I’ve been reflecting a lot about the validity of my research interests. In a world in which “first-world” bombs destroy “third-world” villages, where children starve at home and abroad, where women are killed for infidelity, why am I so dedicated to the labor movement? And more pressingly, why am I interested in queer workers and sex workers? Inherent in the movement is a position of privilege (everyone has a job in this situation, at some point), and inherent in queer/sex-positive politics is a belief in the importance of non-normative modalities of sexuality, a struggle many would say is low on the proverbial “hierarchy of oppressions.”
I get discouraged when I read about other academic’s research on things that are understood as more pressing. I avoided the Sociology department because of my disdain for quantitative methods and the absence of room for beacoup theory, but I often get jealous of my sociologist peers who seem constantly to be immersed in research that is community-based and immediately relevant.
But there are moments when I remember exactly why I do what I do, why I find labor organizing to be one of the most important jobs in the world, and why I believe queerness is a modality that offers immense political promise. As other posts have noted, we’re attempting to organize the graduate student workers where I go to school, and this past weekend I attended an organizing conference for unionized and attempting-to-unionize grad workers. I sat through engaging panels such as: Struggles and Victories (where we heard compelling accounts from the U Illinois strikers), Confronting Department Closings (there is talk at my U about merging “ethnic studies” departments into one entity—so a sure-fire way to further decrease enrollment numbers from minority students. awesome.), Leadership Development (make things task-oriented!), Organizing Research Assistants (most unions biggest obstacle), and Campus-Community-Union Relationships (this stuff always makes me warm and fuzzy; got to talk about queer/labor alliances, what more could I ask for?). We also had organizer training in the field; we talked to RAs about coming out to support a fees campaign rally. Between panel-ing and workshopping, I met and bonded with my colleagues from various Midwest universities, where we talked about our own stories of struggle and empowerment. This was a crowd that made referential union jokes, and had spontaneous bursts of singing “Solidarity Forever.” It felt energizing and inspiring, and also like home. It felt like community.
In the affective blossomings that occurred this weekend, I was reminded of the common denominator that all labor movement efforts have in common—empowered resistance and solidarity. I am drawn to study, organize around, and write about resistance because to not do so would be to affirm a fictional weakness of the oppressed. Certainly it might seem more pressing to write about those who are the most oppressed and abused, to relish in their sorrows, to show numbers that say “See! See how much they suffer!,” but that ignores the agency of the oppressed, the ability for the oppressed to create change in their own lives and the world. And the labor movement offers the perfect lens to show the promise of organized resistance. I am drawn to telling the true stories of the empowered marginalized because it offers hope and alters the detrimental discourse of powerlessness projected upon the disenfranchised.
That is not to say it is not first important to stress the ways the working-class, queer folks, and other marginalized populations are destroyed insidiously by the system. And that’s also not to say that every marginalized group has the resources to organize, or are even in a circumstance where organization is possible. This legitimate critique of a glamorized labor movement challenges me on many levels, and I try to specify, when telling these stories of resistance, why different populations are able to do what they are doing. But this critique also speaks to why I find queer identity as an integral element of the labor movement. Kitty Krupat and Patrick McCreery speak to this in their book Out at Work: Building a Gay-Labor Alliance (2001). They explain that they “stopped talking about the intersections between class and social identity and started thinking about social identity as fundamental to class, and [they] began to think about the potential of an alliance between the labor and LGBT movements” (xviii). In an essay in the same book, Amber Hollibaugh further illustrates the importance of making queer bodies intelligible:
“If people are terrified of speaking out, of ever articulating the particularities of their own lives, they won’t sign a union card. They won’t speak up when there’s a grievance. They won’t shut a line down. Their spirit is broken precisely in the place where they need to have a voice.” (p.61)
My activism and scholarship are a reflection of my belief in the above quote. I believe in the power of an organized working-class, but I don’t believe that a real transformation of society can occur if some bodies are made invisible, or articulated as less important, or deviant, or “a distraction.”
A few weeks ago I was in a conversation with a group of fellow activists and we started sharing stories about our first forays into political activism. My standard narrative answer to this question usually involves a description of my first encounter with Food Not Bombs, as it was the foundation for my understanding of radical politics. However, a memory from further back came to me, and I shared how my mom told me that we were going to boycott Cracker Barrel because “they were not nice to their gay and black workers.” I must’ve been only six or seven years old, but I remember learning and understanding that word “boycott,” and I remember feeling determined to never stepping foot inside that restaurant. Looking back, it makes sense that my first experience with exercising political agency would be around a matter that concerned labor and identity. And as a queer, working-class female, it makes sense that I still find these issues, as Judith Butler would say, “as crucial as bread.”