Labor Day: LGBTQ and Workers' Rights

While many are celebrating a day off from work, grilling burgers (or vegan alternatives) and, perhaps, taking advantage of all the Labor Day sales, it might be lost on most the relevance and history of how the path towards LGBTQ acceptance is an inextricable part of the larger civil rights movement. The fact is that in a majority of states where workers can be legally fired because of their sexual orientation, gender identity or expression, union contracts are often the only line of defense for LGBTQ workers. In order to keep our challenges, struggle and victories alive, documentarians and major film and television producers have chronicled these stories so history will not repeat itself.

The GLAAD Award-winning documentary Brother Outsider and film Milk, as well as the upcoming ABC mini-series When We Rise, all contribute in accelerating acceptance of LGBTQ individuals in their homes, communities and workplaces.  "Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere" was penned by Martin Luther King, Jr. within his "Letter from a Birmingham Jail".  It is a maxim that speaks to the intersectionality of our shared histories, stuggles and victories.

Bayard Rustin and A. Philip Randolph at Lincoln MemorialBayard Rustin was an often overlooked and marginalized figure at the center of this nation's struggle for civil and human rights in the 60's and beyond.  He was an African American openly gay man, born in 1912, who grew up in Pennsylvania and excelled in sports and the arts.  Quickly finding his "civil rights" voice, he found his way to working with A. Phillip Randolph, president of The Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters.  Partnering with the leader of the black trade union movement, Bayard rose through the ranks of the labor movement learning to fight for equal rights on behalf of everyone in the workplace, including, in the late 40's, being instrumental in ending segregation in the armed forces by being the voice for change with President Truman's administration.

Even though the times proved cautious, Bayard lived a relatively open life as a gay man, experiencing prejudice and discrimination for his race and orientation.  Because of the latter, he was often shunted to the background by his civil rights colleagues, even in campaigns when his was the driving voice.  Yet, because of his strategic thinking and organizing mindset rooted in nonviolent action (based on Mahatma Gandhi's principles), he was chosen by Dr. King to organize several major campaigns...including the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, which came to be known as the largest civil rights demonstation in the nation's history.  As history books and popular culture will confirm, this March was the platform where King delivered his "I Have a Dream" speech...accelerating the passage of major civil rights legislation.

Walter Naegle and Bayard RustinHaving met his partner, Walter Naegle in 1977, Bayard continued to speak out on LGBT issues as someone who was challenged by society on several fronts.  He committed his life to fighting anti-gay prejudice and as a longtime NYC resident, testified on behalf of that city's gay rights bill.  A strong supporter of labor unions and workers' rights, he was a member of Actors' Equity Association, co-founder of the AFL-CIO's A. Philip Randolph Institute and Educational Fund, and was a member of the U. S. Holocaust Memorial Council.  In March, 2013, President Barack Obama awarded Rustin, who had died in 1987, the Presidential Medal of Freedom.  "As an openly gay African American, Mr. Rustin stood at the intersection of several of the fights for equal rights."

In a 1986 speech, he vocally and strongly advocated for a change in the landscape of civil rights activism: "The question of social change should be framed with the most vulnerable group in mind:  gay people."  A collection of Mr. Rustin' s essays, Down the Line, was published in 1971.  In 2003, the documentary on Bayard's life, Brother Outsider: The Life of Bayard Rustin, was released to critical acclaim.  In addition to the many international accolades, the 2004 GLAAD Media Award was presented to independent filmmakers Nancy Kates and Bennett Singer for their documentary.


 In 1977, Harvey Milk was elected to the San Francisco Board of Supervisors, becoming the first openly gay man to be voted into major public office in America. His victory was not just a victory for gay rights; he forged coalitions across the political spectrum. Many in his company supported and fought for the rights of workers to form and maintain unions.  The 2008 biopic and GLAAD Award winner, MILK, profiles the rise of the civil rights icon and those around him who forged alliances within other groups.

Cleve Jones Trans EqualityCleve Jones was a protege of Harvey Milk during those heady days in San Francisco; marching, chanting and leafletting for LGBTQ civil rights.  After his partnership with Harvey Milk, Cleve went on to found the NAMES Project AIDS Memorial Quilt, co-founded the San Francisco AIDS Foundation, and is a driving force behind SLEEP WITH THE RIGHT PEOPLE, a coalition between the LGBTQ community and UNITE HERE, a union representing over 300,000 hospitality and manufacturing workers across North America.

Organizing under the banner of  “An Injury to One is An Injury to All", Pride at Work is the primary voice within the AFL-CIO for LGBTQ workers within the workplace and throughout their lives.  Their work focuses on creating a Labor Movement that cherishes diversity, encourages openness, and ensures safety & dignity.   As Pride at Work co-president Shane Larson states:

Labor rights and LGBTQ rights are intertwined.  When the labor movement is strong, the rights of LGBTQ workers are stronger and safer.

Highlighting the intersection of our shared goals:  Cleve said:

The solidarity between the labor movement and the LGBT movement is a powerful coalition.

Based on his autobiographical book When We Rise, ABC TV is chronicling the history of the LGBTQ civil rights movement for an eight-hour air date of early 2017.  MILK screenwriter Dustin Lance Black is writing and producing the series, with MILK director Gus Van Sant also set to direct; while Guy Pearce is portraying Cleve Jones.


PRIDE movie bannerPRIDE, a 2015 GLAAD Award nominated film, focused on the true story of UK lesbian and gay activists raising money to help those impacted by the British miners' strike of 1984, and how they reached beyond geographical and psychological borders to create alliances between communities and achieve workers' rights victories.

The film's director, Matthew Warchus, stated that:

It’s a film about two groups of people forming an unlikely alliance and fighting in each other’s corners rather than just their own.

Full of heart, passion and righteous activism, the film is about a group of 1980s LGBT activists who supported a small Welsh town during the UK miners' strike and won over hearts and minds through common human values.  At its core, it illustrated the power of accelerating acceptance through shared human experiences and values.


The fight for social justice and LGBTQ equality can be legislated until laws prohibiting discrimination in housing, health care and employment come tumbling down.  But lasting acceptance, changing hearts and minds, is truly impacted by the images we find within popular culture:  television, film, music videos, comics and video games.  This is why chronicling our LGBTQ history, challenges and successes alike, is so vitally important; and why finding commonalities and shared goals with other underrepresented and disenfranchised groups is part of how we shape strategies and define progress.  As stated within the recent Accelerating Accepting report, "GLAAD remains committed to its leadership role identifying, amplifying, and ultimately breaking down barriers to full LGBT acceptance."