Queers for Economic Justice contingent in NYC Pride march, 2013. Photo by Amber HollibaughAmerican culture has a deep libertarian strand that has the potential to nourish a radical democracy and a more dialectical, egalitarian and cooperative relationship to nature, and between human beings. This tendency, with its demonstrated capacity for powerful praxis, has included, among others, Bayard Rustin, Audre Lorde, Barbara Deming and Paul Goodman, all openly “queer.” It has also informed the politics of gay liberation, feminism, and contemporary movements for participatory democracy including Occupy. Occasionally an organization grounded in these principles comes along and attempts to anticipate a different kind of future, reminding us once again that in the most powerful movements for radical democracy, affirmations of justice are joined with desire - not only personal bodily desire, but social desire as well. Such an organization was Queers for Economic Justice, now deceased.
In our contemporary US context, it is very difficult for movements which embody this commitment to personal liberty and human rights with economic justice, to sustain themselves over time and create viable, lasting organizational forms. Thus, at the end of January, QEJ was forced to close its doors because it could no longer raise the funds to sustain its critical work. The end of QEJ is a tragedy for the whole American left, for, unlike most, it combined intellectual rigour and direct service in vibrant, essential programmes that generated cutting edge political analyses, and also helped the most vulnerable of its constituents in the NYC homeless shelter system.
QEJ was founded twelve years ago by Joseph DeFilippis and a group of visionary radical queers, activists, artists and academics who developed and advanced a left political analysis of queer politics, combining cultural change and public policy work, advocating at the intersection where poverty and a desire-based LGBT identity meet. Its founding statement grounded the organization in the “lived experiences and expressed needs of queer people in poverty” and a promise to “promote an economic system that embraces sexual and gender diversity.” QEJ's vision was also driven by its commitment to economic justice and anti-racist work in communities of colour, and to issues of class in the low wage labour movement.
Over the years QEJ took on the gay political establishment for the limitations of its political platform, which one QEJ supporter described as "marriage, the military, and markets", and criticized it for ignoring the needs of poor people. It also took significant ideological leadership in advancing an alternative political analysis and vision, which it called “A New Queer Agenda.” This agenda advocated within the LGBT movement for an economic and social justice programme much wider than marriage equality, and had a consistent, visible pro-feminist influence on other social movements, including Occupy, the single payer healthcare movement, the campaign to end homelessness, and the disability movement.
QEJ took a principled economic and social rights approach to questions usually considered separately, or discussed only in terms of civil or legal rights, thus demonstrating a depth of analysis and radical politics informed by the left, feminism, queer politics and, more recently, a radical analysis of the healthcare system and disability. With a social vision in which all people would be free to marry who they choose, but also not to marry, and to live free intimate lives without social stigma, QEJ publicly entered the marriage equality fray to put forward a radical feminist social vision of family in which communities assume significant responsibilities for reproduction, and there are families based on other forms of love and commitment than marriage. QEJ's "Beyond Marriage" statement germinated a spinoff organization that continues to this day, lending support to familial choices that are alternatives to traditional couple marriage.
QEJ did more than connect political analysis and policy development: it put the civil rights movement ideal of a “beloved community” into practice, with an outreach programme to the most precarious LGBT people, the poor and homeless. Its Welfare Warriors Research Collaborative drew on the first-hand experience of group participants to investigate how community members not only endured, but collectively survived interpersonal, institutional and systemic violence. From this work, it developed a participatory action research project: “A Fabulous Attitude: low-income lgbtgnc people surviving and thriving on love, shelter and knowledge”. Many of the individuals involved in this programme were young people whose housing choices were limited to living on the streets of NYC, or entering the dangerous NYC homeless shelter system. Even as it was being forced to close, QEJ was incubating another cutting edge initiative, the Disability Justice Collective, based on its observation of how many people in its core constituency live with disabilities, often the result of repeated violent assaults, poverty, stress, and the lonely isolation of street and shelter life.
At the end, the sad task of closing the organization fell to director Amber Hollibaugh—a charismatic organic intellectual, political visionary and veteran of many movements—and Jay Toole, a beloved, tireless shelter advocate who spent many decades on the streets herself before meeting up with QEJ, which she says saved her life. Today, Jay is the one who saves lives. She directed the QEJ homelessness programme on which thousands of otherwise invisible and neglected people used to depend.
As an oral historian interviewing Amber and Jay this fall, I heard tale after tale of the pipeline to homelessness and disability traversed by poor queer youth, which often begins at the point of confrontations between adolescents and their parents (usually their fathers) over gender non-conformity. Often, these confrontations escalate and culminate in the youth being thrown out of the house. They are then on their own, with no home, no money and little or no education, and their lives are foreshortened in every way. Living on the streets, they are preyed upon, and physically and emotionally assaulted and intimidated. Eventually they may decide to enter the homeless shelter system, with its filth, crowding, homophobia and intimidation, because they are too sick and frightened to stay on the streets any longer. They will be exposed to diseases, and those with compromising health conditions and disabilities will particularly suffer in the bullying culture of the shelter system. In the past, kids who were lucky would have encountered QEJ, which held meetings for LGBT people in all the shelters, where Jay and their team would talk to them and provide practical advice, advocacy and an education in human rights and anti-violence activism.
The fact that this vital organization could not raise sufficient funds to sustain itself is a symptom of what happens to grassroots social justice organizations that raise fundamental challenges to the neo-liberal, corporate US status quo, and seek to incubate an alternative bottom-up democratic culture and politics. QEJ is the latest fatality of a funding dearth: as the rich keep getting richer, the middle class shrinks and frets and feels compelled to retain its personal resources in the face of increasing privatization, while institutional funders do not sufficiently step up.
Amber, Jay and the volunteers of QEJ spent the holidays packing up the office, and notifying the people who depend on them that they would close at the end of January this year. Amber is bringing the Queer Survival Economies Initiative to the Barnard Center for Research on Women, where she will become their first activist fellow. Jay will continue her homeless shelter LGBT support group as an unpaid volunteer, without resources, asking only for money for snacks, and she still hopes to start the first LGBT adult homeless shelter, called Jay’s House.
The closing of QEJ reflects the power that the non-profit funding establishment has over what gets support with its emphasis on “deliverables” with quantitative metrics. It reflects the long term failure of the left to recognize the centrality of a radical politics of sexuality and gender to the development of a powerful vision and movement for change. As a whole, the US left today is weak, fragmented and defensive, too often organizing around single issues, or fighting a rearguard action to defend embattled social supports that are inadequate and oppressive. Yet in the interstices, in organizations like Queers for Economic Justice, the powerful legacies of the movements of the sixties and seventies continue to germinate the new forms of thought and action that are needed now. QEJ shone as a courageous harbinger of what the American left needs to embody if it is ever to become powerful enough to transform society and challenge the state.