Queer Labor on Black Friday
November 27, 2013
A fact: queer people of color (QPOC) disproportionately live in poverty. The populations that I identify with, align my politic with, and function in solidarity with are largely comprised of queer poor white and people of color. Said in a much more different and far more inclusive way: the bodies that constitute my communities are folks who do not pass as normative and as a result are often denied paid-work opportunities. In the neoliberal shift to homogenize the consumer experience, employers demand a seemingly amorphous workforce. “We” simply stand out too much. As a result, “we” sometimes turn to survival sex—you know, the practice of getting paid for sex because no one will hire you for socially respectable labor. As a queer body who has turned to survival sex in the past and whose primary partner is an adult film worker, I approach non-traditional paid labor practices with sensitivity and openness. I also continue to fight for sex work to be respected and unionized. However, that might be better suited for summer time writing.
Unlike the dominant representation of happy gay white men (who abhor femininity to be sure) who praise the repeal of DADT and the overturn of DOMA, “my” queer communities are excluded from (and resist) institutions of respectability like US military imperialism and marriage respectively. Why, you might wonder, do “we” reject these HRC-certified1 political items? Because they do little to progressively change our collective material realities and hardships. Yes, marriage may help those who already have access to material success (e.g., healthcare, inheritance, money, etc.) but it does not help those of us who do not have the same items to “pass” on to our loved ones. In fact, way back in 2010 President Obama signed a memorandum urging The Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) to reconsider its hospital visitation practices.2 As a result, DHHS now defines “visitors” as those designated by a patient: “including but not limited to a spouse, domestic partner (including a same-sex domestic partner), another family member, or a friend.”3 The ol’ argument that marriage equality will secure hospital visitation rights is no longer valid. What’s more, the patient can name “friends,” which opens the possibility to polyamorous relationships like my own and allowing multiple lovers in to a hospital space. At the same time, the repeal of DADT is productive in a number of ways. However, it ultimately grows the US military industrial complex and thus perpetuates Western imperialism. Some claim that the military was “their only choice” or “the only way of getting out.” I do not deny this. However, the queer politics that “we” fight for are a politic that broadens opportunities so that the military is never the only “choice” or the only “way of getting out.” A rhetorical question: how does this relate to Black Friday?
HRC, which defines (without “our” opinion) the mainstream US gay political schema, grades businesses for their inclusion of queers. This includes businesses that may temporarily hire queer poor white and people of color for seasonal holiday work. The HRC maintains a “corporate equality index.” The rhetorical belief follows: If I support corporations on the HRC list, then I am supporting equality for LGBT people. Right? Wrong. Of the items that the HRC measures, none of them account for economic justice or for organized labor potential.4 If you considered the HRC list, you’d have to also look into each of the hundreds of companies to see which ones promise organized labor. In addition, seasonal and/or temporary work—of which many queer bodies are able to access in the immediate moment—does not promise secure, long-term work. In short, the corporate equality index does little to improve the lives of those who need secure work and a living wage most. Those who are willing and able (nay, lack the choice otherwise) to work the holidays, including Black Friday, are those who need organized labor and economic justice most. Allow me to list some of the corporations that HRC recognizes with highest honors (a score of 100/100): American Express, Bank of America, Capital One, Chevron, GameStop, JPMorgan Chase, Monsanto, and Morgan Stanley. These are only a couple of the hundreds of corporations. How can we, in good conscience, consider these evil corporations as beacons of justice? I simply do not. “Equality” is never enough. When I hear “equality” I cringe because I am unsure as to what it means and what it entails. Equality has become a buzzword that secures sales, and thus, profit. These are corporations, to be sure, who have no vested interest in the progress of my queer life. They only care about “being on the right side of history” in order to ensure profits. Until a “corporate equality index” accounts for economic justice I will not fall prey to its selling ploy to ease consumer guilt. So what do I do on Black Friday?
I am not demanding a boycott of Black Friday and all consumer practices. Nay, that is for another article. In this article, I am asking that we attend to the many nuances that define and distinguish “good” business practices. What sorts of bodies are hired? Where are the various bodies positioned in a given business (e.g., are queer, disabled, and/or bodies of color kept behind the scenes?)? Is the business itself temporary and thus boast no support for its staff? Is a living wage offered? And these are questions that apply to big box stores and local businesses alike. Admittedly, a large majority of my holiday shopping takes place online. I locate independent artists, crafters, and workers who sell (or trade) their goods and services. Those folks typically share my political beliefs. For instance, I locate shops on etsy that are owned and operated by queer people, people of color, disabled people, women, and others who might share some of my political commitments. I am not of the mind that we are able to stop big business. We can, however, continue revolutionary practices by becoming increasingly conscious of our consuming practices at as many levels as we can.
Benny LeMaster is a doctoral candidate in the department of Speech Communication
- HRC is an acronym for the Human Rights Campaign. HRC is the largest political action group lobbying on behalf of LGBT folks. Unfortunately, these efforts are largely not union friendly nor do they account for the most vulnerable queer populations in the US.