An Injury To One...
An Injury to One...

Howard Wallace says only when lesbian and gay workers of all
colors move to the forefront of the movement will we see our
immense strength.

     Howard Wallace played a pioneer role in the early 1970s
as the first trade union activist to come out and fight
publicly for gay rights in the U.S. labor movement and for
labor issues in the lesbian/gay movement. A leader in the
Coors and Shell boycotts of that decade, Wallace was a
featured speaker at the first National March on Washington
for Lesbian and Gay Rights on October 14, 1979. Following
are his remarks to the March, slightly edited for length.
Last month, CrossRoads asked Wallace to provide an update on
the last 15 years of progress in building trade union
support for lesbian and gay rights -- and also in bringing
the voice and clout of lesbian and gay workers to the
forefront of the lesbian/gay movement. Wallace's current
assessment follows the text of his 1979 speech.

     Not only are we everywhere in this land, but our
presence is starting to be felt everywhere -- including in
the unions and at the workplace.
     We work at the centers of production, distribution and
communication in this country. Only when we reach out to
these gay sisters and brothers; only when lesbian and gay
workers of all colors move to the forefront of the movement
will we begin to see our truly immense strength and
     Allow me, please, to greet you on behalf of our working
class sisters and brothers from California who cannot be
with us today. Because there are vast numbers of telephone
workers, truck drivers, office workers, retail clerks,
machinists, aerospace workers, public employees, hotel and
restaurant workers -- all kinds of workers, who are here in
spirit today. It is they who will one day have not only the
will but the power -- real power -- to bring the whole
system of humiliation, oppression and exploitation to a
grinding halt. It is they who will win their non-gay sisters
and brothers to the justice of our cause and together begin
the reshaping of this society from its foundations. They
will bring to the world of the workplace our message -- WE
ARE FAMILY. They will give that word "family" a new meaning.
One that brings us together instead of pitting us against
each other.
     Of course, the present reality is not so promising. Our
struggle is not the only struggle. The most devastating
inequalities of our time are economic. All of the festering
problems of modern capitalist society are now bearing down
on us all at once. We are sliding into a deepening recession
that some leading economists predict will become a major
depression. In such times, every kind of social inequality
always becomes magnified. Crude and primitive scapegoating
of minorities who are weak, isolated, vulnerable or simply
different is becoming commonplace. We are presently sitting
ducks for these misdirected, pent-up hatreds. Powerful
people are setting us up -- portraying us as alien to other
progressive movements.
     In spite of these ominous times, we have reason for
optimism. We've built a strong mass movement in the face of
huge obstacles. We can choose the direction we take. How
will we use our newly won power? In coalition with other
liberation movements? Or, will we allow it to be immobilized
in exchange for government patronage positions? Stronger
movements have fallen victim to that trap. Will we continue
to tolerate extreme economic, racial and sexual privilege in
our own communities, or the abuse of workers in gay-owned
establishments? Will we allow ourselves to be bought off by
vicious corporations like Adolph Coors Co.?
     We can't take our rightful place in the revolutionary
process of our times unless Third World gay people, lesbian
and gay workers can move to the forefront of our movement.
     A new day is coming. It will come so much sooner if we
cast out the great authoritarian father figures housed in
our minds; if we shed our self-hatred and shame; if we stop
assuming that the President, the governor, the mayor, the
official, knows better than we. If we trust to our own
strength instead of Democratic and Republican hierarchies.
If we remember the battle cry that inspired the early labor
movement -- "An injury to one is an injury to all."

                       *     *     *

     In fifteen years we've made a lot of progress. A lot
more unionists have come out of the closet and many are
playing important roles in their unions. We are now at a
significant turning point.
     With each wave of attacks against us, we attract new
throngs of activists. The lesbian/gay movement has
tremendous ability to revitalize itself -- look at how we've
come back from the AIDS crisis. In terms of regular day-in,
day-out, activism, we probably have more people involved
today than most other social and economic movements.
     There have been steady advances by working class gays
and lesbians, gays and lesbians of color. But they haven't
had a huge amount of organized political expression. The
main thing over the last several years has been the
development of networks among different groups of lesbians
and gays of color. They will be holding a conference during
the Stonewall 25 activities, and that will be another step
     There has also been a steady increase of network-
building within the labor movement. There has always been a
significant level of working class participation in the
lesbian/gay movement. A lot of ordinary working people have
taken part. And now we are starting to find more
organizational expression. For instance, we are getting
ready to launch a national organization of lesbian and gay
trade unionists. It's been a long time coming. Yet because
many local networks are already in place, we will begin with
a measure of clout. I don't believe there is a single major
union that we can't exert some influence upon. When I came
out, I was all by myself as an openly gay union activists
for several years. Now it is quite different.
     Yet pressure to be in the closet at work remains as one
of the big plagues of lesbians and gays. One of our great
challenges is to liberate the workplace. All workers have a
stake in this fight for freedom of expression. The assertion
of our political, sexual and cultural identity at work
raises the question of the workplace being our place, not
just the employers' place; our domain, not just the
     There are also lesbians and gays organizing at work in
other forms than unions, through lesbian and gay employee
associations and groups such as Digital Queers and High Tech
Gays. We can build alliances with them, around issues such
as job protection and domestic partners. But of course you
don't have any real job protection without a union contract.
     In certain centers, economic and class issues have
receded in today's era of the so-called "identity" issues.
There is a constant ebb and flow -- people get involved
through all different issues as part of their overall
political awakening. Among lesbian and gay people, there is
a deep well of distrust of society's dominant institutions.
Of course you find lesbians and gays who are conservative --
gay Republicans and so on. But in general we have a profound
skepticism about U.S. institutions. Even when people start
to get satisfied with the gains they've made, they know in
their bones that the gains are precarious. This produces
waves of alarm over Pat Buchanan-style attacks, and
consequently new waves of activism -- often with innovative
and unorthodox approaches, and a cutting edge of militancy.
The ultra-right offensive, then, has forced a polarization
which is profoundly politicizing our community.
     And again we may be at a turning point. The networks
among lesbians and gays of color are growing, becoming more
public and more self-confident. The lesbian and gay movement
has been able to build broader alliances with other powerful
forces, for example in the African American movement --
despite areas of obvious conflict. Lesbian and gay labor
networks are cropping up in more and more cities -- it's not
just the San Francisco Bay Area, New York and Boston
     Overall, we're in a better position to cooperate with
other groups in the fight for social change. We're in a
position to find common ground with the recently formed
Asian Pacific American Labor Alliance (APALA), the Coalition
of Black Trade Unions (CBTU), the Coalition of Labor Union
Women (CLUW), the Latin American Council for Labor
Advancement (LACLA), the A. Philip Randolph Institute and
other forces that have special concerns and can influence
the labor movement. We've been talking about a council of
such groups, at least in Northern California, as way to get
down to common action.
     The Civil Rights Resolution passes by the AFL-CIO last
fall (see box) included a very important new provision. The
Resolution called for affiliated unions to become involved
in coalitions fighting against the anti-gay ballot measures
that are now emerging in more than 20 states. This provision
provides a big opportunity if we seize it to involve unions
on our coalitions against the ultra-right. It's up to us to
publicize this Resolution, to use it to build a grassroots
movement, and maintain the fight to hold all labor
leadership accountable to this official position.
     Altogether, we are in a better position than ever to
express our own identity and perspective as part of working
class life. We can provide a large portion of the fresh
imagination and energy that the labor movement desperately
needs -- that the entire progressive movement desperately