Queer Liberation in the Labor Movement

By Lulit Shewan

Pride is a time of celebration and acknowledging the resilience and societal contributions of LGBTQ+ individuals, including in the workplace. Historically, queer individuals have significantly advanced workers’ rights and pushed for greater workplace inclusivity. LGBTQ+ employees have long navigated the intersection between queer struggles and the shortcomings of labor law. Labor unions have been instrumental in securing workplace rights for LGBTQ+ individuals and offering essential protection that has often been overlooked. Before state and federal anti-discrimination laws, unions negotiated fair practices within their contracts, paving the way for broader societal and workplace equality.

The contributions of queer activists to the labor movement are ongoing. Today, queer labor activists fight for comprehensive anti-discrimination protections, health care benefits that include gender-affirming care, and fair wages. These practices have led to significant legislative victories and improved workplace policies, demonstrating the importance of intersectional advocacy.

History of LGBTQ+ in the Labor Movement

Before the 1969 Stonewall rebellion, the union movement largely ignored issues facing the queer community. Without legal protections, employer discrimination based on sexual orientation was rampant, silently victimizing union members and weakening collective power. As the queer liberation movement gained momentum, organized labor began recognizing the urgency of addressing these injustices.

In 1974, San Francisco’s queer community joined forces with the Teamsters to support a boycott against Coors Brewing Company, which was non-union. This partnership expanded into a national boycott, compelling Coors to abandon its discriminatory policies against union supporters and LGBTQ+ community members. The American Federation of Teachers also took a stand, passing a resolution opposing discrimination based on sexual orientation.

The stories of queer workers, both historical and contemporary, illustrate the abundant contributions of LGBTQ+ struggle to the labor movement. In the past decade, the community has seen a surge of cultural support and significant milestones such as the landmark Supreme Court decision affirming the marriage rights of same-sex couples. Yet, despite these advancements, LGBTQ+ individuals continue to encounter obstacles, particularly in the realm of economic equity and stability, while enduring the imminent nature of prejudice and oppression.

Precariousness of LGBTQ+ Workers in the Workplace

Research indicates that nearly half of LGBTQ+ workers have faced job discrimination, including being passed over for jobs, harassed, denied promotions, and even fired. Economic disparities significantly impact LGBTQ+ populations. Studies show LGBTQ+ adults are more likely to experience financial instability, with higher rates of food and economic insecurity compared to non-LGBTQ+ Americans. About 13.1 percent of LGBTQ+ adults live in households experiencing food insecurity, compared to 7.2 percent of non-LGBTQ+ adults. These economic challenges are compounded by discrimination in employment, housing, and health care, which leads to joblessness and underemployment. Income variability and wealth gaps between LGBTQ+ and non-LGBTQ+ adults are also significant.

Within the LGBTQ+ community, these challenges are more pronounced in the transgender community. A 2021 survey found that 21 percent of transgender individuals experience poverty, a 14 percent higher rate than their cisgender counterparts.

Economic discrimination against the LGBTQ+ community is a glaring symptom of our system’s reliance on corporate greed and the exploitation of the working class, compounded by insufficient anti-discrimination laws and weak enforcement. Despite diversity and inclusion initiatives, nearly half of LGBTQ+ workers remain closeted at work due to fear of discrimination, reflecting the systematic exclusion of queer people in corporate policies.

Policy Solutions to Protect LGBTQ+ Workers

Addressing the systemic barriers faced by queer workers means dismantling workplace structures perpetuating discrimination and inequality. The path forward lies in the examples set by intersectional queer labor activists, whose pioneering efforts offer a blueprint for achieving transformative policy reform.

Employers must ensure health care plans are inclusive, covering gender-affirming surgeries, hormone therapy, IVF, and other reproductive health care for LGBTQ+ couples, as well as comprehensive mental health services. Health care providers should be trained on LGBTQ+ issues to ensure respectful and competent care. Inclusive paid family leave policies are essential to support LGBTQ+ employees in diverse family and caregiving situations.

Systemic policies that perpetuate occupational segregation of queer workers and bolster economic policies must be changed to meaningfully tackle financial instability within the LGBTQ+ community. This includes living wage laws, pay equity standards, and robust public benefit programs supporting those facing unemployment or underemployment. Programs to reduce food insecurity and provide housing assistance are vital to address the significant percentage of LGBTQ+ individuals lacking stable housing or guaranteed meals.

Unions focused on supporting queer workers can advocate for pro-union policies that explicitly address LGBTQ+ inclusion in collective bargaining agreements. This includes provisions for paid family leave for chosen family members, child care subsidies for LGBTQ+ parents, and gender-neutral bathrooms in workplaces covered by union contracts. Fostering a union culture that explicitly addresses LGBTQ+ issues in their agendas is crucial. This means creating pathways for queer voices to be heard and represented in leadership roles and decision-making processes.

From these achievements and struggles, we learn the critical importance of solidarity. Queer activists have shown that forming alliances across different movements can lead to significant social change. Their stories remind us that the fight for workers’ rights is inherently linked to the broader struggle for queer liberation.