Mass Campaigns and Queer Liberation Harvey Milk at the Gay Pride Parade. (Photo Credit: San Francisco Chronicle / Hearst Newspapers)

Mass Campaigns and Queer Liberation

Based on a recent membership demographic survey, about ⅓ of DSA members identify as LGBTQ+. Now, even if the data from that survey doesn’t completely scale, it’s fairly safe to say that DSA is the largest organized force of queer people today in the United States. Other organizations doing gay advocacy work, like the Human Rights Campaign, are not membership-based mass organizations that run campaigns and develop the organizing and leadership skills of the people who donate to them. Local collectives of queer people that provide services, medical care, or housing are a way to help those who need it, but they will never have the volunteer power or organizational capacity to strike at the root causes of the problem — the economic system of capitalism that is willing to exploit our desires as queer people in order to take our labor and profit off it. An entire generation of leadership and community was decimated through deliberate government inaction on AIDS. Despite the campaign victories of organizations like ACT UP to change the definition of AIDS to include women, establish new treatment practices that prioritize the well-being of people with AIDs, and find a cure, the goals of socialists and leftists within their ranks —  universal healthcare and a socialist economic system — are still so far away. Only DSA has the combination of a mass membership oriented organizational model, an explicitly socialist analysis, and a combination of battle-hardened queer cadre that have been leading the organization for years with thousands of LGBTQ+ people that have been searching for a political home where they can learn the skills to fight back against a system and a ruling class that so clearly wants us dead.

A well-tuned analysis and dues-paying members looking for marching orders aren’t going to change the world one bit on their own though. We have to work collectively and systematically to develop campaign strategies that win power and shift material conditions for the entire working class in Chicago and beyond. Some of those strategies already exist as DSA-wide priorities, like the rank-and-file strategy. Our job is to build the organizational capacity to execute those strategies — and we can look at examples of queer campaigners from history and our own experiences as queer leaders in and outside DSA to chart a clear path about what a vision for building power across lines of difference as a whole working class looks like. In a recent piece, ‘Abortion is a Public Matter’, Marianela D’Aprile says “True liberation — living in a world where we all have enough resources of all kinds to support our lives, where we enjoy not only the freedom to live but also the freedom to flourish — that’s much harder to get, and the only way we can ever win it is collectively. Either we all have it or none of us do.” Not only is that the case for securing abortion rights, but it’s also the case for how we defeat the wave of attacks against queer and trans people  — and the only way to get it is through crafting an organizational weapon that can win through campaigns that secure reforms, bring more of our class into open conflict with our enemies, and develop the skills of cadre so they will remain in the struggle for decades.

August 1963 — the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom was the largest demonstration that had ever taken place in Washington DC. It wasn’t a spontaneous outpouring of anger at racial injustice and economic inequality, it was a concentrated expression of power in order to move closer to achieving the goal of federal legislation known as the Civil Rights Act. A mass mobilization to Washington DC wasn’t a tactic that came out of nowhere, either — one of the key organizers, A. Philip Randolph, had put forward a threat for a similar mobilization in the 1940’s. The chief organizer and strategist this time was Bayard Rustin — a former Communist and peace movement organizer who had served time for his anti-war stances — and also for ‘public indecency’ crimes after being caught cruising for other men in New York City. Rustin had been involved in the civil rights movement, but he had been pushed out due to anti-gay prejudice and red-baiting. Things were different by 1963, though – and it was because there was a mobilization on the line that organizers believed could be the final hammer blow necessary to get federal legislation passed, and because Rustin was the best organizer for the job. When Senator Strom Thurmond railed from the Senate floor that the March was being organized by a ‘sex pervert’, Rustin was not fired or hung out to dry — instead, A. Philip Randolph called a press conference and said he had complete confidence in Rustin. And Rustin ended up being the person who listed out the concrete demands of the March that August, in front of 250,000 people.

I learned very quickly in my own experience too that working on campaigns that have extremely high stakes and very clear wins and losses will bring together people who see the world in different ways. In 2013, while a senior at UC San Diego, I was able to be a part of the culmination of a 4 year campaign to pass a Boycott, Divestment Sanctions resolution through our student government. These campaigns were the primary vehicle being used by Students for Justice in Palestine chapters across the country. I had been elected as a representative for the arts and humanities alongside a slate of other activists in order to provide solid yeses for a BDS vote. Over the course of the next year, we used our positions to organize events and build relationships with other representatives on the student council representing different constituencies — we were using the patient organizing tactics that are the important bread and butter of any campaign to build a base before the heated climax of a final vote resulting in a win or a loss. 

Every year SJP and its coalition partners set up a huge ‘apartheid wall’ on our main student thoroughfare — 10 or 11 student organizations would reserve places next to each other and set up a long 12-foot scale replica of the apartheid barrier that cuts through East Jerusalem and most of the West Bank. There were many different organizations, some of which had very different stances on issues not related to Palestine solidarity, that had to come together and create a week-to-week backwards plan months in advance that would accomplish our campaign goals and anticipate the countermoves of our university administration and Zionist organizations off-campus. I remember clearly having a conversation with another queer member of student government, when working to whip his vote, telling me about his experience growing up Muslim, feeling excluded, and that I shouldn’t be working with people who probably had reactionary views about me as a person. My response as a person who had also grown up in a reactionary religious environment, was that the people I was working with were totally willing to sit down at a table and work with me — and the reason for that was because I was working with them on a high-stakes campaign that had a very clear path for winning or losing. And in the weeks to come, as the debate heated up and we all endured death threats, public scrutiny, and 18 hour days together, we forged a bond of solidarity that cut across our lines of difference. When we won our campaign and a wave of divestment resolutions swept across the University of California, we knew that we had taken a serious step forward. However, we weren’t able to translate our resolutions and media coverage — the cultural shift — into actual dollars being moved out of the companies invested in apartheid. And that’s because our coalition on campus was missing the most important player that would threaten the economic bottom line of the decision-maker we were targeting — we were missing the power of organized workers and the unions they had built. To see a successful example of how union power can get a campaign to win, we can turn to the campaign that brought together a years-long Teamsters campaign with the political power of the Mayor of Castro Street.  

In the early 1970’s, Harvey Milk was living on Castro Street, running a camera shop, and recovering from an unsuccessful campaign for San Francisco Board of Supervisors after coming in 10th of 32 candidates. He had built the beginnings of a power base, but it wasn’t enough given the rules that supervisors were elected by everyone, not just the districts they represented. He needed more votes, and a way to ensure that they wouldn’t peel off when homophobes started attacking him. Milk’s partner at the time, Scott Smith, was involved in a boycott campaign that the Teamsters were running against Coors. Howard Wallace, a gay truck driver and Teamsters member, saw the potential leverage in having gay bars in San Francisco respect the boycott and was able to tap the latent base of power that Milk had as an influential leader to enforce the boycott. Milk was also able to use this very tangible campaign to turn around and make asks of his new allies in organized labor too — both for members of his constituency he was representing in the short-term, and for building a coalition with organized working-class muscle behind it when he finally was elected to office as the first openly gay candidate in 1977. 

While watching The Times of Harvey Milk, a famous must-watch documentary that is organized around reflections on the assassination of Harvey Milk but also features a pretty comprehensive timeline of his political career and the reflections of those around him, I was struck by interview footage with one of the aggressively straight union members who was very up front about how he moved from a homophobic, violent worldview towards one that was willing to take the streets in anger when Milk was gunned down in City Hall alongside Mayor Moscone. The point he drove home, over and over, was that he saw how Harvey (and the people who looked up to Harvey) were willing to go the extra mile to stand up for the truck drivers and other members of the union who were calling for the boycott because they saw a common fight, a common cause together. Harvey Milk was a leader who was able to move hearts and minds, and he was able to do it because he set up opportunities for people to come together and find solidarity by fighting for something concrete to win. 

Across the country, we are seeing a huge upsurge in labor militancy. Elections at Starbucks stores have continued to move at a rapid clip; workers at Howard Brown Health, an employer with mostly LGBTQ+ employees and clientele, just filed for a wall-to-wall election; UPS employees represented by the Teamsters and a newly elected set of leaders are getting ready to strike if necessary; and the list goes on. At the same time, targeted attacks against LGBTQ+ people are skyrocketing. And it’s not just interpersonal violence; in fact, that violence is being driven at the structural level, with wave after wave of legislation that is directly targeting trans people seeking gender-affirming care, and laying the groundwork for a more far-reaching crackdown on sexual liberation that builds on the attacks against sex workers, abortion rights, and the entire edifice of liberal politics that the GOP has been engineering a strategy for decades to take down. Given that queer and trans people are disproportionately working class, and also given that queer and trans people are disproportionately present in and leaders in DSA, we need to use this opportunity of labor militancy to campaign as strategically and effectively as possible to win the power that will benefit all of our class in the long term. This is also true on the terrain of electoral politics, with multiple elections in the next year that will allow us to grow our power. As this is published, we are less than a month away from the Cook County Commissioner elections, where we have a queer Latinx socialist running on a platform of building working class power. Other ballot measures and candidates are on the near horizon that provide very clear opportunities for members of DSA — queer or not — to build power through serious winnable campaigns, and create unshakeable bonds of solidarity that will last a lifetime. 

Queer leaders in DSA have a responsibility to take the torch from and build on the work of campaigners like Bayard Rustin and Harvey Milk as we continue to build our organization. There are specific lessons that we should learn from the campaigns that these leaders poured their strategic thinking and volunteer time into — that we need to use the power we have to build more, we need a plan to win and the time it takes to create one, we need to find tactics that allow us to cut across lines of difference and develop the leadership of newer organizers while trusting those with experience, and we need the power of the organized working class in order to win. These are the lessons that we can apply to any campaign strategy to execute a clear goal that is either won or lost. When we build power together, setting our sights on a common achievable goal with well-thought out tactics that build on one another, we are able to ‘find ecstasy in the handsclasp of a comrade’, as Eugene Debs said so eloquently. And when, as comrades, we’re able to experience the joy of winning together and seeing our worlds change for the better — to me, there’s no more beautiful queer horizon than that.