Issue 14.2 | 2017 / Guest edited by Gema Pérez-Sánchez and Brenna Munro

Becoming Coalitional: The Perverse Encounter of Queer to the Left and the Jesus People USA

A note about this piece[1]

Introduction

In the late 1990s, a low-cost housing coalition formed in the Uptown neighborhood of Chicago under the auspices of a grassroots activist group, Community of Uptown Residents for Affordability and Justice (COURAJ). The coalition lasted until about 2005, and although it had some victories, it was not especially successful, at least not in the usual quantifiable sense.[2] It did not, for example, make much of a dent in processes of gentrification in Chicago, and thus might be deemed largely inconsequential. I am interested in this past moment in activism, then, not because it had tremendous effects, but because it still might. Ernst Bloch argues that the not-yet of the past is neither fully past nor does its non-actualization make it unreal.[3] The not-yet exists in the present as potentiality, meaning that rather than seeking transcendence, we can look to the world as it is for sources of change. The unrealized potentialities of the past—what we might call the not-yet of politics—provide a storehouse of live possibilities for the now.

My curiosity is in what a coalition can do. Abstracting from the specifics of any actual coalition, I want to explore what “touch across difference”[4] makes possible, what desires, capacities, and potentialities a coalition might generate and nourish. This essay tries to plumb that potential, investigating, like others in this special issue, affective movement across borders, but of the strange bedfellow rather than geopolitical sort. If, as many argue, the immense challenges facing all living organisms across the globe require divergent groups to join together, an exploration of this strange alliance might entice us to try.[5]

I start with a different coalition to provide some prehistory. In the late 1980s, Operation Rescue (OR) began a campaign to shut down medical clinics where women could receive abortions. Participants sat in front of clinics praying and trying to prevent women from entering. Many of the OR protesters in Chicago came from a group called the Jesus People USA (JPUSA), an intentional Christian community founded in the early 1970s and based in Chicago’s Uptown neighborhood. As left-leaning evangelicals[6] with a mission of emulating Jesus, one of their main activities is providing meals to people who are homeless. They also oppose abortion and in the late 1980s joined with the Christian Right group OR to try and shut down women’s health clinics that provided abortions.[7] In response, pro-choice activists held “clinic defenses,” escorting women into the clinics as OR protesters tried to block their way. In Chicago, the Emergency Clinic Defense Coalition (ECDC) spearheaded the defenses. At the time, I was involved in ACT UP/Chicago, and many of us participated in ECDC’s defenses. The encounter at the clinics was often confrontational, with opponents, enemies, facing off against one another.

Now fast-forward to the late-1990s when COURAJ’s low-cost housing coalition formed. Gentrification had taken hold in Uptown, and rising property values and rents were forcing many residents to leave homes they had lived in for decades. Battle lines pit relative newcomers—largely white and middle class—against long-term residents—disproportionately poor and black and brown, but also including poor whites who had migrated from Appalachia. Visible among the newcomers were middle-class white gay men. By visible I mean that they read to others as gay, even if they did not announce themselves as such, but also that they were visible as newcomers who wanted to “clean up” the neighborhood.[8] Perhaps less expected were the gay, or queer, forces on the other side, fighting against gentrification and for low-cost housing: a group called Queer to the Left.

Drawing from the gay liberation tradition and from ACT UP’s anti-normative queer politic, Queer to the Left formed in the late-1990s as a cross-class, multiracial group of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer people fighting for racial, economic, gender, and sexual justice. Initially forming to take on the growing conservatism of the more establishment-oriented gay movement, Queer to the Left focused much of its activism on the fight for low-cost housing and bottom-up community development.[9] Queer to the Left joined the COURAJ coalition, as did JPUSA. Consequently, Queer to the Left worked shoulder to shoulder with the Jesus People USA, many of whose members, along with opposing abortion, also oppose homosexuality, deeming homosexuals to be sinners.

In this essay, I hope to illuminate why these two groups participated in this coalition together.[10] But again, my interest is in the more general, theoretical question about what a coalition can do. That question draws inspiration from Deleuze who, in his interpretation of Spinoza, observes that we do not yet know what a body can do.[11] Following Spinoza, Deleuze defines a body by its power to affect and be affected, that is to say, by what it can do in the face of an encounter with another body or bodies. Because we cannot know in advance what encounters will occur or what capacities will thereby be unleashed, I understand encounter itself as a realm of experiment and of possibilities not yet actualized, that is, a realm of potential. A coalition is an encounter, a gathering together of bodies and their temporary being in relation with one another. Just as we do not know what a body can do, neither do we know what a coalition of bodies can do—what capacities and potentialities such an encounter might support, feed, generate—and that is what I consider in this essay. Rather than an ethnography of JPUSA or Queer to the Left or COURAJ, this essay is a theoretical reflection and provocation, an effort to open our thinking about what can happen when we try out being in the room together.

Strange Bedfellows

I initially turned my attention to this coalition because, although I participated in it, in retrospect it seemed strange. I was a member of Queer to the Left, and here we were, self-identified queer leftists participating in a fight for low-cost housing with evangelical Christians who opposed homosexuality. Coalitions often contain groups with divergent views, but this was extreme.[12] Most striking, difference here was both pronounced and a non-event: Queer to the Left and JPUSA never broached the topic of homosexuality. How might we make sense of this sort of coalition which displays affinities and reciprocities across chasms of perceived difference? Indeed, all coalitions are about aligning with different others, as Bernice Reagon indicates when she contrasts coalition work to “home” and describes the former as “some of the most dangerous work you can do.”[13] The question, then, is how to make sense of any coalition.

Social movement scholars who have explored coalitions usually begin, conceptually, with discrete groups, each with its given interests and values, and then, presuming that groups join coalitions for pragmatic, instrumental reasons, focus on factors that facilitate coalition formation, for example threats, opportunities, and shared identities and ideologies.[14] This approach can illuminate some reasons why Queer to the Left and JPUSA joined this coalition: both groups had a social justice orientation that led them to support low-cost housing and they may have believed that joining with others would help secure that goal. But what is occluded by a rationalist hypothesis which suspects self-interest, only and always, as the motivation to coalesce with others? That presumption forecloses consideration of motivations that may be non-instrumental, even less than fully conscious, and the focus on coalition formation ignores other questions, such as what a coalition might do beyond pursue its stated aims. My project is more in line with scholars like Elizabeth Cole and Zakiya Luna who ask what beyond self-interest motivates groups to work in concert and what occurs when they “get into a room” together, although I also ask what the very event of such coalescing might do, that is, might allow to happen.[15] Pursuing what Jackie Smith, et al. gesture toward, I explore the affects generated by contact when it occurs.[16]

Scholars and activists who think about coalitions from the perspective of identity politics emphasize the difficulties of working across difference. Reagon famously declared “You don’t get a lot of food in a coalition.”[17] Without denying the difficulties to which she refers—e.g., the ways in which those within a coalition might feel hungry for a righting of power imbalances and for recognition—this case asks us to consider additional political appetites and the pull such desires might exert.

When I began this project, I was stumped about why we in Queer to the Left did not care that we were in a coalition with a group whose members opposed homosexuality. When I asked one Queer to the Left member, he replied, simply, “that didn’t concern me.”[18] Someone else replied that that fact about JPUSA did not make a big impression on her.[19] Indeed, in the moment, JPUSA’s homophobia was not an issue, it did not demand the attention of the larger coalition or of Queer to the Left, and retrospectively, no one, including me, could say why.

My method is, in Lawrence Grossberg’s words, looking for “the virtual inside the actual,”[20] looking for the affective, what we perhaps could not have articulated at the time, but was in play, exerting force, allowing this unlikely coalition to exist. I plumb this instance of convergence without unity[21] in the hopes of learning more about what a coalition can do as well as about political appetite and the not-yet of politics.

Being- and Doing-Together

My research suggests that, in addition to a political commitment to the fight for low-cost housing, what drove this alliance were political desires that challenge the supposition that coalitions are mainly tactical, pragmatic affairs. The encounter itself compelled. Jon Trott, JPUSA’s point person in the coalition, described it as “glorious.” He acknowledged the stark differences between JPUSA and Queer to the Left, what he referred to as “deep points” of division, but in the same breath described the thrill of this encounter between queers and “Jesus freaks,” calling it “the coolest thing ever,” something that, he ventured, “put a smile on God’s face.”[22] Uptown resident and Queer to the Left member Jeff Edwards had “very fond memories” of working in this coalition and indicated that it provided a sense of belonging; it allowed him to become “part of the community” when previously he had felt like an “outsider.” With regard to working across lines of difference specifically, he noted: “there is something fun about being part of what to many people would look like an unlikely coalition, but which never seemed unnatural or uncomfortable…for any of us who were a part of it.”[23]

There may be something enticing about strange and unexpected encounters in the “contact zones” of coalitions.[24] As housing activists, we all were fighting for Uptown to remain a vibrant, multiracial neighborhood affordable to poor and working-class people, a space for chance encounters across race, class, and other lines of difference. The coalition itself created precisely that sort of contact zone, and my sense is that members of Queer to the Left and JPUSA participated in this coalition in part because we were seeking, if perhaps nonconsciously, to be in something with others. Coalitions allow you to be-in-it-with, to try out being and doing together. They offer collectivity, an opportunity to dip your toes in, get your hands a little dirty, doing something with others who are in it with you. Accompanying and being accompanied in your political doings can be pleasurable in itself, providing sustenance in a world that more typically produces separation and isolation.

Getting into a room together with previously unknown others also can create a sense of possibility where one previously did not exist. That is, breaking out of a known milieu, out of the same old, same old which perhaps feels already defeated or exhausted in its ongoing sameness, can challenge a relation to time that understands the future as determined by the past, generating instead a sense that, through being and doing together, something unanticipated might occur. Imagine an activist meeting where you mostly know in advance what everyone in the room, including yourself, is going to say; in contrast, encounters across lines of difference brim with the possibility that something that has not been here before might come into being.[25] To be sure, surprises occur amid “the same old, same old” too, but getting into a room together with unknown others can multiply the sense, and the likelihood, that something out of the ordinary might happen. Together in the room, say, of Tahrir Square, where days into the movement that overthrew Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, Christians formed a protective cordon around Muslims during Friday prayers, and Muslims likewise protected Christians during Sunday Mass. Regardless of post-revolutionary conflicts, their solidarity during the first period of the revolution, a solidarity which seemed historic and itself an incitement to others to join in, was critical in overthrowing Mubarak.[26]

Whether the borders crossed are religious, national, sexual, or otherwise, activists enlarge the political horizon when they show that socially produced differences can be produced differently. Coalescing across difference, thinking with others with whom you disagree, widens the space in which new ideas can emerge and be tried on for size, experiments can be undertaken, feelings can alter. Because the outcome of being-in-something-with-others is unpredetermined and unpredictable, and out of anyone’s sole control, coalition can cultivate openness to the unknown and nourish the capacity to be surprised, to think and feel in a manner that, drawing from Bloch, “ventur[es] beyond,” toward the not-yet.[27] Collective world-building efforts might then have a better chance of taking off and taking hold.

Related, being with unfamiliar others with no guarantees about what will result from that coming together can feed a desire and capacity to be changed, to learn and to become different than you once were.[28] Jon Trott marveled at the “weird reality” that an encounter can produce: “when someone becomes your friend, their issues begin to become your issues. And you begin to see things in a way you didn’t see them before.”[29] In a similar way, Jeff Edwards recalled an event in a church when he realized that participating in low-cost housing activism required that he change. “Religion,” he noted, had been “part of the problem” when he was an AIDS activist, the Catholic Church’s opposition to condoms and safe sex education being a good example. But getting involved in neighborhood politics against gentrification meant working with religious people: “We were now part of a coalition with all kinds of religious people—the Jesus People and the Catholics and the Lutherans,” and that made him realize that we were “going to have a different relationship to religion.” Still somewhat astonished by having been able to make that shift, he marveled: “We’re a group called Queer to the Left and we’re going to work with the Lutheran Church of the Savior and the Catholic Church of the Virgin?” He concluded, “and these are going to be our people.”[30]

These are going to be our people! He was opening himself to aligning with, in a sense becoming family with, people whom he recently had opposed in the political arena. This encounter across what had seemed a chasm of difference challenged him to change. Echoing Grace Lee Boggs’ notion of a “two-sided transformation of ourselves and our institutions” and Kathi Weeks’ argument that a “willing[ness] to become otherwise” is necessary in any remaking of the world,[31] he linked the sort of self-transformation he experienced in this coalition to the process of social transformation: “if you want to create change,” that is, if you want to “mov[e] away from just doing critique and…do the work of actually building something,” it is necessary to “work with people who are not like you,…who are not already lined up with you.”[32] Queer to the Left member Joey Mogul noted that “there’s only so much work you can do on yourself,” arguing that interactions across lines of difference are necessary for “learning, growing, and changing” to occur.[33] Both activists suggested that being in relation to, and touched by, other’s differences is necessary for self- and social-transformation.

Gayatri Gopinath suggests such a “model of non-blood-based affiliation…routed in and through difference” is “queer” and notes that such “moments of affective relationality” across difference “open the door to new ways of conceptualizing the self and others.”[34] JPUSA member Jon Trott likewise suggested the (positive) queerness of that pull toward difference: “There’s something almost perverse…in a good way…that makes you want to get closer.”[35] Queer to the Left member Laurie Palmer similarly was motivated by this politics of connection across difference: “we perversely wanted to incorporate the homophobic, to be next to it, in the midst of it, to be in it, in an ongoing process with everybody.”[36] The extremity, even exoticism, of this difference was part of the draw: she cared about being in the battle for low-cost housing, but the coalition compelled her in its non-instrumental dimensions as well, an inexplicable coming together, an ongoing engagement that provided something beyond the explicit goals of the coalition. This was not simply a pragmatic affair. It can feel euphoric to defy capitalism’s logic of divide and rule, to not accede to the pitting of identity against identity but instead to upend that logic and try other ways of relating. Perhaps we were attracted by the excitement of who we might become and who they might become through this touching and being touched by, by the pleasure of composing a new collectivity and the anticipation of what might then happen.

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Footnotes
  1. I am grateful for the political education I received in Queer to the Left and COURAJ. Heartfelt thanks, as well, to everyone I interviewed. Extensive feedback from Jeff Edwards, Joey Mogul, Brenna Munro, Laurie Palmer, Amy Partridge, and Gema Pérez-Sánchez was especially helpful. My thinking also improved through dialogue with audiences at the “Occupation Affect” conference and Center for Cultural Studies Colloquium, both at UCSC; Center for the History of Emotions at the Max-Planck-Institut für Bildungsforschung in Berlin; Sociology Colloquium, Northwestern University; Politics of Emotion Symposium of the IHR at Arizona State University; Center for the Study of Gender and Sexuality at the University of Chicago; Institute for Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies at Georgia State University; Centre for Interdisciplinary Studies in Society and Culture at Concordia University; and annual conferences of the American Studies Association, Social Science History Association, and Society for the Study of Social Problems. [Return to text]
  2. One victory was the construction of two affordable housing buildings in the Wilson Yard in Uptown, one for seniors (98 units) and one for families (80 units). See http://articles.chicagotribune.com/2005-01-16/business/0501160532_1_rail-yard-development-site-retail-space (last accessed October 15, 2017). [Return to text]
  3. Ernst Bloch, The Principle of Hope, trans. Neville Plaice, Stephen Plaice, and Paul Knight (Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 1986). José Esteban Muñoz (2009) pointed me toward Bloch. [Return to text]
  4. Donna Haraway, When Species Meet (Durham: Duke University Press, 2007), 14 and throughout. [Return to text]
  5. In 1981, Bernice Johnson Reagon graphically put it this way: “[W]e are at the point where in order to take the next step we’ve got to do it with some folk we don’t care too much about. And we got to vomit over that for a little while.” Reagon, “Coalition Politics: Turning the Century,” in Home Girls: A Black Feminist Anthology, ed. Barbara Smith (New York: Kitchen Table: Women of Color Press, 1983), 368. Barbara Smith similarly noted that you may not love, or even like, others in a coalition: Barbara Smith and Beverly Smith, “Across the Kitchen Table: A Sister-to-Sister Dialogue,” in This Bridge Called My Back: Writings by Radical Women of Color 2ed., eds. Cherríe Moraga and Gloria Anzaldúa (New York: Kitchen Table: Women of Color Press), 126. Decades later, William Connolly said it this way: “today it is urgent to forge a counter-resonance machine composed of several constituencies who diverge along lines of creedal faith, class position, racial or ethnic identification, sexual affiliation, and gender practice.” Connolly, A World of Becoming (Durham: Duke University Press, 2011), 91. See also Alexander Lee, “Prickly Coalitions: Moving Prison Abolitionism Forward,” in Abolition Now: Ten Years of Strategy and Struggle against the Prison Industrial Complex, the CR10 Publications Collective (Oakland: AK Press, 2008). [Return to text]
  6. Shawn Young describes JPUSA as “left-leaning” and “moderately evangelical.” “Into the Grey: The Left, Progressivism, and Christian Rock in Uptown Chicago,” Religions 3 (2012): 514, 500. [Return to text]
  7. Interview with Jon Trott, Chicago, March 28, 2011. See also John Bozeman, “Jesus People USA” (MA Thesis, Florida State University, 1990), 66 (fn 179), 84-85. [Return to text]
  8. The idea that gay men are central to gentrification has long roots but misleads insofar as it sees the problem at the level of individual choice and thereby fails to get at its structural sources. That said, in this case, there were a number of gay men visibly on the side of gentrification. On gays and gentrification, see Sarah Schulman, Gentrification of the Mind (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2012). [Return to text]
  9. Queer to the Left’s activism focused as well on police brutality and the death penalty. See Joey Mogul, Andrea Ritchie, and Kay Whitlock, Queer (In)Justice: The Criminalization of LGBT People in the United States (Boston: Beacon Press, 2011), 149, 153-54. [Return to text]
  10. My project shares with Andrea Smith’s a desire that we “open ourselves to unexpected strategic alliances with groups across the political spectrum” (p. xi), but as will become clear, my focus is on the extra-strategic motivations behind these “unlikely alliances.” Smith, Native Americans and the Christian Right: The Gendered Politics of Unlikely Alliances (Durham, Duke University Press, 2008). My project shares affinities as well with Nancy Whittier’s “Rethinking Coalitions: Anti-Pornography Feminists, Conservatives, and Relationships between Collaborative Adversarial Movements,” Social Problems 61, 2 (May 2014): 175–193, but differs insofar as the groups I discuss worked within the same organization and were not explicitly adversarial. [Return to text]
  11. Gilles Deleuze, “On Spinoza,” 1978, available at http://deleuzelectures.blogspot.com/2007/02/on-spinoza.html, last accessed July 7, 2015. [Return to text]
  12. COURAJ, the main organization in this coalition, held its own weekly meetings attended by 15 to 30 members. Two Queer to the Left members, Laurie Palmer and myself, also joined COURAJ, regularly attending its meetings. Between ten and twenty other Queer to the Left members participated in coalition events like marches, rallies, charrettes, postcard campaigns, door-to-door organizing, and testifying at City Council meetings. JPUSA had one point person in the coalition and as many as a dozen participated in coalition events. Other groups in the coalition included the St. Francis Catholic Worker House, the Cambodian Association, Edgewater-Uptown Greens, and Organization of the Northeast (ONE), itself an umbrella group of religious organizations, block clubs, and businesses. [Return to text]
  13. Reagon, “Coalition Politics,” 359. [Return to text]
  14. See, for example, Suzanne Staggenborg, “Coalition Work in the Pro-Choice Movement,” Social Problems 33 (1986): 374-389; Holly J. McCammon and Karen E. Campbell, “Allies on the Road to Victory: Coalition Formation between the Suffragists and the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union,” Mobilization 7 (2002): 231-251; Nella Van Dyke, “Crossing Movement Boundaries: Factors that Facilitate Coalition Protest by American College Students, 1930-1990,” Social Problems 49 (2003): 497-520; David S. Meyer and Catherine Corrigall-Brown, “Coalitions and Political Context: U.S. Movements against Wars in Iraq,” Mobilization 10, 3 (2005): 327-344; Nella Van Dyke and Holly McCammon, eds., Strategic Alliances (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2010). [Return to text]
  15. Elizabeth Cole and Zakiya Luna, “Making Coalitions Work: Solidarity Across Difference within U.S. Feminism,” Feminist Studies 36:1 (2010): 71-98. [Return to text]
  16. Jackie Smith, et al., Global Democracy and the World Social Forums, 2nd ed. (Boulder: Paradigm Publishers, 2014). [Return to text]
  17. Reagon, “Coalition Politics,” 359. [Return to text]
  18. Interview with Jeff Edwards, 2013. [Return to text]
  19. Intervew with Joey Mogul, 2012. [Return to text]
  20. Lawrence Grossberg, “Affect’s Future: Rediscovering the Virtual in the Actual,” in The Affect Theory Reader, eds. Melissa Gregg and Gregory J. Seigworth (Durham: Duke University Press, 2010), 332. [Return to text]
  21. Isabel Stengers argues for noticing the difference between convergence and unity: “A ‘Cosmo-Politics’ – Risk, Hope, Change,” in Hope, ed. Mary Zournazi (Annandale, NSW: Pluto Press, 2002), 254. [Return to text]
  22. Interview with Jon Trott, 2011. [Return to text]
  23. Interview with Jeff Edwards, 2013. [Return to text]
  24. I first came across the notion of “contact zones” in Haraway, When Species Meet. She credits Mary Louise Pratt with coining the term: Imperial Eyes (New York: Routledge, 1992). [Return to text]
  25. Encounter, in this sense, resonates with Arendt’s notion of political freedom: “the freedom to call something into being, which did not exist before, which was not given.” Hannah Arendt, Between Past and Future (New York: Penguin Books, 1993), 151. [Return to text]
  26. The news of this interfaith solidarity traveled around the internet. [Return to text]
  27. Bloch, Principle of Hope, vol. 1, 4. [Return to text]
  28. Both JPUSA and Queer to the Left had that orientation toward self-change, the former growing out of the early 1970s hippie counterculture and the latter drawing from gay liberation ideas developed during the same period. [Return to text]
  29. Interview with Jon Trott, 2016. [Return to text]
  30. Interview with Jeff Edwards, 2013, emphases his. [Return to text]
  31. Boggs, The Next American Revolution (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2011), 101 and throughout; Weeks, The Problem with Work (Durham: Duke University Press, 2011), 203. [Return to text]
  32. Interview with Jeff Edwards, 2013. [Return to text]
  33. Interview with Joey Mogul, 2012. [Return to text]
  34. Gayatri Gopinath, “Archive, Affect, and the Everyday: Queer Diasporic Re-Visions,” in Political Emotions, eds. Janet Staiger, Ann Cvetkovich, and Ann Reynolds (New York: Routledge, 2010), 167. [Return to text]
  35. Interview with Jon Trott, 2011. [Return to text]
  36. Interview with Laurie Palmer, 2013. [Return to text]