Time and again, we have watched a narrow definition of the “gay issues” lead to failure to win campaigns or to a disregard for issues that have important implications for the overall position of LGBT and queer politics. Indeed, this lack of strategic vision was apparent in 1995-1996, when the Clinton administration dismantled large parts of the social safety net under the guise of welfare reform. Many elements of welfare reform—abstinence-only sex education, marriage promotion, fatherhood initiatives, and charitable choice programs—had significant implications for queer people, and especially for low-income queers. But our national LGBT organizations did not have a single word to say on the subject at the time. The fallout, however, was far more sweeping than just ignoring large parts of the queer community. LGBT people of all economic classes should have been concerned about a sweeping piece of national legislation that was more concerned with ending “illegitimate families” than with ending poverty, as was the expressed purpose of welfare reform legislation. The failure of LGBT organizations to see how queer families might be lumped into the category of the “illegitimate” by both right-wingers and liberals determined to regulate the sexuality of poor people, women, and queers, was a political and strategic failure.
The lack of vision can also be seen in our national organizations’ approach to hate crimes. Hate crimes against queer people are a very real problem, and they absolutely deserve the attention that we have given to them. The solutions we have embraced in hate crime legislation, however, have been misguided. Enhanced prison sentences that send convicted assaulters into the most homophobic institutions in the country will do nothing to solve the problem of anti-gay violence. Our national organizations chose to embrace conservative, “lock them up” values and tactics during the exact period in history when other social justice movements were working to reform or dismantle a criminal justice system that is profoundly racist at every step. Is it any wonder that so many potential straight allies on the left do not take our movement seriously?
However, as a number of articles in A New Queer Agenda show, there remains a wide range of opportunities for reframing our understanding of issues in ways that support coalitions and expansive progressive movements. For example, we could reframe “marriage equality” in terms of the right to form a family and share household resources inside and outside marriage, instead of focusing exclusively on the right of gay and lesbian couples to marry. Consequently, we have missed a huge opportunity to build alliances with senior citizens, immigrants, single people, women’s organizations, workers, HIV-caregiving networks, and other communities that create households and share resources outside of marriage. The creativity and ingenuity that queer people have shown in creating multiple kinds of families have been profoundly absent from the vision of national LGBT organizations that should be protecting the many family formations that we actually live in instead of proposing the couple form as a one-size-fits-all solution.
Some advocates of marriage equality have even proposed that same-sex marriage will help reduce poverty among queers, taking a page from marriage-promotion policies aimed at single mothers on welfare. But the decade-long experiment in heterosexual marriage promotion has utterly failed to put a dent in poverty rates. Like single mothers, many queer people simply do not want to get married, and their access to the social safety net and other state benefits and rights should not come attached to marital status. Whether we are single or partnered, we have the right to basic economic security. Marriage should be a personal choice based on cultural and religious preferences. It should not be the way to secure economic benefits for yourself and your family.
Universal health care represents another such opportunity to forge a progressive coalition that includes and benefits LGBT people, and learns from our experiences. But so far, national LGBT organizations have done little to take up the fight for health care for all. Even with (or perhaps especially after) the passage of President Obama’s health care reform package, health care remains one of the hottest issues in American political life. Here we are faced with the opportunity to make a common cause (with labor unions, progressive health care organizations, HIV/AIDS groups, and other social justice movements). If we take up the vision advocated by the new queer agenda and organize around the most expansive possible definition of “queer issues,” we will have the chance to work on an issue that could substantially improve the lives of hundreds of millions of people (including our own widely uninsured communities) in real, life-and-death ways.
Fortunately, if you look below the radar, you will find queer organizations across the country that understand the importance of making connections between our causes and are actively creating opportunities to build such links. Small local groups have been working for years on the real issues facing the less financially privileged segments of our communities. Organizations like Queers for Economic Justice (QEJ), of which I was the founding director, work with low-income and homeless LGBT people on vital issues crucial to their basic survival. I offer a brief history of QEJ because I am very proud of how our formation can serve as a model for other progressive queer groups across the country.
In 1998, when I was in graduate school, I wrote my master’s thesis on the impact of welfare reform on LGBT people, during which time I discovered that there was not a shred of research on the subject. When I became director of SAGE/Queens, I created a coalition of local antipoverty and LGBT organizations to address the impact that welfare reform had had on LGBT people. For three years, the queer movement and the antipoverty movement were working together (for the first time ever), to exchange information and engage in advocacy and public education about how LGBT people were impacted by poverty issues such as welfare reform, homelessness, the shelter system, and the criminal justice system. By working together under the umbrella of the Queer Economic Justice Network, some LGBT organizations were able to encourage each other to begin addressing these issues for the first time.
During this work, many of the people involved in the network decided that despite certain advantages that came from working as a coalition, a gap still needed to be filled. As great as it was to see these organizations take steps to broaden their work, it was clear that LGBT groups were never going to prioritize poverty and that antipoverty groups were never going to prioritize queer people. There was very clearly the need for an organization that could concentrate on these issues full-time, with a mission, resources, and staff whose priority was to address the needs of LGBT people in poverty.
As we started planning the organization that would become Queers for Economic Justice, we realized that our group of activists on the steering committee was too white and middle-class. So we stopped the process completely in order to make sure that before we moved forward, we represented the identities and issues that were central to our vision and mission. Eventually, we had a steering committee that brought together a seasoned group of activists and community leaders with personal experience and expertise in various poverty and economic justice issues (welfare, homelessness, prison reform, labor, etc.) and/or experience working in lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender communities. The majority of the steering committee’s members were people of color or people with first-hand experience of poverty. We then began to identify the issues that we wanted to begin working on first (welfare reform, prison reform, and homelessness), but there were also other issues that we wanted to address, such as immigration, access to health care, labor/employment issues (including “underground” labor such as sex work), access to education, class tensions within the queer community (such as the kind of gentrification conflict that is taking place in the West Village right now), poverty in transgender communities, reproductive freedom (beyond the narrow focus on abortion), and sexual liberation. We committed to starting small, but always keeping all of these issues—and their interconnections—in mind. The following is our mission statement:
Founded in 2002, Queers for Economic Justice (QEJ) is a progressive non-profit organization committed to promoting economic justice in a context of sexual and gender liberation. Our goal is to challenge and change the systems that create poverty and economic injustice in our communities, and to promote an economic system that embraces sexual and gender diversity. We are committed to the principle that access to social and economic resources is a fundamental right, and we work to create social and economic equity through grassroots organizing, public education, advocacy and research. We do this work because although poor queers have always been a part of both the gay rights and economic justice movements, they have been, and continue to be, largely invisible in both movements. This work is always informed by the lived experiences and expressed needs of queer people in poverty.
QEJ’s current programs include our Shelter Project, our Welfare Organizing Project, our Building A Queer Left Project, and our Beyond Marriage Project. All of these projects are rooted in the desire to do work on issues that matter the most to the people in our communities who are the most disenfranchised. All of these projects are executed in a way that makes connections with other social justice movements.
And QEJ is not alone. There are other organizations that have also made the issues and agendas of low-income queers central to their work. They work on issues ranging from health care to immigration, from prison reform to living wages, from reproductive justice to gentrification, from antidiscrimination to antiviolence—and they do it all through a queer lens. They do so through grassroots community organizing, leadership development, legal advocacy, and public education. Many of these organizations are led by people of color or low-income people. As opposed to our prominent LGBT national organizations, these organizations are all small, progressive, grassroots, and/or underfunded. Some examples of the kind of groups I am talking about include: Affinity Community Services (Chicago, IL), ALLGO (Austin, TX), American Friends Service Committee’s LGBT Recognition & Rights Project (Michigan), the Audre Lorde Project (Brooklyn, NY), the Community HIV/AIDS Mobilization Project (New York, NY), Community United Against Violence (San Francisco, CA), District 202 (Minneapolis, MN), El Centro Hispano (Durham, NC), The El/La Transgender Latina HIV Prevention Program (San Francisco, CA), Equality Utah (Salt Lake City, UT), Esperanza Peace and Justice Center (San Antonio, TX), Fairness Campaign (Louisville, KY), FIERCE (New York, NY), GenderJUST (Chicago, IL), GenerationFIVE (Oakland, CA), The Highlander Research and Education Center (New Market, TN), Jacksonville Area Sexual Minority Youth Network (Jacksonville, FL), National Coalition for LGBT Health (Washington, DC), National Queer Asian Pacific Islander Alliance (Washington, DC), the Peter Cicchino Youth Project (New York, NY), Q-Team (Los Angeles, CA), Queer & Trans Jail Stoppers (Seattle, WA), Queers for Economic Justice (New York, NY), SisterSong Women of Color Reproductive Health Collective (Atlanta, GA), Southerners on New Ground (Durham, NC), SPARK Reproductive Justice Now! (Atlanta, GA), the Sylvia Rivera Law Project (New York, NY), Transgender, Gender Variant and Intersex Justice Project (Oakland, CA), and Women With A Vision (New Orleans, LA).
Some of these organizations have been asked to contribute pieces to this issue, some of them are regular partners with QEJ, and some of them have never worked with QEJ at all. But all of them are doing work that understands queerness through an intersectional lens. They recognize that for queer people who are poor (or people of color, or immigrants, or incarcerated, or homeless), a “gay agenda” cannot be limited to marriage, hate crimes, and antidiscrimination laws. They understand that race, class, gender, citizenship, and health cannot be removed when you talk about sexual orientation and gender identity. And consequently, our agenda must address those issues.
But these groups are underfunded as millions of dollars instead continue to pour into the fight for gay marriage—an issue that was put at the top of our movement’s agenda primarily by people who are not facing the harshest economic realities. It is time that our national LGBT organizations prioritized the needs of the rest of our community, of the financially struggling or impoverished. As the current crisis moves more of us into that category, it is time that our national leaders open the newspaper to something other than the wedding announcements.
If they do not, we will work without them. I believe that the 30 organizations I mentioned above, and others like them around the country, have the potential to become another LGBT movement—a progressive queer movement, as opposed to the current mainstream gay one. A queer movement that is actually about building a real social justice movement, and not just relying on a handful of national leaders, funders, and lawyers to set our agenda. It is time for a new queer agenda. A queer agenda that actually reflects the lives and concerns of people of color, poor people, women, transgender people, immigrants, sex workers, homeless people, incarcerated people, old people, youth, disabled people, people with HIV, and working-class people. In other words: a queer agenda that reflects the concerns of the majority of us. “Building A Queer Left” is the name of one of our projects at QEJ, and it is exactly what we are trying to do. The potential to do so is exciting, and when I contemplate what could actually happen if we all created a queer movement that actually addressed the real issues facing most queer people … well, it takes my breath away. Join us.
- According to a survey released in 2010 by the US Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), 46.3 million Americans, or about 15.4 percent, did not have health insurance coverage in 2009, and nearly 60 million, or one in five, had gaps in coverage that year. Between 2000 and 2009, the percentage of firms offering coverage fell from 69 to 60. See Kaiser Family Foundation, Employer Health Benefit Survey (Menlo Park: Kaiser Family Foundation, 2009). For the queer community, it is even worse. According to a Harris Interactive nationwide poll (May 19, 2008), nearly one in four gay and lesbian adults lacks health insurance, and gays and lesbians are nearly twice as likely as their heterosexual counterparts to have no health insurance coverage. See Harris Interactive Poll, (May 19, 2008), quoted in LGBT Health: Community Cares (PDF), PFund Foundation (2009). Other surveys show an even greater disparity between heterosexuals and gays/lesbians. See A. Birkey, “Disproportionate share of LGBT Minnesotans are excluded from health care system,” Minnesota Monitor 9 Apr. 2008. Transgender people disproportionately lack any health care at all; some surveys report that 50 percent lack health insurance. See S. Mintor and C. Daley, Trans Realities: A Legal Needs Assessment of San Francisco’s Transgender Communities (PDF) (San Francisco: National Center for Lesbian Rights and Transgender Law Center, 2003). Also, nearly all US health care insurers exclude trans health services such as hormonal therapy and sex reassignment surgery See Eliminating Disparities Working Group, An Overivew of U.S. Trans Health Priorities (Washington: National Coalition for LGBT Health, 2004). [Return to text]