Blatantly militant: The hidden history of queers in the U.S. labor movement

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In the new century, queers are loud, visible and proud in the U.S. labor movement. This June, Everett, Washington hosts the fourth convention of Pride at Work (PAW) — the official group for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender unionists within the AFL-CIO, the national coordinating organization most U.S. unions belong to. Also in June, labor contingents are to participate in Gay Pride marches in every city.

How times have changed! Yet, official labor history barely mentions the gutsy women and men who made it happen — nor the fact that these pioneers not only blazed trails on issues of sexual orientation, but broke barriers of gender and race as well.

The majority were also radicals, whose vision of a more humane future enabled them to swim against the tide despite persecution. Here are a few highlights of their hidden history.

Oscar Wilde, the anti-Victorian. One of the most celebrated figures to flout sexual mores and embrace the cause of labor was Oscar Wilde. In his essay on “The Soul of Man Under Socialism,” he imagined the beauty of a world undivided by rich and poor.

In 1885, while in the U.S., Wilde stopped to visit with silver miners in Colorado. He was also England’s only famous writer to support the Haymarket Martyrs, Chicago anarchists and labor leaders who were framed on bombing charges and faced the gallows.

In 1895, Wilde himself was sent to prison because of his homosexuality and antiestablishment politics.

Rising of the women. Female factory employees faced horrid conditions as the 20th century dawned. But their plight was ignored by the American Federation of Labor of the time, made up for the most part of craft workers who were privileged, white, and male. It fell to feminists to organize the first female unions, and many of the outstanding leaders were lesbians.

Pauline Newman, of the Women’s Trade Union League, was one of the first to organize women garment workers and candy makers. Her work was continued by socialist Rose Schneiderman, who was able to become a paid organizer because of a generous donation made by a lesbian who remains anonymous to this day. Sarah Schulman documents these colorful times in her book My American History .

On the West Coast, Dr. Marie Equi, a lesbian firebrand and member of the Industrial Workers of the World, earned notoriety for doctoring her injured comrades and distributing contraceptives. With the start of World War I, Equi was jailed for treason, although the Oregon AFL spoke in her defense. A climate of anti-Red hysteria swept the entire U.S., silencing rebels like Dr. Equi, but not before they had made their mark on labor.

The high price of freedom. In the decades following the onset of the Great Depression, social upheaval transformed organized labor, and gay militants were again on the cutting edge.

“Our struggle for freedom was expensive but worth it,” Stephen Blair said of those years. A gay leader in the National Union of Marine Cooks and Stewards (NUMCS), the flamboyant Blair earned top wages waiting tables on luxury liners before being blacklisted in the 1950s.

The NUMCS arose during the 1930s. Like many other maritime unions, it was communist-led, fiery, and rejected segregation at a time when Jim Crow unions were the norm. Many of its leaders were openly gay, and a majority of its members were queer, African American, revolutionary, or all three. Delegates held meetings and study groups aboard ship and Frank McCormick, Blair’s partner, served as a union officer and on the executive board of the California Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO).

But the McCarthyite witchhunts of the 1950s destroyed the NUMCS. In 1952, its leaders were imprisoned or blacklisted. In 1955, the CIO expelled the NUMCS and eight other unions.

Amazingly, in this hostile climate, communist Harry Hay organized the Mattachine Society, a pioneering gay political organization. Hay met those who cofounded Mattachine with him at the Southern California Labor School. Eventually, the redbaiting and anti-gay hysteria of the period caught up with him, and he was ostracized from the group he had launched.

By the 1960s, McCarthyism was in decline and the U.S. Civil Rights Movement was capturing world headlines. Amid this ferment, Bayard Rustin, Black, radical, and gay, busted color barriers in the unions. Rustin was a key organizer of the massive 1963 March on Washington, a landmark civil rights event backed by labor.

But Rustin never received the recognition due to him. In separate incidents, Congressman Adam Clayton Powell and Senator Strom Thurmond created controversy over Rustin’s well-known political and sexual proclivities, and he was unable to officially lead the march. Nevertheless, civil rights leaders Martin Luther King Jr. and A. Philip Randolph, president of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters and Rustin’s mentor, ensured that he played a pivotal role behind the scenes.

Beyond Stonewall. In the decades that followed the 1969 Stonewall Rebellion, gay activism on workplace issues flourished. Queer unionists fought for and won anti-discrimination laws and domestic partnership benefits. And in 1983, pressed by the rank and file, the AFL-CIO adopted a resolution stating that workers should not be persecuted for “what they do in their private lives.”

One of the first alliances between the labor and gay movements was the successful national campaign sparked by sexual minorities to boycott Coors, the notoriously rightwing brewery baron. In Seattle, the Freedom Socialist Party (FSP), Radical Women (RW), and Teamsters all worked on the same boycott committee.

In 1978, an anti-gay initiative made it onto the Seattle ballot, courtesy of Anita Bryant’s national campaign. In a terrific breakthrough, an RW member who was also a Teamster won her local’s agreement to oppose the measure. Soon after, the 50,000-strong Teamsters Joint Council 28 followed suit. The initiative went down to defeat.

Unprecedented coalition-building was occurring across the country. And all this tumult helped lay the foundation for the birth of Pride at Work, which came to life in the mid-1990s as an AFL-CIO constituency group. PAW’s founding was a giant leap forward.

Anti-status-quo gay unionists have built a bright record as champions of workers who would otherwise be unorganized, overlooked, neglected, and even shunned. They have fought more than one type of segregation and won the respect and gratitude of more than one group of marginalized workers.

So let’s hear three cheers for the queer unionists of today who are determined to uphold the resounding legacy of those who have gone before — the movers and shakers who sacrificed comfort and careers in their uncompromising pursuit of a better world, and who, in the process, drove all of labor forward.

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