Queering Rights? Power and Inequality in the Formation of Intersectional Coalitions Around Statewide Rights Episodes

In the late 1990s and 2000s, groups within the LGBTQ and immigrant rights movements were struggling to advance their different agendas in the wake of substantial legal losses in Washington State and Arizona. Most groups operated separately, and to some degree in a hostile manner towards one another. For example, in 2004, when leaders of one immigrant rights group in Washington State proposed intervening in a doomed marriage equality lawsuit on behalf of same-sex couples, members of the group vehemently objected on religious grounds (O’Hagan, 2013). In 2008, the No on Proposition 102 Campaign, which failed to thwart the passage of a statewide constitutional ban on same-sex marriage in Arizona, did not include coalition partnerships with Latinx and immigrant rights organizations or leaders (Arizona Together, 2008; Vote No on Prop 102, 2008). Shortly after 2008, these same groups began to unite through intersectional coalitions around episodic rights campaigns, including: statewide marriage equality campaigns in Washington and Arizona; a campaign to provide state financial aid for undocumented students in Washington; and a campaign to stop SB 1062 in Arizona, a state law that, if passed, would have allowed state businesses to refuse service to LGBTQ-identified people. However, despite some successes, these coalitions have been unable to advance racial, economic, and gender justice issues that matter the most to the more marginalized members of their respective movements, like immigration detention, police violence, and trans equity.

This study examines how power operates within the intersectional coalitions that form around episodic rights campaigns like the campaign for marriage equality in Washington and the campaign to stop SB 1062 in Arizona. Which subgroups within coalitions are the most influential and what mechanisms reinforce a hierarchy of priorities amongst groups? To what extent did these alliances expand and morph social movement mobilization into new possibilities beyond intense rights advocacy moments and to what extent do they ossify and contain movements around short-term, modest rights-based goals? In addressing these questions, I argue that social movements are best understood as a dynamic series of shifting coalitions rather than monolithic bodies that have clear goals or directions. Indeed, social movements are dynamic and volatile entities that are never formed, but always forming. This understanding best captures how movements operate in society because it encompasses the variety of ways that disagreements within movements shape what collective goals are or should be, what strategies should be pursued, who should lead, who are allies, and which social movement constituents’ interests should be advanced and focused on. In addition, I argue that the groups that compose these shifting coalitions are unequally situated. Hierarchal power dynamics determine which groups’ interests are centered within coalitions, or are considered the agenda of the “mainstream movement,” and which groups’ interests are considered marginal. As a result, the interests of groups that represent the most privileged members of minority communities are frequently constructed as a movement’s core while comparatively less privileged groups (like LGBTQ people of color, trans and queer people, and undocumented immigrants), and the interests that matter to them, are often placed at the margins.

In order to delineate the expansionist and containing impacts of grassroots movement mobilization, this project relies on a sociolegal research framework used by legal mobilization and intersectional interest group scholars. The results presented draw from semi-structured, in-depth interviews and a series of participant observations conducted in Washington State and Arizona between December of 2014 and December of 2015. Washington State and Arizona were chosen as case studies due to the presence of intersectional coalitions in each state despite differing demographics and divergent political alignments, which will be delineated further in this paper. Interviews were conducted with a broad sample of coalition players in each state, including: organization leaders, advocates, community workers, and politicians. In addition to the in-depth interviews, this study draws from a series of participant observations that encompass a broad range of events such as, protests, educational forums, public membership meetings, pride events, an intersectional drag show, and a rally protesting Sheriff Joe Arpaio’s immigration policies. Unlike previous studies, which focus on social justice movement organizations by studying national groups, this study focuses on grassroots mobilization and, in doing so, explores the extent to which mainstream coalitions formed to “win” rights represent and serve intersectional and more marginalized communities – groups in social justice movements that are largely ignored in contemporary scholarship.


Format & Rationale for Inclusion in Conference: This is a proposal for an academic paper presentation at the After Marriage: The Future of LGBTQ Politics and Scholarship conference in October of 2016. The proposal relates to many of the possible topics listed in the After Marriage Call for Papers, including: local vs. national political strategies, lessons learned from the marriage campaign, queer people of color, and socioeconomic class and queer issues. The research presented in this paper examines how power operates within the intersectional coalitions that form around episodic rights campaigns like the Referendum 74 campaign for marriage equality in Washington State, the campaign to stop SB 1062 (the Religious Freedom Restoration Act that nearly passed in Arizona in 2014), and the campaign to stop the virulently anti-immigrant SB 1070 (a law whose infamous “show me your papers” provision increased racial profiling in Arizona).


Part of panel Building Movements: New Forms of Coalition and Solidarity
October 2, 2016, 11:00–12:45