Common Enemies, Common Causes: Queer People and the Labor Movement

· Updated on May 28, 2018

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.

Let’s talk about secrecy. In your book, there seems to be this parallel experience between the pressure to stay closeted in the workplace about your sexuality, and for a long time, the need to be secretive about organizing. How are these similar phenomena?

With the Wagner act of 1935, it really made it possible for workers to have the right to bargain collectively through an agent of their own choosing. That’s what that law said. That was a right that wasn’t granted until 1935 and before that if people wanted to unionize, you had to go to the outhouse or the barn of some guy, and maybe he said he didn’t know you but he did know you. It was just like going to a gay bar and trying to find someone to love. They kept the lights out, they kept the lights out during the union meeting so if someone grabbed you and made you tell who was there in the room, you could say “I was there in the room, but the lights were out.” It was a forbidden way of life and there weren’t laws to protect unionization.

You open with a story about an early transgender union member, Bill the Boilermaker in St. Louis in 1902, and you follow trans rights in the union for a while. It turns out that trans rights have been on the union docket for like 30 years. Why is the rest of america so slow to catch up?

Because it was workplace issues. A lot of trans issues are workplace issues, what bathroom you use. In a workplace, the flashpoint is the toilet. And the conflict is in the workplace. If I’m taking a subway to work and there’s a trans person sitting next to me, I’m never going to see that person ever again. But if I go to work every day and there’s a trans person there, I see that person every single day. If you have a regular forty hour a week job, you see the people you work with more than you see your own family.
The workplace is very important and the things that you do at work like going to the break room or using the bathroom are also very important. Or going to the locker room, if you’re in an industrial job, you don’t come home with your filthy clothes, you change.

There’s a story later in the book, the name of the trans woman is Donna Cartwright. She had a job at the New York Times as a copy editor in a very important department. She had been working at the New York Times for many years. She makes the transition and she says to the bosses, this is what I’m going to do. And this was in like 1999 and they said, “OK, what do you want?” and she said, “OK, during the time I go through the transition, I need a bathroom of my own. And they said “OK, we have a janitor’s closet, we’ll change that.” This was not the union, thi was the bosses. So they just did fine with it. And she sent a letter out to all her workmates, she sent a memo out we used to put things on bulletin boards, saying “I’m about to go through my transition. I’m about to change my name, my name will be Donna Cartwright. Nothing will change about me except things you don’t get to see anyway.”

Everyone said, because they had known Donna for so many years as a leader in the union, because she had negotiated contracts, she had run grievances, she had been a really stand up person in the union, no one messed with her at all.

I want to know, after researching this book, I want you to talk about how you feel the nature of being closeted, having to suppress yourself at work, has changed.

There are so many out people in so many workplaces, they find each other more easily. There are certainly places where they are not true. In fact, it’s those places where you have a matchup between sodomy laws and anti-union laws.

I’ve been working for wages since I was maybe 22, so that’s like, almost 50 years of being a worker. Everything has loosened up. My parents, my mother said “When I was training to be a nurse, I was living in a dorm and there were these two girls who were roommates and they pushed their beds together. I never felt that way myself, Miriam, but I’ve seen this. I thought, “Wow!” She was training to be a nurse in 1932 in Germany and she saw this. Of course, Germany was a pretty gay place before it wasn’t.

But, you know, we aren’t that odd. All those terrible things they’ve been saying about is, they really aren’t’ true. We’re just people who screw differently.

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