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A Queer Eye for Radical Strategy: Organizing for Queer Liberation

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Close up of a person marching down the street wearing a colorful mask

As Pride season looms, corporations are preparing to barrage consumers with tackily branded messages of support for the LGBT community. In my hometown of Chicago corporations like Boeing, CME Group, and Northrup Grumman use the parade as an opportunity position themselves as cosmopolitan entities that cherish diversity. But the punishing reality of corporate power undermines their rainbow drenched initiatives. While promising inclusion these powerful corporations actively add to the crisis experienced by LGBT folks.   They have actively worked to undermine the social safety that many LGBT and Queer folks rely on. Over the last 10 years Boeing, for example, paid an effective tax rate of less than 8.4%, less than what an average Chicago resident pays in sales tax. One of the world’s most profitable companies, Boeing won $20 million in tax incentives to move its corporate headquarters to Chicago. At the same time successive mayoral regimes have cut funding for services that disproportionately aid poor folks, people of color and the LGBT community. LGBT folks are 3 times more likely to experience mental heal conditions like depression. And as a result of stigma and prejudice, 40% of homeless youth are LGBT. Money that could’ve been better spent on providing mental healthcare or housing went to war profiteers.

One way to help escape the corporate rainbow-washing trap is to clearly articulate the values and vision of LGBT liberation. The expansion of Queer rights – which for the purposes of this article include the LGBT movement more broadly – cannot be won by integrating Queer folks into the corporate agenda. Instead, organizers must engage in strategic fights to transform the structures of society that make Queerness dangerous and difficult.

A vision for A Queer politics

Queerness is an attempt to not let gender get in the way of love: to love more people more fully. In our personal intimate relationships, this might take the form of same-sex relationships, or it might mean heterosexual relationships where gender norms are intentionally challenged. When we build intimate relationships outside of nuclear families dominated by husbands, we can build more progressive and egalitarian relationships.

When we take that principle out into our public relationships in the realm of organizing, queerness and queer politics work to make sure that gender does not get in the way of justice. Sometimes, that looks like workplace protections for LGBT people, and other times it looks like housing for queer youth who have been kicked out of their homes for ‘coming out.’ Queer Politics presents an opportunity to remove the husbanded-headed nuclear family from the center of government policy and to create a more feminist and LGBT affirming society. By engaging in Queer Politics, organizers can build a broader and deeper movement.

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I will use an imagined story of a queer person’s life in this transformed society to sketch the outlines of a vision for Queer politics that is rooted in the politically possible but that tilts toward the horizon of the revolutionary:

Cori, who has a state job as an Arts Therapist, has had several days of having abdominal cramps. So they decide they should take a sick day. They emerge from their state-subsidized, LEED certified modular apartment complex, where units can be combined or closed off ,depending on the wants and needs of tenants. As Cori walks through their tree-lined neighborhood down a photovoltaic sidewalk, they see young children, the middle-aged and pensioners collecting soil samples for a neighborhood project that aims to determine the most nutritious and aesthetically pleasing plants to plant in the neighborhood. Because everyone works 20 hours a week, people have plenty of time for family, entertainment, exercise and the arts, and they have space to cultivate a dizzying array of romantic relationships.

When Cori enters the clean and well-lit train station, they toss a dollar into the automated kiosk and ask for directions to help them navigate the sprawling matrix of bullet trains, subways, light rail, buses and self-driving cars that can whisk them within a ten-minute walk of almost any destination in the region. While in transit, they call their General Practitioner to figure out if a specialist on the medical needs of non-binary people could see them on short notice. By the time Cori arrives in the medical district, they’ve scheduled appointments with a Queer-affirming doctor. They wait briefly in the lobby until summoned. After a thorough and personalized conversation about possible stressors and medical history, the doctor develops a personalized treatment regimen for Cori, who is told to check in at any time if their condition doesn’t improve.

Without ever having to write a check or flash an insurance card, Cori is on their way back home for a nutritious and sustainably-produced lunch at the state-funded cafeteria, where they are greeted by their loving wife, husband and girlfriend who are eager to hear if their pain has subsided. While confident of the doctor’s prescription, Cori is eager to learn more about the technology that produced their medicine, so they enroll in a free course at the community college on medical devices.

The world I’ve envisioned for Cori is one potential vision of the future if progressive forces can marshal sufficient power to invest in the people and places most in need. But this vision is not inevitable, or even likely, on our current political terrain. Today, a Queer polyamorous person like Cori faces a series of hurdles to access the basic necessities of life. Organizing with an eye towards Queer liberation is the only way from today’s world to the one I’ve envisioned.

What does organizing based on Queer politics look like?

“Do what works” is the best organizing advice I’ve ever received. Embedded within that simple piece of advice is an acknowledgement that we will often fail and a call to separate the good from the bad. In this spirit of comradely experimentation, I will describe several experiments in organizing that have worked to produce a Queer politics: deep canvassing, electoral work, popular education, and issue campaigns that can serve as tactics to advance a broader strategy to overcome neoliberal society and to produce an economic and social order that is feminist and progressive.

Deep Canvassing: One tactic that Queer organizers can use to break through the isolation that characterizes our society is a permanent deep canvass operation that is led by community leaders. My local neighborhood group, United Neighbors of the 35th Ward (UN35), which is located on the North West side of Chicago, runs a deep canvassing program, and it was part of the reason I got involved in local politics. Through the canvass, I was trained to ask a single question, “What would you like to see changed in the neighborhood?”

Without a pre-defined agenda, a candidate or an issue campaign, I was freed to knock on neighbors’ doors, share stories and develop a collective vision for our neighborhood. I was challenged to talk with folks who might not share my specific vision of a Queer utopia, but who wanted solutions to problems in their lives like potholes, expensive property taxes and underfunded schools. By building relationships and using persuasion, we were able to introduce Queer solutions to these problems, for example, a federal jobs program that would invest in public infrastructure and that wouldn’t discriminate based on race, sex, gender or criminal history. By having lay-leaders produce the canvass operation — training, door-knocking and debriefing — there were plenty of roles that allowed for community members of all types to get involved in politics. The issues that arise on the doors vary greatly, but a well-trained and Queer-affirming canvass operation can find ways to connect people’s personal experiences of oppression to a broader struggle to overcome neoliberalism.

Electoral Work: Deep canvassing also creates the basis for a robust electoral program that can put Queer and Queer-friendly politicians into power. Through a continual process of leadership development and relationship-building, we moved our neighbors and our local politicians to support the visions that would make the world safer for women and LGBT folks. UN35 was one of the early endorsers for the campaign of Alderman Carlos Rosa. Carlos is a trained community organizer who shares a progressive vision for a world beyond our broken system. He won with an astonishing 60% of the vote, and he is now the only openly gay and socialist Latinx representative on the Chicago City Council. In the 2016 election cycle, UN35’s electoral program – which is completely led by our leaders – won all of our local endorsed races, with our precincts outperforming the broader districts. In total, we knocked on over 4,000 doors, and we made roughly 6,000 phone calls. In coalition with Reclaim Chicago, we collectively donated 5,000 hours of time, and we contacted 90,000 voters for progressives.

In a federal Congressional district that from dense urban Chicago to the sprawling suburbs of La Grange, Marie Newman challenged Dan Lipinski, who is a Democrat In name only, for the Democratic endorsement for a seat in the House of Representatives. Newman – whose child is transgender – who founded an anti-bullying non-profit. That work was important, but bullying wasn’t the only issue facing Queer folks in the 3rd congressional district. So we worked to convince Newman to commit to supporting our People and Planet First budget, which would ensure that all Americans receive the benefits of progressive taxation, healthcare for all and a federal jobs program. It would also demand that binding wage and labor standards would be part of any future transnational trade deals. As a result, Newman campaigned on an explicitly pro-LGBT platform anchored by a demands for progressive taxation and healthcare for all. Newman lost the race by 2124 votes or 2.4%. Lipinski remained popular with a small, older and anti-choice minority who vote consistently, but the election signaled that there is a progressive majority in the collar communities of Chicago that is eager for an inclusive and progressive alternative to the status quo. Taking on the Chicago machine was challenging, but our work showed that there is a potential for a Queer agenda that focuses on changing the structure of society to have an appeal outside of the urban core.

Transforming the electorate and producing a broader base of voters will be key for future progressives attempting a similar upset. This will only be possible if a broader coalition of left groups come together to canvass the entire 3rd congressional district, starting well before election season.

Popular Education: Economic issues and international struggles are often separated out form Queer politics. But the contradictions of our global society have deeply affected the Queer community and provide another avenue to advance a Queer agenda. Nationalism, borders, trade war and capital flight are a death knell for Queer politics because it will tear apart Queer families, destabilize the economy and reify the market as the sole arbiter of justice in our world. A Queer strategy to overcome the disintegration of the global order must center people, not the market, as a measure of justice. If we want to advance a project of queer politics that meets the needs of billions of workers across the world, we cannot do it in a Mad-Maxian competition over jobs and resources.

When we put experiences of Queer folks at the center of our analysis; our job becomes not to destroy a global society, but to transform it into a system that works for all people. To bridge the gap between low wages abroad, poor working conditions domestically and the terrible job market for LGBT folks in particular, I worked with a team of leaders from The People’s Lobby to produce Popular Education trainings to help understand how the race to the bottom effects Chicagoans and Queer folks in particular.

Popular education, inspired by Augusto Boal, can be used in a variety of settings, learning styles and education levels. For abstract topics like globalization, Popular Education is particularly useful tool because it can bridge our local experiences of oppression to a broader structural critique of capitalism. Building on the work of the Asia Floor Wage Alliance, we analyzed how safe working conditions and rising wages are powerful tools for advancing feminist politics. This was a jumping-off point to imagine how a progressive, Queer vision of multinational trade agreements could advance Queer politics along the same line.   We wrestled with ideas, and then we practiced persuading friends and family about the merits of global solidarity as a way to expand struggles for Queer liberation across borders.

Issue Campaigns: Beyond training and education, The People’s Lobby founded a Global Minimum Wage campaign to demand that legislators mandate the inclusion of binding wage and labor standards in future trade agreements. As of the writing of this piece, Congressmen have formally endorsed the platform. In coordination with allies throughout the People’s Action network, we are working to recruit and train movement politicians to advance a global vision of queer justice. This combination of strategy and tactics suggests a path forward for local community groups to engage in transnational politics that is rooted in local experiences.

While limited in scope and specific to the particularities of Chicago, the strategies and tactics that I have written about suggest a path forward for queer radicals. Ours is a world dominated by a single maxim: profit at all costs. To move beyond this narrow politics, organizers must develop strategies and tactics to expand and deepen our bases. We must address the disparities produced by a sexist and queer-phobic society. Such an ambitious project requires a broad and expansive coalition of people and institutions that address the concerns of Queer folks not just as sexual beings, but as workers, students, residents, citizens, migrants and the many other identities we inhabit.


[1] On the right, nationalists like Steve Bannon and Donald Trump have rightly pointed out that workers of the world are in competition for jobs. But right-wing nationalists wrongly blame low-wage earners in poorer countries for the travails of American communities. But it doesn’t make sense that the women of Rana plaza are to blame for the outsourcing of the American textile industry in the 70’s. Some left-wing nationalists rightly point to multinational corporations for forcing workers into a race to the bottom. But left-wing nationalists wrongly believe the solution is retreating from global trade and repatriating jobs and capital. Both approaches assume the market has been broken by unfair competition and needs to be restored to equilibrium so there can be fair competition. This framework hides one of the defining characteristics of competition: there are always winners and losers. In the competition for national market dominance, the stakes are life or death.




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