LGBT New Yorkers Join Occupy Wall Street Movement
Nearly two months into the Occupy Wall Street movement, the subversive action of physically occupying a small plot of land has sent symbolic ripples throughout the nation and across the world. And New York’s LGBT community-always at the vanguard of socially progressive movements-has begun to ask exactly how they fit in to this historical protest.
"When this started I had a lot of LGBT activists saying there was not a particularly LGBT aspect to this," said LGBT political strategist Jeff Campagna. "My answer is that you really have to look at it-and not at just what comes on TV."
Campagna pointed to the Declaration of the Occupation that Occupy Wall Street organizers put forth shortly after they occupied Zuccotti Park in lower Manhattan on Sept. 17. The third grievance on the list of 25 is inequality in the workplace based on sex, race and sexual orientation-it rates higher than collective bargaining for strippers!
Although LGBT protestors make up only a fraction of the actual protestors who have camped out in Zuccotti Park, our community has had a visible presence around the movement. These include the LGBT youth and drag queens that were among the 700 protesters who are arrested during an Oct. 1 march across the Brooklyn Bridge to the LGBT social progressives participating in the Queering OWS Facebook group.
Many LGBT New Yorkers were among those who participated in the "End to the End for the 99%" march, which moved from Washington Heights down Broadway to Zuccotti Park on Nov. 7. The Working Families Party, SEIU Local 32BJ, TWU Local 100, CWA, La Fuente NYCPP, United NY and local elected officials organized the protest. And although no national LGBT organizations have endorsed OWS, the Stonewall Democratic Club of NYC and other groups have encouraged their members to participate.
State Sen. Tom Duane (D-Manhattan) and City Council Speaker Christine Quinn have also urged their constituents to join the march.
"The protests at Zuccotti Park have captured the feelings of so many Americans who are nervous about the economy, worried about their future, and frustrated about growing income inequality," wrote Quinn, who spoke to OWS and the need for a continued dialogue between the protestors and local property owners, the community and City Hall to balance people’s First Amendment rights and concerns. "These protests have also shown why New York is a great city. As someone who has been arrested several times for civil disobedience, I understand how important it is to make sure people’s first amendment right to protest is protected."
Stonewall Democratic Club of NYC Vice President Melissa Sklarz said her group wanted to connect with the Queering OWS movement to see what they had in common and how they could help.
"I think that OWS speaks for all people that are disgusted and outraged at the way our culture has changed dramatically in the past 10 years," said Sklarz, noting corporate influence in the country’s politics and its effect on marriage, transgender and adoption rights. "Individual people seem to have no say in what controls their lives. It’s almost as if non-LGBT people are now in the same category as us. They’re so used to being the majority, and now they have a better sense of what it feels like to be a minority in that they have so little control and discretion over their day-to-day life."
"LGBT people are a minority that have been used as a political scapegoat to divide the electorate so corporate interests could further an anti-worker, anti-union, laissez-faire economic policy," added Campagna. "After 30 years, the middle class is seeing that groups that have used abortion and LGBTQ issues to vote against their interests are against everyone, that people who finance anti-gay initiatives also fund anti-union and anti-environmental issues."
Speaking up for OWS falls to Duane and other elected officials. He was unable to attend the Nov. 7 march because he was busy attempting to prevent an eviction, but Duane lent his support to the movement.
"Whenever I’ve been down there [to Zuccotti Park] I have seen people from the LGBT community," said Duane. "My experience has always been that LGBT people are at the vanguard of every political progressive movement, from my early days as an activist. I think the same is true with this action."
Campagna is among those who have spent a lot of time in Zuccotti Park. He acknowledges that the movement’s organic nature and lack of leadership makes it hard to get a handle on how to integrate individual issues. Campagna stressed, however, he admires the protesters’ resistance to being co-opted by larger organizations.
"In a way it’s a movement that was building under the surface with the frustrations that everyone in the country had about the economy, the influence of corporations, and the oppression of unions," he said. "It erupted in a tactic that inspired people all over the country and world to occupy specific plots of land. In the case of New York it is the most symbolic piece of land - a block from the Stock Exchange."
Do LGBTs Fall into the 99 Percent?
Campagna agrees that the LGBT community has always had to deal with disenfranchisement and a lack of equality, but he acknowledges not everyone is working-class or favors taxing the rich.
"That said, 99 percent of LGBT people are in the same position of about 99 percent of rest of America economically, so our struggle is their struggle: the struggle for civil rights is an economic struggle, a struggle for access to jobs, homes, and education," he said. "It is a struggle to have our voices heard in the political sphere, which is exactly what all of this is about."
"Every minority group is impacted by what’s happening with the economy," he said. "The LGBT community is certainly not over-represented in the one percent. And unfortunately, we still see discrimination; even though it’s illegal, there’s lots of subtle discrimination... and for the transgender community, not so subtle."
For him, the OWS taps in to the early days of the LGBT movement-and ACT UP in particular.
"Much of how they practice democracy is similar to how ACT UP ran itself: very egalitarian, making sure everyone had a voice, changing leaders often, and having people in committees in charge of things, with individuals chosen to represent them," said Duane. "It was very grassroots; so too is what’s happening on Wall Street."
Since the OWS movement began, Duane has heard complaints that their message is disorganized. "It takes a little while to organize the message, because there is a general unhappiness with the suffering and that those causing the suffering are not held accountable," he said. "How to message something like that is not done overnight."
How can rank-and-file LGBT folks do to support the OWS movement?
"One of the things we’re supposed to do is show up and show visibility," said Campagna. "A movement needs to move, elected officials and corporations need to see more people participating, and when there is a major day of action, it is important to show up and been seen and heard. To that end, there is a place for large organizations to play in encouraging members to be a part of this."
Campagna encouraged individuals to make signs that demand the passage of the federal Employment Non-Discrimination Act and the repeal of the defense of Marriage Act. He advised organizations to plan events, teach-ins, and house parties to discuss OWS-specific issues.
"I do believe OWS speaks for LGBT people, and I love the way the dialogue has changed from reactionary points to progressive talking points, looking toward the future," said Sklarz. "All of us are spokespeople for OWS. Their job is to sleep on the streets. Our job is to give it meaning and explain it to those who don’t understand."