Concurrent with activism for the legalization of same-sex marriage was the 2010-2012 global wave of protest, which manifested in the United States as the Occupy Wall Street Movement (Occupy). Occupy emerged in September 2011, several months after marriage equality was legalized in New York State (July 2011). In California, Occupy grew during a lull in the marriage equality movement because 18,000 couples had married legally already (since 2004) and the unconstitutionality of Prop 8 was under appeals in the courts. Occupy provides an interesting case in which to examine queer politics after the legalization of marriage equality.
Still, we know little about spillover between LGBTQ movements and Occupy. Some scholars and activists may even hold views similar to Steven W. Thrasher who writes, “No LGBT groups or even AIDS service organizations were part of Occupy Wall Street.” In this academic presentation, I examine critically the invisibility of LGBTQ activists and organizations within Occupy. I address the following questions: How did LGBTQ people and groups participate in and also challenge the Occupy movement? What does the spillover and infighting among LGBTQ and Occupy participants suggest for the future of queer politics?
To address these questions, I draw on original ethnographic research conducted from 2011-2012 and 2016 (Occupy’s emergence, first year, and fifth year). The fieldwork focuses on Occupy’s two “movement centers” in New York City and the San Francisco Bay Area. The study also includes Occupy Santa Barbara, the first Occupy National Gathering, Occupy’s feminist, women’s, LGBTQ, and people of color groups and events, and continuing Occupy activism in the Spring of 2016 (for example, the Bernie Sanders movement). The data include participant observation, an archive of paper and electronic documents about the movement, and semi-structured in-depth interviews with 73 participants.
The research reveals that Occupy became a political opportunity to mobilize around a variety of LGBTQ issues beyond marriage. Also, the findings highlight pervasive sexual, racial, and gender-based conflicts within the movement. My analysis of spillover and infighting between LGBTQ and Occupy movements point to three strategies that activists used to develop queer politics beyond marriage equality: 1) multi-issue cooperation, 2) queering separatism, and 3) sexual and gender conflict management.
Occupy’s prefigurative politics and loose organizing structure allowed for a diversity of LGBTQ activism within the movement, or what I term multi-issue cooperation. LGBTQ and feminist Occupiers protested against class inequality and embraced sexual and gender diversity with slogans such as “Pro-Fabulous, Anti-Capitalist,” “Tax Wall St. End AIDS,” and “Queer Occupy Wall Street targets a Gay 1%.” Just a few examples of LGBTQ participation in Occupy include a teach-in by the Sylvia Rivera Law Project on October 26, 2011 and the commemoration of the National Transgender Day of Remembrance on November 13, 2011, both at Occupy Wall Street in New York City. In the summer of 2012, LGBTQ and Occupy activists formed “OccuPride” contingents within Gay Pride parades to protest the commercialization of and corporate influence over Pride. Multi-issue cooperation strategies included LGBTQ activists partnering with Occupy protesters to address sexual and gender minorities’ particular economic and political grievances within the context of mass multi-issue mobilizations.
However, LGBTQ activism was not universally accepted within the movement. The most visible participants within Occupy were white heteronormative men, many of whom dominated positions of responsibility, meetings, and events. In response to white male hegemonic masculinity and the marginalization of queer participants, LGBTQ activists developed queer separatism strategies. Building on the momentum of Occupy, LGBTQ participants developed listservs, social media, and LGBTQ and feminist groups dedicated to queer leadership and LGBTQ politics. The Queer/LGBTIQA2Z Caucus, Queer People of Color working groups, and a variety of feminist organizations created their own oppositional collective identities. These separate groups became prefigurative spaces for innovative connections between feminists, queer, and transgender activists. Queer separatism strategies such as these included recruiting LGBTQ activists from within LGBTQ and Occupy organizations to develop separate organizations, build solidarity among queer communities and allies, and develop queer, trans, and feminist leaders.
LGBTQ participants both contributed to Occupy activism and addressed discrimination within the movement, or what I term sexual and gender conflict management strategies. For example, in response to several instances of sexual harassment and rape in and around the protest camps, feminist and queer activists created Safer Spaces community agreements and designated tents and zones of encampments that excluded heterosexual men to provide safety for women, feminists, and queer communities. Also, in response to discrimination against genderqueer participants and to advocate gender diversity, feminist and queer activists deployed “Preferred Gender Pronoun” practices during meetings and events. These and several other sexual and gender conflict management strategies transformed sexism, racism, homophobia, and transphobia using education, de-escalation, and self-help tactics. Sexual and gender conflict management strategies supported multi-issue cooperation and queer separatism strategies.
This study suggests that future queer politics beyond the legalization of marriage equality may utilize multi-issue cooperation, queer separatism, and sexual and gender conflict management strategies, but also, this activism may be invisible or ignored. LGBTQ activism within Occupy may have been invisible because scholars and activists have reduced Occupy’s goals to targeting big banks and solidarity on the basis of class. Also, Occupier’s reticence to address infighting about gender and sexual discrimination has marginalized LGBTQ activism. Additionally, LGBTQ activism has been invisible because activists advocated non-marriage-related goals at a time of intense media focus on same-sex marriage. Furthermore, activists used strategies opposed to those used by the same-sex marriage movement. Unlike the same-sex marriage movement that emphasized the normalization of gay families and celebrating marriage, LGBTQ activism in Occupy critiqued elite gay culture and revealed inequalities among marginalized LGBTQ persons including the lack healthcare for HIV/AIDS survivors and disproportionate violence and poverty afflicting transgender persons. The political opportunity of mass democracy mobilizations and the successful legalization of same-sex marriage offer new possibilities as well as challenges for future queer politics.