Roses, Too: Slices of Gay Labor by Colette S
I’m a labor organizer in San Francisco. The former, a method of employment and a belief system; the latter, my current geographic reality. It took me until moving here to understand that the rainbow flags that fly high above the city (though duly noted are a signifier as much of San Francisco’s history of struggle as they are of corporate gay capital) make the San Francisco Bay Area one of the few regions where being “out” in the workplace is almost to the point of a baseline expectation. I’m caught off guard daily by people who forget that “coming out” at work is an act of labor in and of itself in most of the nation.
I’m writing this piece because I’m fortunate enough to work for a fierce group of workers who are leaders in their workplace, many of whom are openly gay. Whatever they are doing to empower and organize their coworkers on a widespread level is working, and I feel the need to linger on it. My day-to-day reminds me of the untapped potential of queer-centered organizing, and the life it can breathe into labor organizing. My hope is not to raise one subset of workers above any other – I should be clear that there are some evil gays in the labor movement – but to valorize a population and a set of tactics that have been systemically devalued, especially amongst the machismos so celebrated within the labor movement.
The idea of a “gay labor movement” is at first an odd specificity. One of the most celebrated advantages of a specifically labor-based movement is the fact that a movement can be born not of affinity, but of a fact of employment that supposedly cuts across affinity lines (with the very fact of employment as the first equalizer: within high-capitalism, we are all impelled to labor to reproduce our daily existence). The labor movement has an aim toward universality in its claim that workers united under the same boss must recognize that in the bridging difference and joining together, workers derive power; that, in society’s most poetic contradiction, workers can proceed toward their own self-interest only if they can overcome dirtying their hands in the sticky grime of difference that usually serves to alienate workers from one another. (Or, as the adage in the movement goes, that the boss uses to divide all brewing collectivity.)
So if a labor movement is an equalizer, what is the role of affinity groups under the greater umbrella of labor? (It should be clear that a “strictly” “gay labor movement” could never happen, short of a labor movement taking place in a gay landlocked community, and short of a heavy policing of the identity marker “gay” such that “gay” were a stable identity category to begin with. Those in the community know the immense limitations of the word: that it took many queer folks years of heterosexual interactions to recognize their same-sex desire, thereby destabilizing the longevity of identity categories to stick over time; that “gay” requires a stability of gender when gender-queer and trans folks are constitutive of queer community and the queerness of all queers; that many folks who identify with same-sex desire may also identify as bi-sexual or pan-sexual; and so on. I use the term “gay labor” for its pithiness and its hokiness much more than for its descriptive potential.) So what does gay labor mean? What could a gay labor movement achieve?
A few weeks ago, I told a few of our gay-identified workers that I was writing this piece, asking their first thoughts on the idea of “gay labor,” word-association style. One replied: “productive workforce.” I chuckled. (As opposed to re-productive workforce?) But his response has stuck with me. It is often when I sit in the cafeteria with my queer leaders that I see community (queer and straight alike) swirl around them: kisses and hugs and shoulder taps and heartfelt inquiry into each other’s health and happiness. (It’s a wonderful layer that the workers I work for are healthcare workers: human fragility and care are always on the brain for these workers.) The energy is contagious, and it took a lot of thinking in circles to parse out why his statement about gay labor being a “productive workforce” was so easily agreeable: my days, too, are more productive when I’ve spent a few minutes participating in the spaces of queer community that our worker leaders cultivate.
Yes, we queers are more productive workers when we get to make lewd gay jokes in our down-time. But maybe there’s a lesson to be learned for folks all along the spectrum. I’m not the first to speak of the universal energy gained from sex-positivity – something queers have been forced to embrace for their own liberation, but has been frequently noted for its trickle-down effect, in a pee-down-the-leg kind of way. There’s probably also a sense of solidarity and community that straight folks pick up on and jive with from being around queers. I hope not to be self-aggrandizing: queers can also be masters at uncomfortable insularity and inaccessible, straight-baiting humor. But I want to account for those little smiles and that bit of touchiness I see straight folks assimilate when they’re around queers. And I’d conjecture that all that queer energy in fact does make workers more passionate about their work, and in the words of my worker leader, more “productive” – both as workers, and as movers and shakers.
So I write with an eye to the un-tapped potential of queer labor organizing. Though the queer side of things might be self-explanatory at this point, it makes sense to expand on the labor component, because 1) labor organizing is something I am intimately familiar with at this juncture in my life, and 2) because it is a movement I have tremendous hope for in its specificity as work-driven as opposed to community-driven (which, too, I hold in high esteem. An article for another day.) If we can restore the now “radical” values to union culture such as democracy and a commitment to functioning as worker-driven entities, I have hope in the labor movement because I believe there is power to be derived from workers fighting back at the site of exploitation; because labor is something systemic; because labor’s systemic nature can breed collective action if labor is taken to be an equalizer; and because organized labor is the most immediate way to reroute capital away from the existing power structure. I believe in the transformative nature of labor organizing: the process by which workers come to see that they can and should demand a say in the modes of production to which they are forced to sell themselves; that they can make adjustments to their daily exploitation; and that through fighting back, they can become agents in their own empowerment, finding space to stand tall in a system that demands workers face daily exploitation for the measly benefit of reproducing their own existence.
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I see the potential of queer organizing, because queers know how to fight. Queers know how to laugh. And the labor movement is in desperate need of both qualities if it has any hope for survival.
Such realizations have predated my own. A novice, I’m digging into the rich history of queer-labor organizing for the first time. It seems like queerness in the labor movement has achieved institutional status from two angles: caucuses within labor unions, and labor-community coalitional work. I’ll make an attempt to loosely chronicle some of these more recent efforts:
In SEIU, the queer – and I’m dating myself with word choice, though I hope the anachronism is justifiable – Lavender Caucus formed alongside an African-American Caucus, Latino Caucus, Asian-Pacific-Islander Caucus, and other identity-category caucuses in the early 1980’s to bring attention to the shifting demographics of a labor movement still run by the old white boys who put their 1960’s-influenced radicalism into the labor movement. An organizer who was involved in the caucuses remarked that the caucuses had great achievements when they first started: they were vehicles for anti-homophobic and anti-racist education in the communities in which their members organized. They organized around queer-friendly contracts (for example, for a period of time their work went into educating members around domestic partnerships: gay people weren’t stealing health benefits from the deserving straight couples, but were advocating for the greater benefit of all non-normative domestic partnerships.) The caucuses were strong until SEIU began its politics of consolidating locals and cherry-picking leaders that would remain subservient to SEIU’s master plan of lousy contracts and back-room deals for the sake of expansion. It’s unclear how active the Lavender Caucus is now, outside of a symbolic Pride float and GOTV for gay marriage initiatives, though according to this organizer, the caucuses had tremendous potential in their day, when caucus leaders sat on union executive boards, fought for funding, and made the concept of identity (outside of the straight, white, male) a priority within union culture.
The organization Pride at Work also takes on the fight for queer-inclusive contracts. An AFL-CIO constituency-group with local chapters, Pride at Work advises union leaders on LGBT-inclusive contract language. Their stated purpose as articulated in their “Union Difference” webpage makes an incisively strong case for labor as a relevant fight for queers:
In 30 states, it is legal to fire someone because of their sexual orientation. In 38 states it is legal to fire someone because of their gender identity or expression. Because of federal DOMA laws, same-sex couples are denied access to 1,138 rights and responsibilities. In a majority of states, a union contract is the ONLY protection that LGBT workers have. For ALL workers, the power of standing together as a union is the most effective way to win fair working conditions. (http://www.prideatwork.org/the-union-difference.html)
For Pride at Work, it is through the union that queer workers fight for protection (with the potential of ENDA, of course, as a gesture, though not the thrust of their strategy.)
Another subset of queer labor organizing is Unite Here’s “Sleep with the Right People” campaign. The campaign is a component of Unite Here’s national boycott of Hyatt Hotels, called Hyatt Hurts. According to the “Sleep With” organizer Cleve Jones, the intention of the campaign is for coalitional purposes: you can’t beat a giant like the Hyatt Corporation if you’re not supported by allies. Jones also references his work with Harvey Milk to kick Coors out of gay bars in the 1970’s because of a Teamster dispute with the company, drawing on a gay-labor framework of consumer-activism. And of course Jones makes the connection to Doug Manchester, the property owner of one the largest Hyatt properties in the world, who helped underwrite the drive to put California’s Prop 8 on the ballot in 2008. Jones, too, posits queers’ self-interest in the boycott while forging the coalitional intent of the campaign. (See: http://truth-out.org/news/item/10904-why-boycotting-hyatt-is-more-than-just-a-union-issue-an-interview-with-activist-cleve-jones)
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I chronicle these gay-labor efforts as reference points for how initial feelings, much like those I describe here, get concretized into movements with demands. A few days after the worker leader I mentioned above spelled out his association between “gay labor” and “productive workforce,” I was able to identify what felt so comfortable to me about his reflection. As most things do, the realization led me to Audre Lorde. There are a few passages from her essay “Uses of the Erotic” that I keep close to home, and one in particular struck a chord:
For once we begin to feel deeply all the aspects of our lives, we begin to demand from ourselves and from our life-pursuits that they feel in accordance with that joy which we know ourselves to be capable of. Our erotic knowledge empowers us, becomes a lens through which we scrutinize all aspects of our existence, forcing us to evaluate those aspects honestly in terms of their relative meaning within our lives…For as we begin to recognize our deepest feelings, we begin to give up, of necessity, being satisfied with suffering, and self-negation, and with the numbness which so often seems like the only alternative in our society. Our acts against oppression become integral with self, motivated and empowered from within. (57-8, Sister Outsider.)
Lorde speaks unabashedly in her essay about work, and about the capacity to self-realize through work if one can be in touch with one’s own “erotic charge” (59). In her piece, Lorde addresses mostly women in the context of a patriarchal society, but her identification in the piece as a Black Lesbian Feminist provides rich terrain for considering all the ways one can be alienated through regimes of racism and homophobia from an erotic life pulse Lorde prioritizes as a survival tactic: if we can’t recognize our own pulse, we resign to “self-negation” and “numbness.” If we read Lorde’s understanding of the erotic as a self-realizer whose absence serves to block people from making real choices as having applications to queer people and the role of trans/homophobia in preventing self-realization, we see that the recognition of queer sexuality on the job – or in the case of this saga, on the job and therefore in the movement – can facilitate the self-realizing of queer people at work, removing one layer of alienation. (Straight people have the privilege of getting their “erotic charge” acknowledged at work, but it’s a privilege that constitutes their normalcy. There must be a reason why the two most well-known queer works of literature – Lorde’s Zami and Feinberg’s Stone Butch Blues – are largely stories of union battles and workplace alienation as well.) Though very different from Marx’s understanding of alienation through commodity production and a “world of things” (see 1844 manuscripts), trans/homophobia at work (in tandem with racism, sexism, ageism, ableism) must be recognized as institutions of alienation: enhancers of peoples’ obstacles to self-realization.
When my worker leader used the expression “productive workforce,” I doubt he was thinking of his labor becoming further exploitable with increased productivity. To the contrary, he seemed to be creating space, drawing on a notion that, united, queers have access to a productivity that is often denied as they are systematically wrenched farther from their “erotic charge” through institutions of trans/homophobia in the work place. As we’re forced to contend with our nation’s swing to the Right in this election season, we have a duty to revive labor out from under attacks on collective bargaining, widespread implementation of E-verify, California’s Prop 32, and the greater climate produced through rulings such as Citizens United. As we fight for the meager, non-negotiable right to organize, I linger here to consider the role of queers in this work. I don’t think it’s out of the question to consider that our own experience with struggle, self-realization, and collectivizing out of necessity into units such as “chosen families” make many of us primed for the kinds of courage labor organizing entails. We have stories to share, and I am writing to make the radical claim that queers at their full expression continue to do just that.