Gay at Work: Queer People and the Labor Movement

feature image photo by  Xavier Lorenzo via Getty Images

June, obviously, is Pride. But this year, it’s also the start of what’s gearing up to be a Hot Labor Summer. Yes, as Amazon Labor Union president Chris Smalls declared in late May 2022, last summer was also a Hot Labor Summer, but there’s more than enough union power to go around. As a former labor organizer, I’ve been filled with a lot of hope seeing workers stand up to their bosses and better in their workplaces – especially queer and trans workers, without whom the current surge in the labor movement simply would not be possible.

When I started a union campaign at a previous job with some of my coworkers, it was, in some ways, a shot in the dark to express our frustration with a difficult (and often toxic) workplace. Over the months, it became a way to take back my sense of self as a queer Black person in a job that prioritized straight, cis, white identities to the detriment of everyone else — to fight for a workplace where I and my coworkers would be treated with respect and dignity. Later, working as a staff organizer on a different union drive, I watched other oppressed workers come into their power in the same way as they realized that they deserved better than their bosses would ever let them believe. And now, all of us are lucky enough to witness that on a national scale and maybe even join the fight ourselves.

In the past few weeks, we’ve seen queer writers take center stage in the ongoing WGA strike, bringing Pride to the picket lines as they demand a more sustainable future for marginalized writers in Hollywood. After showing solidarity with WGA strikers over the past months, members of SAG-AFTRA, including its many queer actors, voted overwhelmingly to authorize a strike if the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers doesn’t accept a satisfactory agreement in their current contract negotiations by June 30. The potential for a nationwide UPS strike in August is also heating up, which would be the biggest work stoppage in U.S. history.

Okay, so maybe it’s more of a Hot Strike Summer, but in any case, the labor movement in the U.S. is popping off, and queer people are part and parcel of the fight. We’re no stranger to a righteous struggle, after all — I know I don’t have to remind you that Stonewall was a riot. A Pride rage party would not be complete without diving into the history of queer labor leaders whose dedication to the working class, even when their identities put them at risk, led to many of the rights and protections we have as queer workers today. Let’s get into it.

Early Struggles

To kick off our tour of queer labor leaders, we have to go back almost 120 years to 1905, when 12-year-old Pauline Newman, a Lithuanian immigrant to New York City, was hired at the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory. Newman, who had a “blunt aggressiveness and fondness for masculine dress,” was an outspoken union advocate even as a young teen, eventually becoming the first woman organizer hired by the International Ladies Garment Workers Union. She organized up to and in the wake of the devastating Triangle Fire, having known many of the girls who died in the disaster. She was a fierce organizer for the rest of her life, working for both the ILGWU and the Women’s Trade Union League. Through her work in the latter, she met Frieda S. Miller, who would become her partner for the next 50 years as both women dedicated their lives to improving the lives of working people.

Pushing forward into the 50s and 60s, the gay and Black liberation movements began in earnest, with leaders of both coming to the forefront through their work in the labor movement. One icon in all three arenas was Bayard Rustin, an often overlooked leader who worked closely with Martin Luther King Jr. and was a key organizer in the March on Washington. He directed the AFL-CIO’s A. Phillip Randolph Institute to integrate historically all-white unions and unionize Black workers.

Both Newman and Rustin, who were not particularly diligent about hiding their queerness, were often relegated to behind-the-scenes roles in the labor movement. It wasn’t until the 80s that Rustin began openly advocating for gay rights at the suggestion of his partner at the time, a commitment he continued until his death in 1987.

Trans Worker Power

Joni Christian was a General Motors assembly worker when, at 26, she received gender affirming surgery and came out to her coworkers. This was in the 60s, so it might not surprise you to learn their reactions were not positive. In a move reminiscent of recent attacks on trans rights, a petition was circulated at the plant attempting to bar Christian from the women’s restrooms.

As a member of UAW, Christian went to her union local and used her legal services to sue GM for invasion of privacy. She got the support of local president Gary Briner, won a settlement with GM, and improved her working conditions enough that she stayed at the company for another 30 years.

In the present moment of both relentless attacks on trans rights and a surge in union participation, Joni Christian shows us trans resistance is everywhere — from the streets to the workplace.

A New Generation

A lot has happened in both the queer liberation and labor movements since Newman, Rustin, and Christian, among other queer labor leaders like Harry Hay, Harvey Milk, and Leslie Feinberg, fought for their rights in the workplace. Queer and trans people have made historic wins, like marriage equality, and yet continued to see attacks against our rights, especially in the past few years. On the labor front, union membership declined steadily from the 80s onward;  it’s only been since the pandemic that we’ve seen a major resurgence in interest in the labor movement.

From Amazon workers’ historic election last year to the growth of graduate student unions across the country, workers have been busy fighting and winning. One of the most prominent examples has been Starbucks Workers United, the union of the coffee shop chain’s young, determined, and very queer workers. Many of the baristas leading the charge of Starbucks unionization are queer and trans, and with over 300 stores unionized so far, they’re making history in improving the working conditions of marginalized people across the country.

I live in Boston, and last year was able to attend a live reveal of the union election results of two local Starbucks locations. They both won easily, and seeing the workers, many of whom were my age or younger, many of whom were queer, celebrating their victory literally made me cry a little bit. Not just because of the unions they’d won — and what that power would mean for the future of their jobs — but because these are the same people I’d seen and have continued to see in the streets fighting for the rights of working and oppressed people in every other context. All these movements, whether for Black liberation, queer liberation, abortion rights, affordable housing, or labor, are intimately connected, and the struggle of queer labor organizers makes that abundantly clear.

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Daven McQueen

Daven McQueen grew up outside of Los Angeles, California and graduated from Brown University, where they earned a B.A. in literary arts and economics. When they're not writing, Daven can be found climbing, hanging out with their cat, watching Korean zombie shows, and checking out every queer event in the city. They live in Boston, Massachusetts and are pursuing an MFA in creative writing at Emerson College. Their first novel for young adults, The Invincible Summer of Juniper Jones, was published by Wattpad Books and Penguin Random House in 2020.

Daven has written 5 articles for us.


  1. Thank you for this article. It’s a good reminder that AS management has not yet publicly responded to the Autostraddle Writers’ Coalition letter (unless I missed it—would love to be wrong on this)

  2. I work for a union, and I love this article! Would love to see more work like this, speaking to the queer people involved in union organizing.

    As it happens, my boss, the president of the union I work for, is a queer woman.

    Yesterday we held a drag brunch lunch and learn for union staff, and during the Q&A session she straight up asked the queen who was performing “what are your best tips and tricks for getting rid of glitter”!!!

  3. Yes! I love this! One of my previous academic jobs was frustrating in many ways—but made better by the camaraderie and solidarity of the lecturers’ union.

    I’ve been loosely following the work of the unions there and at other universities since moving on to other universities, and I’d like to highlight the fact that GEO, the grad student union at the University of Michigan, has been fighting for better trans health coverage during their bargaining campaign (and strike!). They are also fighting for a living wage amid the rising cost of living.

  4. I’m kinda surprised this didn’t include the Women’s Movement and all that transpired for women in the workplace after that movement. I mean, was it perfect – no! But was my mother wasn’t even allowed to have her own credit b/c unmarried women weren’t allowed to have them – that excluded a LOT of queer people.

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