As we enter the home stretch of the decades-long struggle for marriage equality in Hawai’i, a recent survey of our lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans*, intersex and queer/questioning (LGBTIQ) communities found that more than 30% reported facing some type of workplace discrimination due to sexual orientation, while nearly 19% reported workplace discrimination (PDF) on the basis of gender identity. Nationally, studies have documented some of the results of this widespread discrimination, including:
- a 10-32% wage disparity between gay and straight men;
- a 24% poverty rate for lesbians (PDF), compared to 19% for heterosexual women;
- poverty rates for children of same-sex couples twice the national rate;
- an unemployment rate of twice the national average (PDF) for transgender workers;
- nearly four times as many trans* people earning less than $10,000/year as the general population.
I raised some of these issues during meetings last week with state legislators as part of a group (including Pride At Work Hawai’i and others from the faith, labor, civil rights and social justice communities) advocating for raising Hawai’i’s minimum wage. I said that I thought that raising Hawai’i’s minimum wage would probably have more of an impact in the lives of LGBTIQ folks than marriage equality. A mere few days before the special session to make Hawai’i the next state to grant marriage to same-sex couples - another campaign I’ve been invested in - it felt a little risky to say; but I thought it was important, as a member of the LGBTIQ community, to make the point that marriage would not end inequality.
Just a week earlier, at the National Coming Out Day Festival at UH, I had been signing up students, staff and faculty in support of the minimum wage campaign at our [email protected] table, when a gay business owner (a strong equality advocate whom I respect) expressed reservations about the impact it’d have on his business. “There are two sides to every issue,” he told me.
I’ve been reflecting on this while we’ve been working to organize more labor support for marriage equality. The struggles for economic justice and civil rights, ideally, intersect, such as with the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Justice, or the boycott of Coors, led jointly by the Teamsters and the gay community. Unfortunately, conflicts among different interests inevitably arise. Yes, it is imperative that we seize this opportunity to pass marriage equality during the special session; however, if marriage is our only goal, are we leaving anyone out? As the economic hardships caused by globalization and austerity help reduce marriage rates for working class people, is gaining the right to marry enough to guarantee true equality for LGBTIQ people? Unfortunately, these questions are usually unspoken and ignored.
As a musician and labor activist, I have walked picket lines, helped negotiate contracts, and lived with the uncertainties of a difficult profession. My union journey has allowed me to be elected chair of my bargaining unit and Secretary-Treasurer of my union, to work on the staffs of two great local unions (the Musicians’ Association and UNITE HERE Local 5), and to be inspired and mentored by some truly amazing organizers.
At the same time, as a gay man, I have struggled to overcome internalized homophobia and worked with others to oppose the repressive forces in our society. My “coming out” was shaped by my experiences volunteering with AIDS service organizations in the early 1990s and going door-to-door in my neighborhood as part of 1998’s Protect Our Constitution campaign. In recent years, I’ve been lucky enough to find amazing folks to work with to organize for equality and inclusiveness for the LGBTIQ communities, mostly through Pride At Work Hawai’i.
My understanding of the world has been shaped by my identity as both a gay man and a “cultural worker”. It also helps shape my activism, as I attempt to find common cause between the rights-based struggles of our LGBTIQ movement and the class-based struggle of working people.
As my experience with the gay business owner showed me, it’s not always easy - on the labor side, too. While for many LGBTIQ folks the necessity of marriage equality seems self-evident (it’s a matter of basic civil rights, after all!), frustratingly, some labor leaders don’t agree, or even use that rights-based framework as a reason to stay out of the fight. They argue that their union is focused on collective bargaining and that taking on “social” issues like marriage would only be distractions.
Luckily, most unions know better and have become staunch supporters of marriage equality. National unions like AFSCME, SEIU, UNITE HERE, AFT and NEA have all made support for LGBTIQ equality a major part of their negotiations, community organizing, and political action campaigns. Hawai’i’s own UNITE HERE Local 5 is a great example, serving as both a powerful ally and organizing “incubator” for many of our LGBTIQ organizations.
Labor supporters of marriage equality also recognize that ensuring that all workers benefit from the fruits of their labor - no matter how their families are defined - is every union’s job. Negotiating at the bargaining table can try to lessen the impact of discrimination and inequality (e.g., domestic partnership recognition), but some issues are protected by laws that can’t be bargained around. It doesn’t take much, even for the “straightest” or most socially conservative of labor leaders, to understand that fairly representing all members means actively opposing laws - like non-recognition of same-sex marriage - that cause them economic harm.
Similarly the benefits of raising the minimum wage are now accepted by most unions (although it wasn’t always so). Unions nationally partner with community and faith groups to lead fights for minimum wage increases - most notably among fast-food workers - even though most of their members won’t be directly affected. It’s both a sign of working class solidarity, and a recognition that, as labor’s power wanes and wages stagnate, raising the wage “floor” will help everybody. The average minimum wage worker today - 56% of whom are women and 55% of whom work full time - is 35 years old and earns half of his/her family’s income. Because low-wage workers spend most of their income on necessities, raising Hawai’i’s minimum wage by just $2/hour will generate more than $54 million in new economic activity for the state and benefit 74,000 workers.
When victory comes on both these issues, thousands of Hawai’i’s LGBTIQ people and their families will benefit. For many same sex couples, being able to access the rights and privileges of marriage will mean greater economic and social stability for them and their families. Similarly, raising the minimum wage (PDF) will mean greater financial security for tens of thousands of low-wage earners, a disproportionate number of whom are undoubtedly LGBTIQ.
In a society governed by the inequities of capitalism and the various oppressions that support it, including misogyny, heterosexism and transphobia, we need to recognize the entire monster we face - and how it harms LGBTIQ people - in order to strategize and organize effectively over the long-term. Issues like marriage equality and raising the minimum wage are only pieces of larger struggles against injustice and exploitation. Our LGBTIQ community needs to commit to organizing just as effectively to take on these next ones, including ending homelessness, opposing violence and militarization, ensuring health care for all, and ending unfair immigration policies, among others.
Martin Luther King taught us that “injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” And as Mother Jones said, “The first thing is to raise hell. That’s always the first thing to do when you’re faced with an injustice and you feel powerless. That’s what I do in my fight for the working class.” First, let’s win on marriage, then on the minimum wage; next, here’s to more organizing and more raising hell!