Queer Labor Activism in the US: A Timeline

Curated by Olivia Reeves-Bacigalupi (she/her) and John Emerton (he/him) 

Introduction

Although queer people have always been present in activist movements throughout history, our contributions frequently go undocumented. Through our exhibit, we bring attention to the queer activists and organizations who fought for our right to equal treatment in the workplace. We begin our timeline in 1972, as there is limited documentation prior to this time, however, queer folks have participated in activism for centuries. These movements are also ongoing, and we still see workers’ rights infringements frequently. As long as there is labor, there will be labor movements.

Power_of_Women-part-2.pdf

"Power of Women: Magazine of the International Wages for Housework Campaign 'International Lesbian Conference'" by London Wages for Housework Committee, 1976, from Lesbian Activism from 1970s to the Present.

The International Wages for Housework Campaign was founded in 1972 by Selma James, a transnational feminist who in the past had been a part of the movements for independence in the Caribbean. The article pictured was published in Power of Women Magazine in 1976, a publication run by James's committee. The authors describe a conference that took place in 1976 called “Toward a Strategy for the Lesbian Movement” which saw a gathering of lesbians from North America and Europe. There, they discussed the economic discrimination felt by all women; heterosexual and lesbian alike. Many lesbian activists argued that freedom from this discrimination - in the form of compensation for domestic labor - was essential to dismantling the hetero-patriarchal institutions that society relies on.

p16786coll15_1240.pdf

"The Power of the People is the Force of Life: Political Statement of the George Jackson Brigade" by the George Jackson Brigade, 2002 (originally published in 1977), from the University of Washington: Bothell, Washington Prison History Project Archive.

The George Jackson Brigade was a militant anti-capitalist group formed in Seattle in 1975 by unemployed, working-class communists. Lesbians and other queer people constituted a large portion of the group, alongside people of color, formerly incarcerated people, unemployed people, and students - in general, some of the most marginalized groups in society. The group advocated for an end to capitalism as well as the redistribution of wealth and the expansion of the working class. The group promoted armed struggle as a way to achieve their aims, which in turn made them targets for violence by the US government. This violence eventually lead the group to disband, as many influential members of the group were murdered by the state.

Proposition 6.jpg

Anti-Proposition 6 Poster by unknown. 1978 from the ONE Archives.

In 1978, the Briggs Initiative, formally known as Proposition 6 was a ballot initiative in California proposed by state senator John Briggs. It drew on conservative fears of homosexuality and hoped to “Save our Children” by banning queer teachers from public schools. The initiative would have made it illegal for anyone who had “engaged in public homosexual activity or conduct” to work in schools for fear that it would promote or predispose children towards homosexuality. Sally Miller Gearhart and Harvey Milk, both gay activists, spearheaded the fight against Proposition 6. (Goldberg, 2021) This flyer urges California voters to oppose the law and likens Briggs and conservative lawmakers to the KKK. 



HRCF_ GenderQueers Deserve Rights Too! Flyer.pdf

Flyer Protesting the HRCF's Exclusion of Transgender People from the Original ENDA, by Riki Wilchins of Transsexual Menace. 1994, from the Digital Transgender Archives.

In 1994 the Employment Non-Discrimination Act (1994) was first introduced. This version of the act would have made it illegal to discriminate against employees on the basis of real or perceived sexual orientation. It did not offer protections to transgender people, and it did not pass. This flyer, created by Riki Wilchins from the group The Transsexual Menace, claims that the Human Rights Campaign Fund (HRCF) deliberately excluded transgender people from this proposed act in order to garner more votes. It was not until 2007 that the act was amended to include non-discrimination statements on the basis of gender identity. (Hunt, 2011) However, although the ENDA has been introduced almost every year since 1994, it has never passed. 



self-organizebutton.jpeg

"Self-Organize! Change your sex and your workplace" by Canadian Union of Public Employees 3903, 2001-2002, from the Digital Transgender Archive.

The button pictured was created by the Canadian Union of Public Employees 3903, a union that represents teacher’s assistants, graduate assistants, research assistants, and contract faculty at York University in Toronto. In January of 2001, after being on strike for eleven weeks, CUPE 3903 reached a collective agreement with their employer. The University met many of the union’s demands, including workplace protections and benefits for transgender employees. The agreement included eight weeks of leave available to employees receiving gender affirmation surgery. It also expanded the definition of workplace discrimination to include discrimination based on gender expression, gender identity, and transition status.

History of the International Conference on Transgender Law and Employmeny Policy Inc..pdf

'History of the International Conference on Transgender Law and Employment Policy' by Phyllis Frye, 2000s, exact date unknown, from the Digital Transgender Archives

This document details the history of the International Conference on Transgender Law and Employment Policy, written by lesbian transgender activist Phyllis Frye. These conferences covered all aspects of transgender law, including the ENDA and employment activism. Today, Phyllis Frye is the first out transgender judge in the United States and received the Lifetime Achievement Award from the Transgender Foundation of America in 2013. (Ogg, 2021) 



entrehermanosMayDay.jpeg

"Entre Hermanos Participation in May Day Event, Seattle 2015" by Entre Hermanos, 2015, from the University of Washington: Bothell, Feminist Community Archive of Washington.

Entre Hermanos was founded in 1991 by a group of LGBTQ+ Latinos in Washington State who recognized the need for a social service organization tailored specifically to the needs of their community. Since its founding, Entre Hermanos has received funding from Washington State to operate as a nonprofit that advocates for social justice causes affecting LGBTQ+ Latinos. In 2013, farmworkers working at Sakuma Farms in Burlington, WA went on strike to protest unfair working and living conditions for them and their families, as well as for greater pay. The strike resulted in a boycott of Sakuma Farms and subsequently Driscoll’s, the popular berry brand that at the time was the largest vendor of Sakuma Farms berries. In 2015 at the May Day celebration in Seattle, Entre Hermanos gave their public support to the boycott and the striking farmworkers, a majority of whom were Latino.

NYC+TOHP+Transcript+008+Phoenix+Danger.pdf

'Interview with Babeland Organizer Pheonix Danger', by interviewer Michelle Esther O’Brien, April 24th, 2017, from the NYC Trans Oral History ProjectNYC Trans Oral History Project

In 2016, Babeland NYC became the first sex shop in the US to join the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union. Workers at Babeland felt that they were not receiving support for issues of sexual harassment, appropriate trainings and wages, and that transgender workers were not treated fairly. The movement is well known in the queer community, as a large number of sex shop workers are LGBTQ+, and one of the primary goals of the unionization was to address issues faced by transgender workers. (Abrams, 2016)  In this interview, Pheonix Danger discusses the process of unionization, as well as their life as a transgender nonbinary person. 



Conclusion

We hope that this exhibit sparks your curiosity, and inspires you to learn more about erased histories. Queer activists have worked tirelessly to bring us the rights we have today, as such we also encourage you to know your rights! We also stand in solidarity with trans activists in Appalachia and the US South amidst recent proposed, and in some cases enacted, legislation that attacks the rights of LGBTQ+ people

About the Curators

Olivia Reeves-Bacigalupi (she/her). I am a senior at the University of Washington: Bothell, with a double major in Community Psychology and American Ethnic Studies. As of March 2023, I am living in Bothell, Washington, where I have lived my whole life. I am a queer woman and in the future, I hope to become a social worker and work with children and adolescents.

John Emerton (he/him): I am a senior at the University of Washington: Bothell, majoring in Educational Studies and Gender, Women and Sexuality Studies. I am from Cambridge, UK, and have lived in the Seattle area for almost ten years. I am a transgender man, and am passionate about sharing queer histories and present realities.

References

Abrams, R. (2016, May 25). Babeland’s NYC sex shop workers vote to unionize. The Seattle Times

Alexander, I. (February 19, 2015). The struggle for fairness at Sakuma Brothers. Fair World Project.

Entre Hermanos, (2017). Entre Hermanos: About Us.

Goldberg, N. (2021, August 4). Column: How 2.8 million California voters nearly banned gay teachers from public schools. LA Times

Hunt, J. (2011, July 19). A History of the Employment Non-Discrimination Act. American Progress

Kuhling, C. (2002) “How CUPE 3903 struck and won”. York University: Department of Sociology, CUPE 3903.

Ogg, K. (2021, June). A Life Well Loved. Out Smart Magazine

The George Jackson Brigade, (2002) “The power of the people is the force of life: Political statement of the George Jackson Brigade”. Abraham Guillen Press & Arm the Spirit. (originally published in 1977)

Ward, C., Steffens, A. (2009). “Lesbian activism from 1970s to the present”. Barnard Center for Research on Women.

Acknowledgments

As the curators of this exhibit, we would like to express our gratitude to the people that made this project possible:

Dr. Julie Shayne (she/her): Faculty Coordinator of Gender, Women & Sexuality Studies at the UW Bothell, for her passionate instruction on the value of feminist knowledge production and for co-creating this assignment.

Denise Hattwig (she/her): Head of Digital Scholarship at UWB Library, for sharing with us her wealth of knowledge on the importance of open-access content and for co-creating this assignment.

Penelope Wood (they/them): Research & Instruction librarian, Gender, Women, and Sexuality Studies & Engineering, for their constant support throughout the artifact-finding and research processes and for their extreme flexibility in helping us.

Tessa Denton (she/her): Undergraduate Teaching Assistant, for her presence in our classroom, her confidence in our capabilities, and her invaluable wisdom on the project.

Queer Labor Activism