around for a really long time and many, many union members are in a place that was first organized, you know, 10 years ago, many years ago. Unions, when they’re in an organizing campaign, have a lot of dynamism. But once you win, the next generation comes into a job it’s already union. What is the surviving pizazz from the organizing campaign that lingers? Or does it not linger? But, with the LGBT movement they’re still very much in the fight to win rights, to fend off attacks.

I mean, not always, right? There’s the whole thing of like you win marriage, and a whole bunch of people just peel off. So, that’s an issue so they become like the organized ten years ago labor movement—we sort of got what we need, and we don’t have to be out there fighting so much.

The fighting part of the LGBT movement has a lot of dynamism, and when you put that inside a union and you can bring some of that dynamism back to the union of a fresh social justice fight that I think creates a really interesting chemistry that can be very positive.

L: When my coworkers and I were at LaborNotes, we talked about one of the things that made us well-suited to organize as a group of queer people is that we had established networks for care and what some people would call mutual aid. And then I have a coworker who’s always saying, “Unions are supposed to be about bringing casseroles!” How do you see those values of mutual aid and care present in both queer and labor spaces?

M: There’s a history of [mutual aid in queer spaces]. Certainly the most brilliant and profound thing is how the queer community got together and started taking care of our own in the AIDS crisis. Well, that didn’t stop, and that kind of caring is there in the songs and in the culture and in the parade. And also that the labor movement is a “take care of its own” kind of thing. It’s a very proud thing. It’s a community thing.

page 65 from Pride At Work pamphlet

Pride At Work, page 65

D: Well, there are a lot of roots in mutual aid groups to take a collection for burial money, take a collection for hospital bills.

M: It’s in the union newspapers, too. Those union newspapers are not just lists of where the meetings are being held. There’s always something very hamish going on in there.

D: Or people giving each other sick time, there’s different things that are very much about—

M: Humanity.

D: —and a different kind of solidarity, a caring solidarity. Not just a battle.

But I do think there’s a little bit of a difference which is people talk about chosen family, right, for queers. And the thing about a union is it’s like given family! It’s like everyone who works there is in your union family, and part of the ethic of unions is whether I like you or not—whether I’m like you or not—we have a shared interest and a shared organization. Which is really different from especially the comfort zone you were talking about. Like, I feel comfortable in a queer, Jewish, left-wing organization. I don’t want to be around liberals or conservatives, I don’t want to be around people from other religions, and the only place I really feel like OK is in my queer, Jewish, left place. And that’s just so different from a union which is—here’s this hodge podge of people that were hired by some employer, and yet we’re a community at work.

L: I want to talk about coming out. In Out in the Union, the whole first part is about coming out. For me, I was raised with a lot of messages of “Come out or not! It’s nobody’s business!” But in the book, so many of these stories are about people realizing their comrade is a dyke, and now they have to get on board with that. And also I think sometimes the coming out message can be, “Don’t worry, gay people are normal and the same as you!” instead of maybe, “Gay people are different, but we have a shared struggle.” So, that’s the two parts: I’m curious about the emphasis on coming out, then how we do that without playing into a respectability politic around queerness.

D: I’m interested in what you say about how you came up in a situation where people were saying they didn’t have to come out necessarily. ‘Cause it definitely is sort of—one thing we say in the little pink book is you can’t have solidarity with a figment of your imagination. If no one’s out, there’s no one to have solidarity with.

L: Well you’d like to think that there’s a way to push for it just because it’s the right thing to do, but it’s so often the case that it takes there being actual members that have an actual stake in it.

M: Well otherwise it’s top down.

D: Well no, but it’s also like being afraid to deal with the backlash without being able to say but there are members! SEIU 32 BJ was very slow, it was one of the last unions in town to get partner benefits, and they had changed the union on so many dimensions they just were afraid to put that in there too. By the time they did it, the whole room clapped. It was like society had passed by.

But I do think it’s interesting—at one point in the ‘90s when I was going to union leaders and Bush was president and he was making a big deal about you know religion and “I’m against gays because people’s religions demand it.” And, they hated Bush so much, these union leaders, they were like, “If Bush is against it I’m for it!” Like, “Fuck him!” They weren’t really thinking about queer members. It was sort of like he’s drawn a line, and I’m not on that side.

But I think now there are a lot of people who feel like it’s the right thing to be against discrimination against queer people, and it’s turned into something that is a little less about an individual person, you know, and more about which side are you on philosophically, what kind of country and society do you want to live in? One where people are persecuted or one where people are not persecuted. So there has been that change I think where people don’t necessarily feel like they have to know someone in order to know which is the right way to go.

What was the second part of your question—oh the whole focus on “I’m just like you.” Because the thing is if the only dimension along which you suffer discrimination is being gay then you really are mostly like quote unquote “your neighbors” or “your family” or whatever. That whole sort of like you’re not a person who wants to rock the boat in general, you just want to rock this one little thing.

M: You just want your boat to be fixed.

L: Or you just want to share your boat with your wife!

D: Right, people who say just being queer is revolutionary, that’s not true either. The thing is, being queer or being female is cross-class and cross-race and cross-income. And so [a movement of queer people] has a very different dynamic than a class-based movement. And racial minorities and immigrants, although not 100%, are much more likely to be clustered in the working class and down economically in the society, and so their liberation is absolutely tied up with the class issues that are so connected to everything that they’re going through. And that is true for big swaths of queer people but not all of them.

L: Let’s talk about issues that the labor movement doesn’t want to touch that impact queer people a lot. There’s this amazing surge right now in efforts around decriminalizing sex work, repealing SESTA/FOSTA, and even some politicians and labor movement leaders understanding and getting behind some of these asks. What does it look like for the labor movement to embrace workers who maybe don’t fit into the “typical” worker model and to really embrace sex workers.

M: We all have to make a living. There’s all kinds of queer workers, just all kinds. And there’s all kinds of sex workers. To bring sex workers and sex work into the conversation is very powerful. And I’ll tell you something about myself—my sister was a sex worker. She died from cancer, but I knew what she was doing and I knew what she was going through and it was in our family. I’m very sensitive about it. And every once in a while we would have a very honest conversation. And I said to her once, “Well what about organizing prostitutes?” (that’s the language we were using) and sometimes she’d just curse at me or something like that but she just got very—she went inside herself and she said, “You’d have to go to a lot of jails and you’d have to go to a lot of places that are really terrible and you’d have to talk to people all about it. It’s terrible that we don’t have a union but no one cares about us at all.” She knew it was very deep and very powerful and most sex workers aren’t having a very good day. But she also had fun—I mean, god knows she had fun.

You started that trouble with [Babeland], so I figured we’re going to have this conversation. Mostly, I don’t tell anybody. Or I hear people say things about sex workers and I just think you don’t even fucking know. Amber [Hollibaugh, writer and activist] knows! But many of us don’t know what goes on.

D: I think this also though is connected to the bigger issue of unions grappling with workers who are not traditional union members, right? Like, once the research department says, “No franchises, you’ll never organize McDonalds,” then even though you know they desperately need a union you sort of go—it’s just impossible. What can we do. But, generally speaking, when unions look at workers who need something, one of the calculations they do is could I ever get them in my union. And if they think that can’t happen they sort of take a step back. And so sex workers are among those workers that they think, “Who’s their employer? How am I going to have a contract for that?”

It’s interesting because the thing I said earlier about how there’s sort of a “which side are you on” thing going on? I think there’s been a real shift in people’s understanding of mass incarceration and that sex workers are being looked at in that framework of, you know, who does the police net, capture, and throw in jail, and do they really belong there. So, then it’s sort of a something that you would never necessarily have respectable people supporting it’s like, well, which side am I on—lock em up or not lock em up? That helps, but that doesn’t mean people have a deep understanding.

L: What else do you want people to know about the labor movement?

M: The labor movement has a lot of experience in expanding the idea of what it means to be human. And you know, it starts with the consequences of the Triangle Fire, it starts with the industrial mass production in the ‘20s and ‘30s when there weren’t unions in factories, and the labor movement is about the question of our humanity. So, yes it’s wages and hours and time clocks and a lot of other crap but I mean that all has to do with wanting to be treated like a human being. Always.

One of my things besides this thing is that I’m deeply committed to what we call in academia the humanities, and to the things that people do to enrich their lives through their own human efforts at expressing it, whether its music or art or drama or school plays, any way to express things. You know capital and labor it’s always money, but there’s this whole piece of it that’s about humanity and about what human beings can create. I had the fortune throughout my career to be involved in teaching about music and art and poetry and literature and dance and history. And I did NOT teach math, which is a very good thing! I talked to young people about what it means to be human.

So how did I get on this—well, it’s about being human. And one of the things about a union meeting is—the boss isn’t there, you’re there because you want to and you’re there with your coworkers and you start talking to each other and sharing food and whatnot. It’s an amazing thing to be in an organization where you’re fighting to be more of a human being. And if what underlies that is a little bit more money so you can make it to work on a bus, or get your art supplies, that’s part of it too. So there’s mechanisms in the labor movement but it really is— [cat meows loudly] exactly.

D: Get her off the table, Miriam!

M: It’s a very, very long-lived world, the world of organized labor, the world of people being in a movement. Sometimes, there’s no movement in a labor movement. There’s a lot of conservatism, there’s a lot of weirdness, there’s a lot of organized crime! And you can’t really think—if you start thinking about the labor world as like a totality—you have to find your place in it. And your place in it is usually at the workplace, at your workplace, where you’re working next to somebody else and are they gonna say yes or no to what you think about forming a union! As Woody Guthrie said, “You’ve gotta talk to the workers in the shop next to you.”


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Lena Ruth is a writer and union organizer living in Brooklyn.

Lena Ruth has written 1 article for us.

16 Comments

  1. wow, wow, this is both such important and fascinating history and a complete joy and delight to read. the fruit salad!

    “M: They had great parties!
    D: Miriam! I’m making a serious point here.”

    “[cat meows loudly]
    D: Get her off the table, Miriam!”

    thank you so much for this!

  2. This is so helpful and inspiring! Oftentimes I lose hope seeing people who want to focus on only class or only identity and some of the weird modern mainstream labor tendencies, but this is so hopeful and insightful.

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