Most people know that Pride Month is celebrated in June. But did you know that October is LGBTQ+ History Month? This is an important distinction. Pride is a celebration of the queer community and its culture. But we should also take October as the time when we reflect specifically on the ways LGBTQ+ folks have been part of – and often then erased from – our collective history.
The queer community has always been a driving economic force, even when cultural and legal influences have disenfranchised and kept from their full earning potential. The labor movement – which we’re watching surge, in real time, for the first time in generations – has directly benefited from the dedication, pride, and investment of LGBTQ+ individuals and groups. Many of the rights that we all enjoy today are directly related to the work of queer organizers in the last century.
Facing discrimination at work and beyond
Members of the queer community have faced workplace discrimination and harassment for centuries. From morality laws to the recent biases against gay and lesbian teachers and trans workers in all industries, millions of people have spent their lives hiding their full identities when clocking into work.
It wasn’t as simple as just not coming out at work. During the height of McCarthyism, both the U.S. government and private corporations actively tried to flush out workers who might have been gay, prying deeply into their personal lives. Individuals could be fired or even jailed for the perception of homosexuality. They could also be found mentally incompetent and put into institutions with no clear release date.
It’s not an incredible surprise, then, that LGBTQ+ workers found allies in the labor movement – which at the time was also being persecuted by Republican lawmakers and pilloried in the press.
Leaders make space
Trade unions had been slow to admit marginalized people like women and immigrants. But many queer organizers and union members managed to break through and become powerful leaders. Stephen Blair, who had been discharged from the military in 1936 for being gay, organized on behalf of the National Union of Marine Cooks and Stewards (NUMCS) and eventually became the Vice President. Later in life, went on to be an executive member of the California CIO.
In the 1960s, there was more systemic and widespread inclusion of queer people. There were also more out activists who were willing to risk their lives and livlihoods for the cause. That includes organizers like Bayard Rustin, an openly gay Black man who refused to step aside when his sexual orientation was described as “divisive” within labor circles. Along with other powerful union activists, Rustin and many more worked to spread the idea that workers rights and human rights were one and the same.
…If we want to do away with the injustice to gays, it will not be done because we get rid of the injustice to gays. It will be done because we are forwarding the effort for the elimination of injustice to all. And we will win the rights for gays or blacks or Hispanics or women within the context of whether we are fighting for all. – Bayard Rustin
It wasn’t until the 1970s, though, that the labor movement truly joined the fight for queer inclusion, emracing LGBTQ+ issues as part of their platforms.
Pride at Work
Following the demonstrations at Stonewall in 1969, it became clear that gay rights were a labor issue. Numerous labor unions began taking direct action, writing LGBTQ+ protections into their bylaws and promoting queer leaders. The American Federation of Teachers drafted its first statement opposing discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation. Harvey Milk helped organize with the Teamsters to boycott Coors. Gary Kapanowski won his 1973 union election at UAW – despite attempts to sink his campaign by outing him. All the while, many locals were forming their own LGBTQ+-specific coalitions.
Finally, in 1997, AFL-CIO recognized the numerous LGBTQ+ factions of their union, most of which had been created on the local level. These efforts were all formally rolled into one organization: Pride at Work (P@W).
P@W had been working on its own for years prior to the recognition. AFL-CIO’s official adoption of the organization and its platform brought both prominence and credibility to the work of its members. At present, they work with most of the top unions in the nation, and their membership is represented across industries and trades.
Discrimination doesn’t quit
Believe it or not, in many states, LGBTQ workers still do not enjoy the same rights as their colleagues. Even decades after the Stonewall Riots and the Lavender Scare and the many, many Pride marches, getting fired for being gay or trans is still very much a possibility. Workplace discrimination absolutely still persists – which is why so many queer folks have found security in union work.
As AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka wrote in 2018, “today, you are free to marry who you love. But in most states, you can still be fired because of who you are. Unless, of course, you have the protection of a union contract.”
Union membership doesn’t just protect workers against unfair and discriminatory practices. It also provides wages that are transparent and equitable, which can mean more earning potential over time. And that’s something that the queer community desperately lacks; members of the LGBTQ+ community are more likely to live in poverty than their cis or straight counterparts.
Role of unions in pay equity
The reasons are complex, but they’re also not that hard to tease apart. The Human Rights Campaign reports that “LGBTQ+ workers earn about 90 cents for every dollar that the typical worker earns. LGBTQ+ people of color, transgender women and men and non-binary individuals earn even less when compared to the typical worker.”
Union membership flattens wage gaps between races and genders. And while there’s no specific evidence that shows narrower pay gaps for queer folks, the same elements which make unions more equitable workplaces – open bargaining, ample discussion of wages and benefits, and the ability to directly address pay gaps – help provide financial protection to members of the LGBTQ+ community.
Let’s close on the words of President Trumka:
For many LGBTQ Americans, a union card is their only form of employment protection. But more importantly, it signifies membership in a large and growing family ready to fight when it matters most.
That’s what the labor movement is all about. And it’s how the progress of tomorrow will be won.
LGBTQ+ history is American history. And LGBTQ+ History Month is as good a time as any to reflect on not only the role of queer folks in the fight for rights that everyone enjoys. As a group, they have been shut out of opportunity for many, many years. But the ongoing contribution of the LGBTQ+ community to our economy is undeniable. We can’t afford to erase it any longer.
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