Working-Class LGBTQ+ U.S. History Chronology


Peter Sewally/Mary Jones, June 11, 1836, by Jonathan Ned Katz and Tavia Nyong'o


Richard M. Bucke, Calamus: A Series of Letters Wnitten During the Years 1868-1880 by Walt Whitman to a Young Friend (Peter Doyle).

"Doyle's letters . . . were lacking. The thinking was, since Doyle was neither an intellectual nor a creative artist, of what interest or value could his letters possibly be? The same could be said of many of Whitman's other correspondents-soldiers he helped in the hospitals during the Civil War, other young working-class men he met in the streets of New York or Washington. Yet with some of these young men Whitman had some of his most intense relationships." From Scott Giantvalley's review of Shively, ed. Calamus Lovers.


Lillian Winters Lived as Man in St. Louis, 1900-1909, by Jonathan Ned Katz


Angela Calomiris (1916-1995): A Spy in the Lesbian Herstory Archives, by Lisa E. Davis

The story of Angela Calomiris, a working-class lesbian, who was a key informant for the FBI in the 1940s against Communist Party members Calomis had known.


Judy Mage, an emerging lesbian, leads eight thousand employees of New York City's Department of Welfare as they walk off their jobs in early January. The strike, initiated by the independent Social Service Employees Union in coali­tion with American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) Local 371, defies state law and continues for twenty-eight days. Mage and eighteen other leaders from both unions are arrested, jailed, and released. Union members return to their jobs, and negotiations resume. A settlement in June breaks new ground on wages, reductions in case loads, and defined union rights for all municipal workers.


Bill Olwell, a closeted gay man, stands for reelection as president of Retail Clerks Local 1001 in Seattle. As president of the King County Labor Council, he wields influence beyond his home local; his public stands against the war in Vietnam and in favor of racial integration of the building trades have angered other union leaders on the council. They find an opponent to run against him and finance a campaign of queer-baiting smears. Olwell offers members his record of excellent service and is easily reelected. He never again hides his gayness.


The Executive Council of the American Federation of Teachers (AFT) approves a resolution to "protest any personnel actions against any teacher solely because he or she practices homosexual behavior in private life."


The National Organization for Women and the Mexican American Legal Defense Fund file suit against AT&T for sex- and race-based job discrimina­tion. The consent order requires the company to integrate its best-paid jobs in installation, repair, and maintenance. Women apply, many of them lesbians who seek the high pay and the physical challenges of technically tough jobs.


Gary Kapanowski, a young shop steward at a bathtub factory in suburban Detroit and a member of United Auto Workers (UAW) Local 212, is out to a few of his co-workers but not to his father and other family members who work at the plant. Rumors of a shutdown prompt Kapanowski to run for shop chairman. He loses to the incumbent, who negotiates a new contract loaded with giveaways. The business is sold, and the new owners prepare to send the work to Tennessee. Kapanowski and his caucus discover serious depletions of the pension fund and evidence that UAW officials have participated in a very bad deal. During Kapanowski's second run for shop chairman, his opponents cover the shop with flyers that proclaim him "a faggot," but he and his slate win by a 2-1 margin. They participate in a wider insurgency in Local 212 at the huge Mack Stamping Plant in downtown Detroit and then reach an agreement with the bathtub company and the union that $1 mil­lion will be paid into the pension fund. When the plant finally closes, Kapanowski is the man handing out severance checks and the last to the building.


The AFT approves a resolution at its national convention to support the "repeal of state laws and school district regulations which attempt to punish acts com­mitted by teachers in the course of their private lives."


Bar patrons in San Francisco's gay Castro neighborhood support a strike by beer truck drivers from Teamsters Local 888 and add their rowdy queer vigor to an ongoing boycott of Coors beer. The campaign spreads throughout the region and then nationally to address Coors's antigay, antilabor employment practices. Coors's offenses inspire continued protests for twenty more years.

Two AFSCME local unions negotiate collective bargaining agreements that include nondiscrimination clauses for sexual orientation: Local 693, a unit of bus drivers employed by the Ann Arbor Transit Authority, and Local 2083, the Seattle Public Library Workers.

The National Education Association adds sexual orientation to its constitutional nondiscrimination policy.


Johnny Cisek, an assembly line worker at the General Motors (GM) plant in Lordstown, Ohio, and a member of UAW Local 2112, takes leave to under­go sex reassignment surgery. She returns to work as Joni Christian and deals with hostile co-workers. Supervisors, however, hound her with special aggres­sion. Christian uses her union's legal services benefit to sue GM for invasion of privacy. She wins a satisfactory settlement, and her workmates learn to ac­cept her presence. After thirty years at the plant, she retires with a pension in 1999.


Lesbians head an organizing committee to form the Boston school bus driv­ers' union, Local 8751 of the United Steelworkers of America. The union wins renown in Boston's labor scene for its openly queer leadership, its proac­tive grievance process, and, in the 1980s, its involvement in Boston's Gay and Lesbian Labor Activists' Network.

President Jimmy Carter issues Executive Order 11246, which gives women access to apprenticeships in the building trades. Many lesbians sign up for the programs. The training is rigorous; the harassment is harsh. But those who endure to achieve journey- and master-level standing in their trades earn top wages. 

Right-wingers target gay male schoolteachers as predators of young boys and organize successful referendum campaigns that rescind standing gay rights ordinances in Miami-Dade County, Florida; Wichita, Kansas; St. Paul, Minne­sota; and Eugene, Oregon. An alliance of Seattle's public employee and service sector unions, gay organizations, and religious and civil rights groups mounts an effective defensive campaign, and Proposition 13 is rejected at the polls. In the State of California, a broad coalition beats back the Briggs Initiative (Proposi­tion 6), a referendum to dismiss queer school workers and their allies from their jobs.


The gay and lesbian caucus of San Francisco's Hotel Employees and Restaurant Employees Local 2 supports an insurgent campaign for new union leadership and then publishes its first (and only) edition of Dishrag," America's Leading Journal for Lesbian and Gay Hotel Restaurant and Bar Employees."


Staff at the Village Voice in New York City negotiate extension of the paper's health plan to "spouse equivalents." The union, District 65-UAW, already ensures unmarried cohabiting heterosexual couples at the Voice. Under the new contract, the arrangement is eventually formalized as "domestic partner benefits."

At AFSCME's national convention in Atlantic City, delegates approve by acclaim a gay rights resolution, "Civil Rights for Gay and Lesbian Citizens." Similar resolutions a few months later win unanimous approval at assemblies of the AFL-CIO's building trades and industrial union departments.


The AIDS Committee of the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) Local 250, the union for hospital workers in San Francisco, publishes its influ­ential brochure" AIDS and the Health Care Worker." The union develops AIDS training for hospital and health care workers throughout the San Francisco Bay Area, and SEIU distributes the booklet and its Spanish translations nationally through five editions.


Workers at the new Ed D. Edelman Clinic for AIDS care at the Gay and Lesbian Center in Los Angeles join SEIU Local 399 by direct recognition and ratify their first contract.

A national gay rights march on Washington in October includes a contin­gent of gay-labor activists carrying the banner "Pride at Work." A day ahead of the march, the AFL-CIO sponsors an official reception to welcome LGBT union members to its headquarters.


Charley Shively, editor. Calamus Lovers: Walt Whitman's Working-Class Camerados. San Francisco: Gay Sunshine Press, 1987.


Workers at the Northwest AIDS Foundation, a social services agency in Seattle, petition for representation by SEIU Local 6. Management hires a consulting attorney and then promotes several workers to supervisory status, thus whit­tling down the bargaining unit. SEIU Local 6 is elected by a thin margin in November, and a first contract is ratified in July 1990.


Allan Bérubé, Coming Out Under FireThe History of Gay Men and Women in World War II. Free Press, 1990. Twentieth Anniversary Edition. With a new foreword by John D'Emilio and Estelle B. Freedman. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2010.


Right-wing voter initiatives are on the ballots of Oregon and Colorado. Oregon's Measure 9 proposes dismissal of all gay public employees and their sympathiz­ers. SEIU Local 503, the Oregon Public Employees Union, collaborates with gay and civil rights activists and appeals to unions throughout the state. Voters reject the measure by 57 percent. Colorado's Article II proposes the abolition of stand­ing gay rights ordinances and a ban on new attempts. The union membership rate in Colorado, a right-to-work state, hovers at 10 percent and below throughout the 1990s. Gay organizations and unions fail to coalesce. Voters approve Article II by 53.4 percent.


Allan Bérubé, My Desire for History: Essays in Gay, Community, and Labor History. Edited with an Introduction by John D'Emilio and Estelle B. Freedman. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 20ll.


Miriam Frank. Out in the Union (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2014).

Publisher's description: Out in the Union tells the continuous story of queer American workers from the mid-1960s through 2013. Miriam Frank shrewdly chronicles the evolution of labor politics with queer activism and identity formation, showing how unions began affirming the rights of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender workers in the 1970s and 1980s. She documents coming out on the job and in the union as well as issues of discrimination and harassment, and the creation of alliances between unions and LGBT communities. Featuring in-depth interviews with LGBT and labor activists, Frank provides an inclusive history of the convergence of labor and LGBT interests. She carefully details how queer caucuses in local unions introduced domestic partner benefits and union-based AIDS education for health care workers-innovations that have been influential across the U.S. workforce. Out in the Union also examines organizing drives at queer workplaces, campaigns for marriage equality, and other gay civil rights issues to show the enduring power of LGBT workers.


Victor Minichiello and John Scott, editors. Male Sex Work and Society (Harrington Park Press, 2014).

“A strong addition to the nascent body of literature that documents empirical research with sex workers. This text would be a good fit for doctoral level courses in community psychology, academic courses, and scholarship focusing on intersections between psychology and sexuality … For clinicians this would be a good tool to inform practice.” 

“This is a pathbreaking, well illustrated book about many aspects of male sex work – historical, cultural, economical, ethnological, legal, medical, psychological, and artistic …The work achieves this goal to an astonishing degree … an eye-opener!” ARCHIVES FOR SEXOLOGY.


Matt Brim. Poor Queer Studies: Confronting Elitism in the University (Durham: Duke University Press, March 2020).

Publisher's description: In Poor Queer Studies Matt Brim shifts queer studies away from its familiar sites of elite education toward poor and working-class people, places, and pedagogies. Brim shows how queer studies also takes place beyond the halls of flagship institutions: in night school; after a three-hour commute; in overflowing classrooms at no-name colleges; with no research budget; without access to decent food; with kids in tow; in a state of homelessness. Drawing on the everyday experiences of teaching and learning queer studies at the College of Staten Island, Brim outlines the ways the field has been driven by the material and intellectual resources of those institutions that neglect and rarely serve poor and minority students. By exploring poor and working-class queer ideas and laying bare the structural and disciplinary mechanisms of inequality that suppress them, Brim jumpstarts a queer-class knowledge project committed to anti-elitist and anti-racist education. Poor Queer Studies is essential for all of those who care about the state of higher education and building a more equitable academy.