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 potential. 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 forward. 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 employers'. 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 anymore. 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 needs.