Queer Activism in the Labor Movement

— Sara R. Smith

Out in the Union:
A Labor History of Queer America
By Miriam Frank
Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2014, 240 pages. $54.50 cloth.

IN THE 1970s, Teresa Rankin kept her sexual orientation private while organizing textile workers at J.P. Stevens in North Carolina, relying on the lesbian social scene in nearby Washington, D.C. for community. When the Amalgamated Clothing and Textile Workers Union (ACTWU) offered her an organizing position in a small town in Virginia, Rankin, turned down the opportunity fearing isolation due to her sexual orientation. (Out in the Union, 59-60)

At the same time in San Francisco Howard Wallace campaigned for the boycott of Coors beer because of its anti-union and anti-gay policies. In 1983, Wallace and other activists formed the Lesbian/Gay Labor Alliance of San Francisco. (78-79, 93) In the 1980s, workers at AIDS clinics in several cities engaged in efforts to unionize their workplaces. (139)

In 1993, one thousand members of the Service Employees International Union met at Local 250’s union hall in Oakland and founded SEIU’s Western Conference Lavender Caucus. (98) A few years later in 1997, Pride at Work, an organization dedicated to defending and promoting the rights of queer workers, formally affiliated with the AFL-CIO. (77)

Pride at Work’s status as an official constituency group within the AFL-CIO was the result of decades of activism by rank-and-file LGBT workers.

These are a few examples that help to illustrate how Miriam Frank defines queer labor history. Frank uses these stories to represent a chronology of some of the major issues and events in the queer labor history of the United States.

In the 1970s, on the heels of gay liberation, some people started to come out of the closet at work and in their unions, but the persistence of homophobia meant that many more kept their identities secret. That decade also marked a turning point for history of queer labor organizing, as many people involved in gay and lesbian activism as well as the labor movement merged their organizing to create gay-labor alliances like the boycott of Coors beer.

With the onset of the AIDS epidemic in the 1980s, queer workers unionized AIDS clinics, and also fought discrimination at work and in the labor movement against people with HIV and AIDS. In the 1990s, LGBT caucuses increasingly established more formal links with trade unions, representing an increased acceptance as well as solidarity in the labor movement for queer people and queer issues.

Uncovering an Unknown History

Miriam Frank’s Out in the Union: A Labor History of Queer America is at its most basic level an excavation. By recounting this history of U.S. queer labor organizing from the 1960s to the present, Frank is uncovering a largely unknown history, in the process helping to fill a large gap in both U.S. labor and queer history.

While many labor historians have grappled with the fraught and also inspiring legacy of struggles around race and gender within labor unions, very little has been written about activism for the rights of queer workers within the labor movement. At the same time, historians of U.S. queer history have considered working-class queer subcultures, but generally have not crossed over to examine a queer history at work or within labor organizing.

This has begun to change in the past few years. John D’Emilio and Estelle Freedman recently published a collection of the late Allan Bérubé’s writing, My Desire for History: Essays in Gay, Community, and Labor History, a section of which includes Bérubé’s groundbreaking writings on the radical, anti-racist and largely queer Marine Cooks and Stewards Union from the 1930s to the 1950s.

Additionally, Phil Tiemeyer’s Plane Queer: Labor, Sexuality, and AIDS in the History of Male Flight Attendants, was the first book-length treatment of a queer profession (or at least queer when performed by the “wrong” gender, in this case men). Ann Balay’s examination of gay, lesbian and transgender steel workers, Steel Closets, just published in April of 2014, is yet another important addition to the small but growing field of queer labor studies.(1)

Miriam Frank’s Out in the Union is distinct from these other works. Though not a completely comprehensive study, Frank covers a wide geography and more kinds of labor — construction workers, teachers, social workers, auto workers, and retail workers, to name a few.

Frank also discusses the queer labor history of a number of different unions, with the American Federation of Teachers (AFT), the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees (AFSCME), the United Auto Workers (UAW) and the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) playing particularly prominent roles.

Grassroots Voices Speak

Out in the Union places queer history within the broader context of labor history of the United States, helping to foster a greater understanding of the interplay between larger developments in the labor movement and queer labor activism. Above all else, Miriam Frank’s examination is a history of queer labor activism that tells this history from the perspective of queer workers at the grassroots.

Frank’s queer labor history from the 1960s to the present is divided into three parts. The first part, “Coming Out,” consists of the first two chapters, and considers “coming out experiences” both at work and within unions.

Part two, “Coalition Politics” — chapters three and four — examines the history of coalition politics, including what Frank terms “broad coalitions of national consequence” like the relatively well-known gay-labor boycott of Coors beer in the 1970s.

The third part, “Conflict and Trans­formation,” is the fifth and final substantive chapter. This chapter examines “gay-labor campaigns that broke new ground,” in Frank’s words, including collective bargaining drives at queer-owned businesses. (10) The book ends with an epilogue focused on the fight for marriage equality in New York in the 2000s.

A major strength of Out in the Union is the individual voices at the center. Because it is difficult to find traces of queerness in archival documents and newspapers of the labor movement, Miriam Frank relied on over 100 oral histories with queer labor activists. Their individual stories leave the reader with a nuanced accounting of the wide variety of experiences of being queer at work and in the labor movement.

For example, rather than oversimplifying the decision to come out at work, the oral histories illustrate how workers’ decisions were contingent on numerous factors, including the support they could expect by their union, their workplace culture, and their geographical location.
Frank’s reliance on oral histories allows her to fill the pages of Out in the Union with stories previously untold. For the first time, for instance, the history of organizing efforts at AIDS clinics is made known to a broader audience.

Frank also discusses the activism of lesbian bus drivers in Ann Arbor in the 1970s and 1980s, who “fused gay affirmation with labor insurgency during the city’s counterculture heyday.” Lesbian leaders of the bus drivers’ union in Ann Arbor, AFSCME Local 693, brought a proposal to bargaining in the mid-1970s for workers and management to co-manage the bus company, a highly unusual and quite radical proposal.

They also proposed the inclusion of “sexual preference” in the contract’s non-discrimination clause, which proved to be uncontroversial and passed with ease — with this success, AFSCME Local 693 became one of the very first locals to include gay rights into contract negotiations. (105-107)

Out in the Union is also commendable for its inclusion of topics that have been notably lacking from other queer and labor histories. For instance, although transgender people face a tremendous amount of employment-based discrimination, little has been written about the activism of transgender workers to improve their working conditions and combat discrimination at work and in their unions.

Miriam Frank focuses more on the involvement of gays and lesbians in the labor movement, but she starts to rectify this imbalance by including some transgender labor history. At the very beginning of the book, for instance, Frank discusses André Wilson’s leadership in 2004 in the fight for health coverage inclusive of transgender related services and procedures during contract negotiations between the Graduate Employee Organization and the University of Massachusetts, Amherst.

Frank also examines Donna Cartwight’s experience coming out as transgender in the 1990s while she worked as a copy editor at the New York Times. Cartwright announced her transition in 1998 by putting a letter on bulletin boards and in her co-workers’ mailboxes.

Although she feared her co-workers’ reactions, Cartwright experienced an outpouring of support that she attributes to her 20 years of activism in their union, Local 3 of the Newspaper Guild, fighting for the rights of all workers.

Queer Rights and Union Politics

Further, Out in the Union draws the connection between the fight for LGBT rights within unions and efforts to radicalize and democratize labor unions, a topic not covered elsewhere and one that certainly merits more attention.

Frank asserts that LGBT labor activists, of course, have been advocates both for the status quo within the labor movement and for reform. However, she argues, “it is the political outsiders who have been most open about their queerness. Having already put their status on the line as dissidents, some have found that openness about queer identity has actually given them a political edge.” (63)

Frank provides a few examples of challenges faced by union dissidents due to their queerness. In the 1970s when Ed Hunt, a white gay man involved in union reform politics within AFSCME, ran for his union’s executive board, his co-workers defaced his flyers with the words “fag” and “queer,” and crossed out “for Executive Board” and replaced it with “for First Lady.” (65) This story goes to show how being out of the closet while also committed to a dissident union politics can be dangerous.

While Miriam Frank focuses on the rank-and-file nature of queer activism within the labor movement, she also provides an overview of queer labor history that gives the reader a sense of some of the earliest unions to go on record for gay rights. According to Frank, those unions at the national level that tended to take early formal stances in support of gay rights were also more progressive on civil and women’s rights than most other unions. The AFT, for instance, was perhaps the first union to pass a resolution in 1970 opposing discrimination against teachers “because he or she practices homosexual behavior in private life.” (84)

Other relatively progressive unions that organized in solidarity with the civil rights movement took a little longer to go on the record in support of gay rights. AFSCME, for instance, passed a gay rights resolution at its national convention in 1982. In 1983 the AFL-CIO passed its own gay rights resolution. (87)

Unions in the private sector that were early supporters of gay rights tended to represent workers in fields with a high proportion of gay people — for instance, entertainment and opera. In 1970, the American Guild of Music Artists, which represented opera singers and dancers, amended its constitution to defend “affectional preference.” (83)

Out in the Union is the first book to consider how unions have worked to advance queer rights through collective bargaining. This gives the reader a better sense of the concrete progress that can be made within the labor movement for queer rights.

Frank considers, first, efforts to incorporate sexual orientation into contract anti-discrimination clauses. She then discusses efforts to win domestic partner benefits in the 1990s, as well as activism in support of trans-inclusive health benefits during contract negotiations in the 2000s.

Though Out in the Union is an excellent and much-needed contribution to the literature, there are some areas that could have been examined in more depth.

Frank errs on the side of focusing on positive change for queer rights within labor unions, but I couldn’t help but wonder if the depiction of progress obscured homophobic and transphobic resistance to progressive change within labor’s ranks.

Had she included an expanded examination of some of the failures and challenges faced at the grassroots level, perhaps the reader would develop a fuller understanding of how LGBT activists were able to make change within the labor movement, despite significant resistance and setbacks.

Further, Out in the Union does not place a significant focus on issues of race and ethnicity, a facet of queer labor history that remains to be fully addressed by others.

When all is said, however, Out in the Union deserves a wide readership by activists in the labor movement, both straight and LGBT. It is a major contribution to both the fields of queer history and labor history.
For the first time, a broad history of queer activism within the U.S. labor movement has been published, asserting that queer people work to make a living too, and have fought hard to combat discrimination both at work and in their unions.


  1. Allan Bérubé, My Desire for History: Essays in Gay, Community, and Labor History, edited by John D’Emilio and Estelle B. Freedman (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2011); Phil Tiemeyer, Plane Queer: Labor, Sexuality, and AIDS in the History of Male Flight Attendants (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2013); and Anne Balay, Steel Closets: Voices of Gay, Lesbian, and Transgender Steelworkers (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2014).
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January/February 2015, ATC 174