LGBT Labor History Is All Our History

Today is Labor Day in the US — it honors the American labor movement and the work and sacrifices of its organizers, as well as laborers & workers and all they do. Many of us don’t learn much about the labor movement in the US; it isn’t a coincidence that the first time many of us learn about unions is bosses or managers telling us it’s against our best interests to join one. We also don’t learn much about the real radical history of LGBT rights movement, also not a coincidence; really learning about the history of both labor and queer organizing and how much they’ve contributed to the current state of basic human rights & dignity (such as it is) in the US upends a lot of received wisdom. But learning about both also makes it clear how interdependent they are; the story of workers’ rights in the US is inextricable from the story of LGBT rights, and vice versa; we talk about Leslie Feinberg and Stone Butch Blues as incomparable contributors to the queer and trans community’s sense of self, pride, and history — and they are! And also, Leslie was a tireless labor organizer hir whole adult life, and Stone Butch Blues is also a text deeply devoted to workers’ rights and their deep intertwining with American butch and femme identities. Leslie’s last words were “Remember me as a revolutionary Communist”! There’s more to tell about the dynamic of what queer and trans people have given to the labor movement and what it’s given to us than can be said here, but the resources below are a good start!

LGBT Labor History Reading:

A Candid Conversation About Queers in the Labor Movement with Longtime Union Activists Miriam Frank and Desma Holcomb, by Lena Solow for Autostraddle

Contains the first-ever digital release of Pride at Work: Organizing for Gay and Lesbian Rights in Unionsthe 100-page booklet Miriam and Desma self-published in 1990!

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.

How LGBTQ Union Activists Transformed the Labor Movement, Kim Kelly

American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations (AFL-CIO) President Richard Trumka noted in a 2018 op-ed, “For many LGBTQ Americans, a union card is their only form of employment protection,” and he’s right. There is currently no federal law that protects queer and trans workers from being discriminated against at work, and the Trump administration reversed an Obama-era policy that classified bias against trans workers as a form of sex discrimination, which falls under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. With even that gone, queer and trans workers are left with no federal-level workplace protections, and are subject to individual states’ laws, which can also impact access to housing and health care.

Queer Liberation Is a Labor Issue: An Interview with Miriam Frank, by Megan Brophy

I was living in San Francisco in 1981, and union activists in the hospitals were among the first to get involved in talking to the public about AIDS. Queer activists in the Castro, the gay neighborhood in San Francisco, had been at the center of the struggle against Coors. The Coors boycott was a real conduit to the development of AIDS activism. There were people with AIDS who had been involved with this beer boycott, people who were losing their lovers, it was all connected!

How The Labor Movement And The Gay Rights Movement Work Together, by Elizabeth King

In 1972, George Meany, the president of the AFL-CIO and a key figure in the labor rights movement, ridiculed efforts to secure a gay rights plank in the Democratic party platform. Just last year, a gay police officer in Honolulu, Hawaii, spoke out against his union president for saying, in 2013, that “you’d have to kill me” before he would agree to enforce gay marriage laws. .

…resistance to explicitly working-class gay and trans rights is made apparent in Congress’ repeated failure to pass the Employment Non-Discrimination Act. The bill has undergone many changes since it was first introduced in 1994—trans people have been moved in and out a number of times—and has died or been voted down by each Congress to consider it. The bill has always been more popular with Democrats than with Republicans, who are typically more resistant to expanded labor and LGBTQ rights.

Blatantly militant: The hidden history of queers in the U.S. labor movement, by Linda Averill

Female factory employees faced horrid conditions as the 20th century dawned. But their plight was ignored by the American Federation of Labor of the time, made up for the most part of craft workers who were privileged, white, and male. It fell to feminists to organize the first female unions, and many of the outstanding leaders were lesbians… By the 1960s, McCarthyism was in decline and the U.S. Civil Rights Movement was capturing world headlines. Amid this ferment, Bayard Rustin, Black, radical, and gay, busted color barriers in the unions. Rustin was a key organizer of the massive 1963 March on Washington, a landmark civil rights event backed by labor.”

The Real Story of Lesbians and Gays Support the Miners

The basis of the historical film PRIDE, a small group of LGBT activists began to raise funds and support for the miners strike in Wales in the mid 1980s, building the beginning of what would become a powerful and historic alliance between working-class and LGBT organizing in the UK. Here’s the Working Class History podcast episode on it, and an interview with a gay activist involved.

“Militant”, the group to which I belonged at the time, considered gay rights a bourgeois concern and imagined that the workers would not be able to handle it. However, when I came out, it was only the party hacks who had strange reactions, while the working-class people were quite easygoing. Ever since then, I do not accept the idea that workers are particularly homophobic – even though sometimes they say things more bluntly.

Leslie Feinberg’s “Lavender and Red” series for Workers World newspaper; 25 sections of which were compiled for hir last book, Rainbow Solidarity in Defense of Cuba.

LGBT Labor Resources and Organizations:

Pride at Work: The Movement for Equality

The University of Maryland hosts this cool multimedia exhibit of the major historical milestones in the US marking the intersection of LGBT history and labor history, from the first American union to pass a resolution opposing anti-LGBT discrimination to the landmark Coors boycott led by queer and trans folks and the genesis of LGBT caucuses formed in unions across the US.

Pride at Work

Formed after the AFL-CIO refused to endorse marriage equality in the 1990s, Pride at Work is an organization for LGBT union members, “[organizing] mutual support between the organized Labor Movement and the LGBTQ Community to further social and economic justice.”

The National LGBTQ Workers Center

“There are 5.4 million LGBTQ workers in the United States, of which almost 2 million are People of Color, according to The Movement Advancement Project. Despite our numbers, LGBTQ people are often left out of the conversation on economic justice. As of 2017, only 20 states have statewide laws that prohibit discrimination against LGBTQ employees. Our organization is changing this by creating a grassroots movement for economic justice for the LGBTQ community by the LGBTQ community.”

ADVERTISEMENT

LGBT Labor History Books:

Out in the Union: A Labor History of Queer America, Miriam Frank

Out in the Union tells the continuous story of queer American workers from the mid-1960s through 2013. Miriam Frank shrewdly chronicles the evolution of labor politics with queer activism and identity formation, showing how unions began affirming the rights of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender workers in the 1970s and 1980s. She documents coming out on the job and in the union as well as issues of discrimination and harassment, and the creation of alliances between unions and LGBT communities. Featuring in-depth interviews with LGBT and labor activists, Frank provides an inclusive history of the convergence of labor and LGBT interests. She carefully details how queer caucuses in local unions introduced domestic partner benefits and union-based AIDS education for health care workers-innovations that have been influential across the U.S. workforce. Out in the Union also examines organizing drives at queer workplaces, campaigns for marriage equality, and other gay civil rights issues to show the enduring power of LGBT workers.

Out at Work: Building a Gay – Labor Alliance, Kitty Krupat

Today in thirty-nine states, employers may legally fire workers simply because they are known or thought to be gay. Clearly, the struggle against workplace discrimination based on sexual orientation has a long way to go. In Out at Work, a distinguished group of prominent gay rights activists, union leaders and members, policymakers, and academics–including U.S. Representative Barney Frank, AFL-CIO president John J. Sweeney, and rights advocate Urvashi Vaid–offers a spirited assessment of the challenges faced by lesbians, gays, and other sexual minorities on the job.

My Desire for History: Essays in Gay, Community, and Labor History, Allan Bérubé

This anthology pays tribute to Allan Berube (1946-2007), a self-taught historian and MacArthur Fellow who was a pioneer in the study of lesbian and gay history in the United States. Best known for his Lambda Literary Award-winning book Coming Out Under Fire: The History of Gay Men and Women in World War II (1990), Berube also wrote extensively on the history of sexual politics in San Francisco and on the relationship between sexuality, class, and race. John D’Emilio and Estelle Freedman, who were close colleagues and friends of Berube, have selected sixteen of his most important essays, including hard-to-access articles and unpublished writing. The book provides a retrospective on Berube’s life and work while it documents the emergence of a grassroots lesbian and gay community history movement in the 1970s and 1980s. Taken together, the essays attest to the power of history to mobilize individuals and communities to create social change.

Steel Closets: Voices of Gay, Lesbian, and Transgender Steelworkers, Anne Balay

Even as substantial legal and social victories are being celebrated within the gay rights movement, much of working-class America still exists outside the current narratives of gay liberation. In Steel Closets, Anne Balay draws on oral history interviews with forty gay, lesbian, and transgender steelworkers, mostly living in northwestern Indiana, to give voice to this previously silent and invisible population. She presents powerful stories of the intersections of work, class, gender, and sexual identity in the dangerous industrial setting of the steel mill. The voices and stories captured by Balay–by turns alarming, heroic, funny, and devastating–challenge contemporary understandings of what it means to be queer and shed light on the incredible homophobia and violence faced by many: nearly all of Balay’s narrators remain closeted at work, and many have experienced harassment, violence, or rape. Through the powerful voices of queer steelworkers themselves, Steel Closets provides rich insight into an understudied part of the LGBT population, contributing to a growing body of scholarship that aims to reveal and analyze a broader range of gay life in America.

Stone Butch Blues, Leslie Feinberg

““[With] this novel I planted a flag: Here I am—does anyone else want to discuss these important issues? I wrote it, not as an expression of individual ‘high’ art, but as a working-class organizer mimeographs a leaflet—a call to action . . .””

Rachel is Autostraddle's Managing Editor and the editor who presides over news & politics coverage. Originally from Boston, MA, Rachel now lives in the Midwest. Topics dear to her heart include bisexuality, The X-Files and tacos. Her favorite Ciara video is probably "Ride," but if you're only going to watch one, she recommends "Like A Boy." You can follow her on twitter and instagram.

Rachel has written 1130 articles for us.

5 Comments

  1. Thank you for this, Rachel. So many amazing links here! You’re right, labor history is never taught anywhere, cause people don’t like the movement’s ties to socialism / communism. But they do like the 8 hour work day, so there we are :)

Contribute to the conversation...

Yay! You've decided to leave a comment. That's fantastic. Please keep in mind that comments are moderated by the guidelines laid out in our comment policy. Let's have a personal and meaningful conversation and thanks for stopping by!