Must the Gays Support Labor Unions?

Tobias Wolff thinks so, going so far as to say that national gay organizations should now divert their meager resources away from relationship recognition and other anti-discrimination efforts in order to protect unions from evil Republicans.  The basic idea is three-fold: (1) gays are like all Americans and Americans need unions; (2) unions have supported gays, so gays owe them; (3) unions are part of the progressive and liberal coalition gays need for their own defense.

Thom Lambert disagrees.  His entire response to Wolff is worth a read, but here are some key points:

Surely the fact that a group expresses support for gay equality and offers gay people various resources does not create a “reciprocal obligation” on the part of gay people to support all that group stands for.  Does Wolff think gay people have an obligation:

  • to support Goldman Sachs, Bank of America, and Citigroup in their opposition to derivatives regulation? 
  • to support Monsanto’s efforts to avoid regulation of genetically modified organisms and rBST? 
  • to support Aetna’s opposition to various mandates under Obamacare? 
  • to encourage additional financial support for AIG? 
  • to endorse a BP plan to limit liability for oil spills? 
  • to call their congressmen to echo requests by Chevron and Shell to increase offshore oil drilling? 
  • to join Bristol Myers Squibb and GlaxoSmithKline in their efforts to prevent the illegal production of patented AIDS drugs in Africa? 
  • to support AT&T’s proposed merger with T-Mobile? 
  • to back a plan by Waste Management, Inc. to streamline the permitting process for landfills?  

I doubt he would call on gay people to take any of these stances.  But each of the listed companies — Goldman, B of A, Citigroup, Monsanto, Aetna, AIG, BP, Chevron, Shell, Bristol Myers, GSK, AT&T, and Waste Management — is included on the Human Rights Campaign’s list of the “top businesses that support equality for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender employees.”  . . .

This brings us to Wolff’s last, undoubtedly most important, argument: that gay people should support organized labor now so that organized labor feels compelled return the favor when the gays have an issue to push.

Here, I depart from Prof. Wolff — and from the herd of independent minds comprising the leadership of the gay community — on a most fundamental level.  At this point in American history, I believe the best way for gay people to make equality gains is via a bottom-up, not a top-down, approach.  Gays should stop running to the government for additional protections from private actors (though they should vigorously oppose state-sponsored discrimination), and should instead concentrate on changing the hearts and minds of their friends and neighbors. 

And guess how you do that?  By being yourself.  By going through your workaday life, being your “best self” and expressing your own beliefs and convictions — religious, political, or otherwise — because they’re yours, not because someone dictated that you must, by virtue of your sexual orientation, hold them.

So, if you’re a gay person and you think collective bargaining by public sector unions is bankrupting state and local governments while fattening the civil service class, go gripe about it to your Republican neighbor over a beer.  In doing so, you’ll be promoting the sort of social change that will ensure real equality for gay people in the future.

I’d add that Wolff’s argument comes from a long political tradition, going back at least to the 1950s, which maintains that gay rights are inextricably tied to a host of causes supported by self-styled progressives — everything from abortion rights to various left-wing revolutionary movements.  Lambert is part of an emerging group of dissenters from the dominant progressive tradition in gay politics. It includes people who support gay rights but also support the rights of the unborn, oppose gun-control legislation, want taxes kept low, think social welfare programs are wasteful and counter-productive, doubt the value of national healthcare programs, and so on.  They may be wrong about any or all of these things, but it is hardly obvious that sexual orientation — either as a matter of principle or as a matter of political strategy — should dictate the stands they take.