Caitlin Breedlove

One Queer Reports on Changing Hearts and Minds of White People in Wisconsin

Filed By Caitlin Breedlove | March 08, 2011 6:00 PM | comments

Filed in: Living, Marriage Equality
Tags: labor, Madison, protests, queer, scott walker, solidarity, Wisconsin, wisconsin protests

One of the things about the Wisconsin protests that has not been written about much is that most of the uprising consists of working class white people. POCarehere.jpgThe culture of the space reflects the culture of this place: country and folk singers at the podium, singing 'Solidarity Forever', and the waving of American flags; the planning of a rural Tractorcade that will slowly procession hundreds of farmers to the Capitol.

None of these are intrinsically 'white culture' characteristics or ideas, of course, but this is clearly a working class white, and union-led space. Living in the South, I am distinctly aware of how different it would look and feel if this were happening there, and I think how it looks and feels is important because the issue reflects a majority of who lives in these communities, but not everyone who lives here. I think it is important that elements of mass movement reflect the people who are directly affected, and these people are definitely directly affected. In fact, every single person I met told me stories of how they are directly affected by the bill in some way: "I was homeless before, I am on disability now, but if the bill passes I will go back to the streets", or "I am on Chemo for my cancer and I will lose my healthcare if the bill passes." There are also folks who talked about what they described as the 'domino effect' of employment' - where home health care workers would lose their jobs if the bill passes because their employers would lose their benefits.

What I see among many of the white working class people here is a major change of heart and a re-politicization. This is best exemplified by a huge sign that a middle-aged white man in a worn winter jacket was holding this week at the Capitol that read: "I voted for Walker and I am SO sorry." This man was not marching with the crowd, he was standing by a blockade, facing marchers as we flowed past him, as though he wanted us to read it and accept his apology. I read his face as determined, yet humble.

I believe that in Wisconsin I am in the midst of many working class white people who voted conservative in the November elections based on rights to their guns, or because they don't like the idea of gays getting married, or because they don't like that Obama is Black. I am standing next to them in struggle. This is an unusual position for me. I am standing with them as I am watching parts of them being transformed. Many of these people have realized their guns are not as important as having a job, a house, decent public schools for their kids, or healthcare. They are figuring out that, as Michael Moore said from the Madison Capitol this weekend: "America is not broke...the country is awash in cash...it is just that the wealth is not in our hands." Many of my comrades here have said that it is amazing how many people realize this fight is about capitalism and corporate greed.

Of course, it is not only white people here, and I could not and would not speak to what this experience is for people of color. Shameka Powell, from North Carolina, and currently living in Madison, WI says: "The media is not showing us, but there are people of color in this fight, and we have been in it since it started." What I have seen is masses of mostly white people in the crowd, while a mix of white folks and people of color speak from the podium from positions of authority. I have seen crowds of white people step back to show respect as dignified African-American union shop stewards come through, carrying flags. I have heard women of color leaders in Madison who have rarely been given voice and power they deserve, speak to tens of thousands from the main stage. I have seen class struggle unite white students in hoodies with Black fully-uniformed police and firemen. I have seen the realization that 400 wealthy Americans own more of the US than half of our population does dawn on people who I have known my whole life and have not necessarily shared politics with. I have seen an entire town engaged in struggle - kids, teens, elders. Teachers, firefighters, people with mental illness. I have been passed platters of home-made peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, and I have eaten pizza called in to Ian's Pizza by Egyptian youth and people from more than 25 countries, and every one of our fifty states.

I feel hopeful about political transformation. I feel hopeful not that all of the oppression in our movements has ceased, but I feel hopeful that we are seeing common interests here in Wisconsin. That some of these working class white people are hearing that maybe what many folks of color, LGBTQ people, people with disabilities, and low income people have been trying to tell them about where a culture of greed, wealth, and hate are taking us as a country may be true. Some of them are listening, and are ready to change, and transform their role in this country, starting with their work in this uprising in Wisconsin. Cindy Breunig, a Queer organizer from Wisconsin, told me about being at a Union Rally in the first week of this battle: "There were so many people there--mostly white folks in hunting gear, and Green Bay Packers hats. When the crowd was asked how many of them were at a rally for the first time in their life, I would say about 85% of the room raised their hands."

So, if this is true, what is the role of white folks who have been in social justice movements a long time in supporting these white folks to change and transform? Where are we willing to meet these folks, and what do we have to say to each other? We have a lot to say to each other, I think. We have to ask some important questions, and ask ourselves how much hope, patience, and commitment we have in us. Are folks in the LGBTQ community ready to work with working class people who may not currently support gay marriage, in order to fight the rich to save our right to live, work, and survive? Are we willing to struggle alongside them, not to silence ourselves, but to engage them respectfully in the vision of building broader? Are we willing to stop assuming they are the enemy long enough to get curious about what is happening in Wisconsin?

We have learned from Movement history that building relationship and struggling together in the trenches can yield powerful change. Are we willing to meet at what we share, and build from there? Maybe we start learning to become family around economic justice and class warfare, as I could not help but feel that when they played the song "We are Family" from the podium to more than 50,000 people this weekend, that the whole scene would have been just a little better with some drag queens in sequined down vests. In short, we here as queers, and more of us are needed.

There is so much we can gain from taking leadership in this struggle. This is clearly exemplified by the occupation of the Capitol. To be there is to heal some part deep inside that has been alienated from public space. As a queer person, I often speak to the level of alienation we feel as a community around public space: we are told it is not for us, that we sicken and pervert it, that we should be tolerated in it only if we pretend to be straight, or something other than we are. But, to be in that Capitol right now, to come out of the cold and into the warm light of signs everywhere, and to hear the humming of hundreds chanting, to go upstairs and sit in the 'Family Space', and watch parents rock their kids in big old rocking chairs--is to feel Movement space in public space. It feels something like the US Social Forum, except bigger, and with fewer workshops. I actually was not overcome with emotion being here until I stood on the rotunda of the capitol, in week 3 of this sustained struggle, and hugged another white queer woman I know in Madison who is an organizer here. I just said: "Thank you. I am so proud. Thank you for your organizing.", and she looked at me kindly, with that Midwest friendliness in her face, and said: "What are you thanking me for? I just took 2 days off to shower, eat, and make love to my girlfriend!" I smiled and told her that I would guess that it has been amazing and also not been easy for a queer woman to lead in this space in some ways. She nods and we talk about how the wash of other emotions and the importance of this struggle has carried her through tense times, when people come together who are not used to working together. I walk out of the Capitol with her, into the snow, chanting: "Whose House? Our House."

Queer People: This House, this Capitol, is Our House. They have no right to tell us it is not our struggle, not our place, not our fight. We are workers as much as anyone else, and Queers in Madison are some of many leading a historic moment in our name.

Photo via Intern Jake


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"Are folks in the LGBTQ community ready to work with working class people who may not currently support gay marriage, in order to fight the rich to save our right to live, work, and survive? Are we willing to struggle alongside them, not to silence ourselves, but to engage them respectfully in the vision of building broader?"

I protested for many hours on several occasions at the capitol in Madison holding a sign that said "LGBTs Support Workers' Rights." On the first day I was there, several of the protest organizers in the rotunda saw my sign and asked me to address the crowd over the megaphone on behalf of the LGBT community. When I announced that I was a member of that community, the entire rotunda cheered. When I said that the LGBT community knows what it's like to be targeted and to have our rights violated, and that we stand in solidarity with the workers, they roared.

It was electrifying, and very moving. I'd answer your questions in the affirmative :-)

Oh where's the video of THAT, John?

Caitlin, thanks for reminding us that POC and other minorities are part of this fight too.

Bil -- I know, right? I was so swept up in the moment that it didn't even cross my mind to give someone my camera to record it. Now I'm kicking myself for it, lol.

John, what an amazing story! If you have more to share I would love to hear and quote you!
My email is Caitlin@southernersonnewground.org!

Thanks, Caitlin! That's pretty much the extent of that particular story, unless you'd like me to elaborate more on what was said. Just let me know and I'll get in touch with you.

I'm following the events in Wisconsin from my new home in Vermont. I am simply STUNNED by what the Repugnants pulled tonight.

Well, I just fell in love with you all over again. One of the ways that I keep telling the story about this here in the Cities is that the Right has successfully manipulated the white working class (many parts of my family) through economic terror to gather around racial solidarity - fear of the poor folks of color, the welfare mothers, the terrorists and all kinds of other direct or coded racial narrative. My heart keeps swelling at watching class solidarity overcome racial "solidarity" in the service of white supremacy. THANK YOU for this post.

"Are folks in the LGBTQ community ready to work with working class people who may not currently support gay marriage, in order to fight the rich to save our right to live, work, and survive?"

This assumes that that working class people don't support gay marriage because of, what, homophobia? It also assumes that gay marriage is something that people should work for when, in fact, the gay marriage "fight" is really about increasing the class interests of a wealthy few.

In fact working class queer and straight people have issues with gay marriage that are similar to the critiques articulated by many queers who don't care to have gay marriage foisted upon them by the gay movement. While it's true that the class divisions in this country have been exploited to make many people feel that gays are the enemy, this piece furthers the idea that class is somehow separate from queerness.

While I appreciate this piece for showing some sense of the complexity of what's going on in Wisconsin, it's very condescending towards working class people.

For proof your class origin does not automatically mean you're straight and homophobic, I recommend Ryan Conrad's piece on Maine.

http://www.bilerico.com/2009/11/against_equality_in_maine_and_everywhere.php

And, shameless plug, for proof that gay marriage is an economic problem that furthers class inequality, I recommend Against Equality's archive and book: Against Equality: Queer Critiques of Gay Marriage.

Hey Yasmin:

I would definitely agree that many folks, including myself, do not think Gay Marriage is 'the' most important issue--sorry if I was unclear. There are some working class white straights folks in the fight in WI who do not support that issue, as one example. Specifically, many working class folks have been fed hate on that particular issue which was part of why I brought it up. And of course working class and LGBTQ folks are embodied in people all the time! I am both and so are almost all the folks I interviewed!

The OP, to which I responded, does imply that a queer critique of gay marriage is impossible among working class folk, and that's what I was responding to. The fact of either the writer or various responders actually being working class does not make it any less problematic.

When I say that the fight for gay marriage is only for the wealthy few, I mean specifically that marriage as a guarantor of state benefits, specifically around taxes and wealth is, in the neoliberal state, specifically designed to benefit a few. The best example is the "death tax" - which even billionaires like Buffet acknowledge is a hysteria-inducing name and which they support. It only affects people with estates over three million - and those should, in any egalitarian society, be taxed.
Yet, the gay community's self-appointed leaders have made it yet another "reason" why gays should agitate around marriage.

I'm not going to get into the "you're as condescending as my condescension" argument - I think it's clear that I'm complicating a very typical and often simplistic argument that gay marriage is something whose opponents are automatically homophobic etc.

Class should not be separated from queerness - that's been exactly the problem in the US, the failure to think of how class and inequality are in fact perpetuated by pretending that certain forms of identity can be separated from them. It's the major reason why it takes forever, if ever, to get queers to think of themselves as workers and to realise that gay marriage is not going to solve their problems around inequality.

This comment makes equally as many assumptions. Not all working class folks are against gay marriage and gay rights in general. Many of them are, because the working class historically has been extremely conservative.

However, as a working class lesbian who dearly wants to get married and has been actively fighting for that right, I find that I resent the assumption that the fight for gay marriage is only about the wealthy few.

I find that to be condescending as well.

We all have our goals and desires. All of us. And we have every right to work toward them. And honestly, class should be separate from queerness, as people of all class are queer. But the fight for workers rights certainly isn't separate from class. It's inherent in it.

The OP, to which I responded, does imply that a queer critique of gay marriage is impossible among working class folk, and that's what I was responding to. The fact of either the writer or various responders actually being working class does not make it any less problematic.

When I say that the fight for gay marriage is only for the wealthy few, I mean specifically that marriage as a guarantor of state benefits, specifically around taxes and wealth is, in the neoliberal state, specifically designed to benefit a few. The best example is the "death tax" - which even billionaires like Buffet acknowledge is a hysteria-inducing name and which they support. It only affects people with estates over three million - and those should, in any egalitarian society, be taxed.
Yet, the gay community's self-appointed leaders have made it yet another "reason" why gays should agitate around marriage.

I'm not going to get into the "you're as condescending as my condescension" argument - I think it's clear that I'm complicating a very typical and often simplistic argument that gay marriage is something whose opponents are automatically homophobic etc.

Class should not be separated from queerness - that's been exactly the problem in the US, the failure to think of how class and inequality are in fact perpetuated by pretending that certain forms of identity can be separated from them. It's the major reason why it takes forever, if ever, to get queers to think of themselves as workers and to realise that gay marriage is not going to solve their problems around inequality.

I'm actually much more interested in having the legal right to medical information and access than any inheritance and money issues, personally. And despite the executive order, we just had some issues with that during my lady's recent hospitalization.

There are many facets to legalizing marriage for same-sex couples. Taxes and the like are only part of it. Yes, that particular aspect is unlikely to benefit my family, and I can see where you feel that that limits it to being the purview of the privileged, wealthy few. Other aspects are going to be of benefit, regardless of what class a person is in.

Gay marriage will not solve all problems with inequality, and I think there are very few people who think that. It will, however, solve some.

It doesn't and shouldn't take gay marriage to accomplish any of that - and this begs the question: what about those who are not and don't want to get married but who have people in their lives with whom they feel equally strong connections.

And, actually, I do think a lot of people feel that gm will solve inequality - we wouldn't have seen the few hundred million dollars spent on the campaign so far if that were not the case. It's the reason why Unite Here refuses to accept anything "less" than gay marriage, not even domestic partnerships - an outrageous position for a *union* to take. It's the reason why Andrew Sullivan says all our problems will be over. It's the reason why so many people talk about "full inequality." We wouldn't see organisations like Love Makes a Family fold in Connecticut because they feel there is nothing else to fight for after gm there, and so on.

It may well be that individuals who do get gay married or want to don't think of it in a uniform way (and I actually know that to be the case). But that's entirely separate from how the "cause" is being used by the "movement" to channel our energy - and our precious few resources.

Yasmin, why are you fighting against marriage equality? If you don't want a marriage, don't get one. Just don't oppose the right of other members of your community to enter into marriages.

I am vehemently anti-gun, anti-war, anti-violence, yet I did not oppose DADT repeal (despite the fact that it did not apply to me). To the contrary, I supported it because I recognize that an attack on the rights of any member of my community to fully participate in any part of our society/institution is an attack on my own rights and on my own human dignity, regardless of whether or not I choose to participate in said act/institution. I wish all the anti-marriage equality voices in our movement could look past their own selfishness long enough to do the same thing.

"Just don't get one" - it doesn't work that way.

The gay marriage movement has systematically removed resources from numerous other issues in the queer community. despite clear community resistance - Ryan's piece on Maine makes that abundantly clear. And one can't just "not have one" in a system that specifically works to make marriage the guarantor of essential benefits like health care, which means that those who don't marry are specifically denied basic rights.

Gay marriage in the US is not the same as gm in, say, Canada, where divorce does not mean the loss of something as basic as health care and other benefits.

So, no, one can't just "opt out" of a system that requires you to be married in order to survive.

And if we are to be accused of being selfish, people ought to at least point out what it is we're being selfish about. The right to not have basic benefits because we don't want marriage? The right to not have our causes funded/supported because Gay Inc. has funneled money away from the issues we mobilise around?

It's puzzling, this accusation of selfishness, as if we are holding on to our own pot of gold somewhere and refusing to give to the marriage-wallahs, when the truth is the opposite: the gay marriage movement demands that resources and benefits only go to a specific group of people.

Bill Perdue Bill Perdue | March 10, 2011 9:30 AM

"the gay marriage movement demands that resources and benefits only go to a specific group of people."

Are you sure? I suspect that's not true. The fight for same sex marriage is a fight against bigotry, against the cults and a reflection of the changes in how people want to partner in society as a whole. But I know of no poll among the large numbers of GLBT supporters of the right to same sex marriage that calls for excluding unmarried partners from all the benefits of married partnering. Do you?

The debate over same sex marriage has been framed by bigots, beginning with Bill Clintons' DOMA and evolves within a context of strident and effective attempts by other rightwingers, supporters of Obama and Bush, to defeat same sex marriage in California and restrict it by law in most states. That debate will evolve further and faster now that the working class radicalization has begun.

At the same time the role of rightwing groups in the movement (like HRC and other fronts for the Democrats and Republicans) will begin to dwindle as the movement swings to repositions itself in the new situation created by the radicalization of the working class.

There's no sign of that happening now but if the radicalization deepens the rancid anti-GLBT bigotry of Democrats and Republicans around marriage and partnering questions will be swept aside as the key fight between workers and looters gathers momentum. We can speed that up by being in unions, building and supporting unions and demanding that the AFL-CIO unleash their Labor Party or get out of the way as we build our own.

Chitown Kev | March 9, 2011 6:06 PM

I'd also like to point out that Barack Obama won both the 2008 Democratic primary and the 2008 general election in Wisconsin by double digits. Obama even beat Hillary Clinton among working class white voters, according to exit polling.

For the working class whites in Wisconsin, Obama is likable enough, by and large.

Well, I just fell in love with you all over again. One of the ways that I keep telling the story about this here in the Cities is that the Right has successfully manipulated the white working class (many parts of my family) through economic terror to gather around racial solidarity - fear of the poor folks of color, the welfare mothers, the terrorists and all kinds of other direct or coded racial narrative. My heart keeps swelling at watching class solidarity overcome racial "solidarity" in the service of white supremacy. THANK YOU for this post.

Bill Perdue Bill Perdue | March 10, 2011 12:05 AM

What Wisconsin represents is the first mass flowering of a vast radicalization of working people. Since 2007-8 workers have been in shock and demoralized by the effects of economic collapse and the new Depression: mass unemployment, homelessness, union busting and a steep drop in income.

Now, inspired by the examples of mass action in the rebellions (not revolutions) from Morocco to Afghanistan and galvanized by austerity and attacks on unions by Democrats and Republicans, the working class is awakening.

That's an embarrassment for liberals who've downplayed the reality of class struggle and the utility of mass action for decades. They will likely continue to do so as the struggle develops independently of them and that will just increase their isolation. Meanwhile the militancy of union is deepening the radicalization. Polls, nationally and in Wisconsin show a sharp increase in support for unions and the right to collective bargaining. If, as planned, the Wisconsin South Central Federation of Labor goes ahead with a general strike when Walker rams through his anti-union, anti-working class bill through the state legislature that will open a whole new phase of the struggle. General strikes are illegal and Walker will use police provocateurs to guarantee that violence breaks out. (1)

Unions are the heavy infantry of change and working class GLBT folks should make a major effort to get into a union, create unions in unorganized venues and support union struggles while raising our own agenda including employment, housing and public services equality and same sex marriage equality. What John Becker did was exactly the right approach. He should be roundly applauded.

(1) from the faked call by Koch to Walker:
" Koch: We’ll back you any way we can. What we were thinking about the crowd was, uh, was planting some troublemakers.

Walker: You know, well, the only problem with that —because we thought about that. The problem—the, my only gut reaction to that is right now the lawmakers I’ve talked to have just completely had it with them, the public is not really fond of this... http://news.firedoglake.com/2011/02/23/walker-punked-by-fake-koch-brothers-call/

Marla R. Stevens | March 10, 2011 5:06 PM

My wife and I are indigent, does that make us poor enough for you to consider our opinions valid? Frankly, although I've lobbied in Wisconsin, I think the perceptions and experiences of those with boots on the ground there now give their analyses more gravitas than musings of those of us at a distance pontificating from mere intellectualizing, barring facts to substantiate said theory. What I do know is that the facts show that a lack of civil marriage equality (your use of bigotted terms for that coined by, say, the Arlington Group, like "gay marriage", is appalling, by the way) have an increasingly negative impact the lower one is on the money, race, and power food chain. It's hard to get much lower on that chain than being a prisoner in the U.S. prison industrial complex. Right now my wife and I are facing the very real possibility that we will not be permitted any contact with each other until we both complete serving time and finish probation, unlike het spouses who have an exception to the no prisoner to prisoner contact rule, so you'll excuse me if I find your criticism of civil marriage equality the grossest sort of cruel and haughtily foppish all-brain-no-heart theoretizing horsepucky that laughs in callous disregard of the very real suffering so many of our people face.
Further, your complaint about shifting resources to fight the marriage equality fight is always worth a closer look as we have limited resources to which superb stewardship must be applied. Closer look, however, doesn't warrant your complaint as the marriage fight itself has had direct benefit on the full range of issues funds have been diverted from, the latest in a well-filled basket of them being the monumental legal achievement of having U.S. Attorney General Holder, on behalf of President Obama, declare that we are, as a people, due heightened scrutiny perhaps all the way to establishment of us as a suspect class.
If you'd like to continue the conversation, please write to me at FPC Alderson. Use of the inmate locator and Alderson site on the Bureau of Prisons website will give you everything you need to continue the dialogue.

Marla,

I'll assume that your bit is directed at me.

Actually, I've consistently militated against the prison industrial complex, as do all of us in the Against Equality collective - especially in our fight against hate crimes legislation. In addition, we don't support the PIC because it targets queers in the worst way - but, of course, the kind of queers who are not likely to be recognised by the gay marriage movement. You can check out my review of the book Queer Injustice for more, and my activism on the topic for the last many years.

http://www.windycitymediagroup.com/gay/lesbian/news/ARTICLE.php?AID=30415

I'd be curious to know what your position on hate crimes legislation might be.

I don't, in all honesty, really understand much else of what you've written (and am sympathetic to the conditions under which you've written it).

As for the issue of resources, every queer who works on an issue and/or in an organisation that is not about gay marriage, or who does not want gay marriage to be the main concern knows only too well the impact of having over 200 million dollars spent on gm. We are seeing our resources dwindle, and Ryan's article, which I cited above, details an excellent case study of the gay marriage fight in Maine.

Have a good night, all.