Queering Labor Showcase #1: Sleep With the Right People

As I note in the About Me section of this blog, I began this project in conjunction with my “Feminist and Queer Explorations in Troublemaking” course. This blog has thus far included reflections in the form of “troublemaking,” but another reason I created the blog was to start the foundational research for what may or may not turn into my dissertation. For the rest of the semester you will periodically see “Queering Labor Showcase”‘s, which will highlight an organization or campaign that merges sexual identity politics with labor organizing. Each of these showcases will provide background about the organization and also some critical analysis. As always, feedback is welcome and appreciated!

Overview

The first organization I want to highlight is the Sleep With the Right People campaign, which, according to their website:

….represents an alliance between two powerful groups: the LGBT (Lesbian Gay Bi-sexual Transgender) community and Unite Here (the union representing more than 450,000 hotel, restaurant, gaming, laundry and food service workers). Both face similar struggles in their quest for fair and equal treatment of all individuals. (sleepwiththerightpeople.org)

Cleve Jones, most well-known for his past work with Harvey Milk and for his relentless AIDS activism, is a current organizer for UNITE HERE, and is “a driving force” behind the SWTRP campaign. Jones says that a goal of this campaign is to highlight the interconnectedness between the “LGBT” community and the labor community, and also make labor unions more open to LGBT workers.

Since their start in 2008, SWTRP has led numerous actions in the effort to build worker power across diverse communities. UNITE HERE and SWTRP members participate in a variety of coalition-building events, including a sustained presence in gay pride parades across the US every summer. But it was the resistance against the Manchester Hyatt hotel in San Diego that not only acted as an impetus for the formation of the campaign, but has also been a main focus of their struggle. On July 10, 2008

“…UNITE HERE and LGBT leaders announced a full-scale boycott of the Manchester Grand Hyatt in San Diego. The coalition is calling for Hyatt to take action to correct a record of discrimination against workers at the hotel. Manchester’s Hyatt forces housekeepers to clean more rooms than housekeepers at other some Hyatt hotels, and workers at the Manchester Hyatt have no job security if the hotel is sold. The owner of the hotel Douglas Manchester, has also funded discrimination against the LGBT community. Manchester donated $125,000 to a political committee supporting Proposition 8, a November ballot initiative in California that seeks to make it illegal for loving gay and lesbian couples to marry.” (sleepwiththerightpeople.org)

To fight this, LGBT and labor activist have joined together to picket, rally and protest outside the hotel. The most recent action, “Manchester’s a Drag!,” took place today and involved picketing and protesting with local Drag Queens and Kings:

Analysis

This unique partnership seems ripe to offer insight into the relationship between sexual identity politics and working-class organizing, as well as the way in which rhetorically constructed social movement campaigns can work to enhance goals of progressive coalition building. However, several elements of the campaign seem to fall short of achieving this worthwhile goal, particularly due to a perpetuation of exclusiveness that the campaign claims to be challenging.

The history of the labor movement, and Marxian Leftist organizing more generally, is one wrought with evidence of class-reductionist stratagem implemented in an effort to erase articulated diversity for the sake of uniting as an intentionally essentialized working-class. Often times this becomes a division between masculinist styles of organizing versus more contemporary feminist efforts for a more pluralistic revolutionary strategy (Sandoval, 2000, Mohanty, 2003). As a young working-class woman who has been very involved with labor activism for the past six years, and who also identifies as queer, I have been troubled by the way that the majority of union rhetoric discounts experiences of non-white, non-heterosexual, non-male bodies.  Having personally heard organizers dismiss queer identities as “a distraction” from “the real struggle [capitalism]” (personal communication, 2008) I have become dedicated to reconciling the divisive gaps that exist between identity-based movements and the labor movement.  The SWTRP campaign is one means of attempting to bridge those gaps (albeit with some failures), and thus becomes a helpful artifact to analyze as an example of a potentially successful merger of sexual identity politics and working-class politics.

Analyzing the campaign through a rhetorical lens provides an important foundation for understanding it as a component to coalitional movement building more generally. First, I want to address who the coalition claims to represent; the website states that it is an alliance between the “LGBT community” and UNITE HERE. Using the umbrella term “LGBT” is problematic for a number of reasons. Assuming that everyone who identifies as “Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual or Transgender” can be lumped together as an ostensibly cohesive culture or identity category is not only essentializing, but also mixes identity on the basis of sexual orientation (LGB), with identity based on a modality of gender performance (T).

Of course, Gayatri Spivak and Judith Butler have both written about the importance of “operational essentialism,” which Butler, paraphrasing Spivak, explains as (using the example of the category of “woman”):

“a false ontology of women as a universal in order to advance a feminist political program. She knows that the category of ‘women’ is not fully expressive, that the multiplicity and discontinuity of the referent mocks and rebels against the univocity of the sign, but suggests it could be used for strategic purposes.” (1988, p. 539)

Thus, the construction of non-normative sexual and gender identities as one category can arguably makes sense, strategically, for mainstream coalitional rhetoric. However, if we are to forgive the essentialism for the purpose of furthering an agenda, we must the critique the absence of the other two letters that have made their way into the acronym: “Q” and “I.” More progressive articulations of this jumble of letters will often be written as LGBTQI, the latter referring to “Queer” and “Intersex.” The insidious omission reflects an unfortuante paradox from a necessarily political organization–a labor union, political by nature, chooses to dismiss the label that is (usually) politically charged in it’s interpellation of one’s sexuality, gender, or general rejection of heteronormativity. By not including intersex folk, UNITE HERE, intentionally or not, excludes an important part of the population that also deals with the same embodied struggles around which the union claims to be organizing.

It’s also important to challenge the very name of the campaign: “Sleep With The Right People.” As a sex-positive scholar and activist, I appreciate the overt sexual innuendo (and also the connection between queer–er, sorry, “LGBT”–culture and sex-positivity), and I think that the name has the potential to de-pathologize non-heterosexual sex acts. In this way, SWTRP can be read as a progressive rhetorical tool that aims to bring sex into the fore as an integral aspect of these particular identity categories. When understood in this way, the campaign seems to work against assimilationist models (such as HRC), that remove sex-acts from discussions of homosexuality (re: “‘good gays’ that conform to mainstream American standards of capitalist success without discussing their sexual behavior in the public sphere”).

Read another way, however, “Sleep With The Right People” can be read as a tool for disciplining. While it’s obvious the campaign is not suggesting that the “right” people are straight people, perhaps subtle measures are being taken to encourage a heteronormative view of non-hetero sex, one that may include sex acts, but does not include non-monogamy, kink, etc. The congential judgement of the declaritive campaign moniker could be interpreted as either almost radically sex-positive or mildly assimilationist.

When analyzing the campaign through its use of visual rhetoric, I am most struck by the SWTRP logo, and also the flyer for the “Manchester’s A Drag!” rally (see above). The use of the rainbow above the words “Support Hotel Workers” and beside the words “Sleep With The Right People” reflects the mainstream “LGBT” symbol of what is most commonly read as “gay pride.” Pride–and, more specifically, the annual parades that celebrate it–has been the target of critical analysis from numerous queer scholars and activists (see Halberstam, Butler, Bash Back!, etc.). Often times these critiques focus on the consumerist co-optation of gay culture, noting that mainstream culture becomes accepting of “gay pride” when that pride entails upholding the capitalist system of excessive consumerism. Furthermore, gay pride parades are often described as being comprised primarily of white, middle-class, gay males, and tend to be exclusionary towards people of color, poor and working-class people, women, and, of course, anyone who is generally disgusted by incongruous corporate-sponsorship of political identity. This, coupled with the white drag queen on the cover of the “Manchester’s A Drag!” flyer, seems to reify a white, middle-class gay male version of “LGBT.” This seems to me an odd parallel for an organization that is about connection sexual identity politics with the working-class. When a disproportionate number of queer folks are poor and/or working-class, and when a disproportionate number of poor and/or working-class folk are people of color, it seems odd that the face of a labor/”LGBT” coalition would ignore those very individuals who would demographically fit with their union membership.

These reflections are not meant to suggest that I have easy answers for an idealized SWTRP. Indeed, my radical queer politics are hindering an entirely unbiased analysis of the promise of a more liberal coalition. However, if labor unions are serious about organizing poor and working-class queer people, they will have to shift their focus away from the progressive middle-class, and start focusing on being inclusive to those who are not only on the margins heteronormativity, but also those who fall outside of the “LGBT.”

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3 thoughts on “Queering Labor Showcase #1: Sleep With the Right People

  1. Seriously, “if labor unions are serious about organizing poor and working-class people, they will have to shift their focus away from the progressive middle-class, and start focusing on being inclusive to those who are not only on the margins heteronormativity, but also those who fall outside of the “LGBT.””

    UNITE HERE is a union that organizes almost exclusively women and people of color. The union is 70 percent women and almost 75 percent people of color.

    That being said, it also specifically does not organize “middle class progressives. It is a union of dishwashers and housekeepers. Those are not “middle class” jobs.

    I appreciate your attempt at picking apart the SWTRP campaign, but I feel fairly certain that leaving our Q and I, is not because Cleve Jones wishes to distances himself from anyone. This is just a silly analysis.

  2. Thank you for the comment. I want to make clear that I really appreciate UNITE HERE and have been involved with a lot of their campaigns (from marching with Congress Hotel strikers, to working to build a “shadow conference” so that no one in my academic discipline would have to go into the Manchester Hyatt in San Diego, where the conference was being held). And your statistics on women and people of color are important and I was happy to read that.

    That being said, this isn’t an analysis of the union’s general demographics. It’s an exploration of the way queerness is articulated in this coalitional effort. I am arguing that the rhetorical strategies of the campaign are more reflective of white, middle-class gay culture, than more marginalized queer cultures.

  3. I think this is a great start to your showcase. I had a question about your discussion of strategic essentialism. What are the connections and disconnections between strategic essentialism and Munoz’s disidentification–and where do you see Butler fitting in?

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