A stroll last Friday through the mini tent city of Zuccotti Park in downtown Manhattan revealed none of the classic signifiers of LGBT activism. There, amid the mattresses and recliners, the communal kitchen and library of donated books, no Pride flags or pink triangles could be seen. Nor did anyone utter the letters “LGBT” over the “people’s mic,” the call-and-response technique occupiers have devised for amplification in lieu of a city permit for a real microphone.
Occupy Wall Street is a protest against economic inequities in which LGBT participants seem to be playing a more fully integrated role. In a series of interviews, activists, most of whom self-identified with the word “queer,” reported feeling visible and incorporated into the whole of the occupation, even as they remain mindful of the unique challenges they face because of ongoing discrimination in the broader society.
“I think the coolest thing right now is that queer people are being seen as just part of the fight,” said Justin Adkins, a transgender man from Massachusetts who traveled to New York the past two weekends. “The majority of the time when I’m protesting, I’m either queer, or I’m for this. It’s not usually that I can be both. I’m a queer person fighting for economic justice. How awesome is that?”
Now in its third week, Occupy Wall Street uses a consensus-driven style of decision-making through its General Assembly. Participants eschew the notion of leaders, although a core group of volunteers paved the way for the events with voluminous email and other planning over the summer. The radical, organic structure initially baffled many observers, although by Wednesday, a growing list of labor unions, elected officials, and celebrities had expressed support for a large march that seemed to legitimize the occupation. It and similar events in other cities could continue indefinitely.
“What the public is used to or what the media has taught us to be used to is you have a protest and you have a message and that’s how the thing works,” said Marya Triandafellos, a lesbian artist who lives near the park dubbed “Liberty Plaza” and has visited several times. “In a parallel way, there doesn’t have to be a message at this point. Everyone may have the things they feel most passionate about, but overall the message is, ‘We’re not happy. We can do better.’”
Anyone is invited to come and air grievances. According to attendees, queer people have done so in significant numbers since the occupation began September 17.
“There’s a lot of visibility and there’s a lot of participation,” said Patricia Gonzalez, a queer media maker who helps translate the print newspaper The Occupied Wall Street Journal. “The participation might not be directly as organizing around LGBT issues, but in the groups that I am collaborating with or the other groups that I know, there are queer people that are very much organizing those groups and are a part of it. LGBT people are making contributions.”
“There’s queer people from all political aspects and ranges,” she said. “For example, at the General Assembly, there was a man who spoke up and said, ‘I am a bisexual man and an anarchist,’ and he said other things he was. There is this space for people like him to do that and it’s embraced.”
Compared to other high-profile protests of recent decades, such as those at the
World Trade Organization ministerial conference in 1999 and the
Republican National Convention in 2004, veteran queer activists reported
sensing an unprecedented level of inclusion at Occupy Wall Street. Some
attributed it to the younger generation of organizers and their
“I’ve never seen anything like it,” said Adkins, who
is in his 30s and works as the assistant director of the
multicultural center at Williams College. “There is a difference around
queer issues between these two generations. People in their early 20s on
the whole have a greater awareness that queer issues are part of class
and race issues and that class and race issues are part of queer
T.J. Helmstetter, a strategist for the Working Families
Party, which participated in the solidarity action with Occupation Wall
Street on Wednesday, said the protest represented an opportunity for
LGBT people to connect with a broader social movement at a critical
point in both their histories.
“We’re not just some community
within a silo that is only worried about marriage and serving in the
military,” he said. “We’re worried about the same struggles that
everybody else is worried about — putting food on the table, getting our
kids to the doctors, saving our homes.”
That’s not to say that
queer issues want for individualized attention at Occupy Wall Street.
The speak-easy caucus, for example, was founded to provide a safe space
for non-male participants and other marginalized people. Last week the
General Assembly approved a declaration that, among other statements,
denounced corporations for having “perpetuated inequality and
discrimination” based on characteristics including “sex, gender identity,
and sexual orientation.”
At times, those very prejudices have
emerged during the protest. On Saturday, for instance, Adkins was one of at least
three transgender people and numerous other queer participants arrested
on the Brooklyn Bridge, and he complained of being mistreated in police
custody because he is transgender. And as in social movements of the past, fewer women than men seem to hold prominent roles, based on investigation
during last week’s walk-through.
If some of the demands from
Occupy Wall Street, such as inclusive employment nondiscrimination,
seem more aptly addressed to Washington, D.C., queer participants
acknowledge the reality of how laws are made but only to a point. They respond that their
protest aims to change something much more fundamental — namely, the
corporate influence on politics symbolized by the epicenter of the
“You can lobby your
congressman all you want or talk about specific pieces of legislation,”
said Helmstetter. “But what this is really about is how our society is
structured. It’s time to stop letting Wall Street and corporate greed
dictate our policies and it’s time for politicians to be held
accountable to the other 99%. That includes LGBT folks.”