You might not think that Labor Day is a queer holiday, but queer people are a part of US labor movement history.
By: Mathew Rodriguez
Sep 4 2017
The labor rights movement in America is about economics. And the US fight for queer liberation is about civil rights and sexual liberation. But, while they may seem totally different on the outside, these movements do intersect. Queer women, men and trans people have all played a significant part in US labor rights history, and the fight for fair wages and benefits has often been a fight for better working standards for queer people.
To illuminate further just how much queer people were a part of the US workers rights’ movements, INTO spoke with Miriam Frank, author of Out in the Union: A Labor History of Queer America.
I’m very interested that you draw this parallel early in the book between states historically with anti-sodomy laws and states with anti-union laws. You point out that in 12 states that continued to have anti-sodomy laws until the 2003 Supreme Court case Lawrence v. Texas — Alabama, Florida, Idaho, Kansas, Louisiana, Mississippi, North Carolina, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Texas, Utah and Virginia — there are also present day anti-union or “right to work” laws. Beyond those both being conservative talking points, are there any ways these are related?
There is a heritage in the states that have right to work laws that also had sodomy statutes. There is a heritage of anti-liberal, anti-free — it is not obviously misogynistic but it is misogynistic.
The reason I wrote the book was to show how these two movements, which are very different — the gay movement is about a way of being sexual and the labor movement is about making a living. Unless you’re doing sex work, they aren’t really the same thing at all. They don’t really have the same reasons, they don’t have the same history, they don’t attack the same kinds of people, they don’t have organize the same way, they are not restricted by the same laws. But, because they have the same enemy — the hostile anti-gay, the anti-sex, anti-liberal laws Christian Right, you can define it anyway you want to — we have common enemies, and so we have common causes. My intention in the book was to show how that worked out in the process of working for a living and being out at your own workplace in the form of working a union.
Everyone believes there should be a union and they should negotiate with the boss and then they find out that the guy you’re working next to is trying to get domestic partner benefits in their union contract and this guy doesn’t think queers are good people. How does someone struggle with that? How does someone make an alliance with someone who isn’t exactly like them? The cause has to be a forethought.
So, you touch on a lot of different industries in the book, but you do say that a lot of unions learned from the teacher’s union. Would you say that was the earliest and most vociferous defenders of queer union members?
Yes, because a flashpoint, a shining point of homophobia, is “Those queer men are going to turn my little boy into a fag!” You know, the whole thing about pedophilia, that thing is a livewire issue today but the teachers unions have really pushed that back and have campaigned. They didn’t really want to. They started out wishing, “Just keep quiet and we won’t have any problems,” and then we did have problems. Again if you go to california and you go to proposition 6, the Briggs Initiative, which was a huge campaign in California in 1978, the briggs initiative was defeated by an amazing coalition of liberal coalitions. Not only unions, but liberal religious groups, the Girl Scouts, everyone got on the bandwagon and thy pushed back the hostile initiative. Six years later in Oregon, another group of people were trying to do the same thing. They kept running these bogus campaigns about pedophilia. The teachers’ union, having learned from the Briggs initiative said “it’s not going to happen.” And in fact in Oregon, in the state of Washington, in a lot of places where there were strong teachers union movements, that’s never went anywhere.