Poor People's Movements

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The impoverished and disenfranchised have long agitated for jobs and better living conditions during most major economic downturns and recessions in the United States, but until the 1960s LGBT people were not visible as such in any of these movements. Regardless of overall economic conditions, several groups within the LGBT community have struggled with poverty. LGBT people of color have been as subject as their heterosexual counterparts to institutional racism and its results: blighted neighborhoods and reservations, unsafe housing owned by absentee landlords, toxic chemical dumping in residential areas, limited access to mortgages and loans, police brutality, under-funded educational health care facilities, higher rates of drug addiction, depression, HIV infection, and incarceration, and chronic unemployment and under-employment. Lesbians have also had to contend with financial discrimination in the workplace based on their gender and perceived single status—until recently, many employers saw men as heads of families and paid lower wages to women, whom they assumed were in the workforce temporarily or part time until marrying or having children. Lesbians out on the job, particularly butch women unable or unwilling to disguise their gender presentation, have often been consigned to blue-collar work, to lower-paying service-sector work lacking benefits, or to standstills in their careers while their heterosexual co-workers are promoted. Atypical gender presentation also limits employment options for everyone, but particularly for transgender people, from middle-aged adults in high-paying professions fired when they transition from one gender to another, to young people whose parents kick them out of the home when they come out. Thousands of LGBT youth end up on the streets each year, often hustling to survive and taking drugs to survive the hustling.

The Early Homosexual Movement and the Civil Rights Movement

One of the gay movement's first organizations in the U.S. grew out of the anti-poverty organizing of the 1930s. During the Great Depression when millions of citizens were out of work, the Communist and Socialist Parties organized two types of large demonstrations: first, of the unemployed to press municipal and state governments for jobs and reformed relief systems; and second, of workers for increased wages and improved conditions. A number of these movements' organizers were homosexual—such as Harry Hay, who used his labor organizing experience and contacts to found the Mattachine Society in the 1950s—but the Communist Party asked Hay and others to keep their sexual orientation quiet.

The Poor People's Campaign

In 1968 Bayard Rustin became the first known gay man to help organize a national poor people's demonstration. Rustin had been a key strategist in the black civil rights movement before public gay-baiting led Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and other Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) leaders to distance themselves from him. In 1967 King and the SCLC conceived the idea of the Poor People's Campaign, a multiracial caravan of several thousand protesters who traveled to Washington, D.C., to live in a huge tent city (later called Resurrection City) and stage demonstrations at various locations. King was killed while the campaign was still in its planning stage, and Rustin, despite disagreements with SCLC leaders about strategy and tactics, agreed to step in and run the Mobilization in Support of the Poor People's Campaign, with a major demonstration planned for 19 June 1968.

The rally was successful, drawing a racially mixed crowd of about fifty thousand, but Rustin soon resigned over differences with Ralph Abernathy. The campaign itself was plagued by problems at the grassroots level, literally and figuratively—the tent camp became an ocean of mud after frequent rains that summer, and the media reported on open disagreements between groups of residents. However, lesbian peace activist Barbara Deming wrote and published a widely read essay on the self-empowerment and improved communication processes most Resurrection City residents came to experience. Deming was among the many LGBT people who were changed by participating in the Southern civil rights movement. Some of these volunteers, such as Joan Nestle, were white Northerners who had been closeted in the movement, but returned home to make political connections between the oppression in the South and their own treatment as LGBT people.

The "Negro Family" and Welfare Rights Movement

The national debate about federal subsidies for the poor heated up substantially in the mid-1960s with the release of the labor department report "The Negro Family: The Case for National Action," written by Daniel Patrick Moynihan, assistant secretary of labor for policy and research. Moynihan blamed the problems he saw in the black community—dependence upon the welfare system, an increase in out-of-wedlock births—on gender "role reversal" and the tendency of black women to dominate their families. Many civil rights leaders and white progressives denounced the report and accused Moynihan of victim blaming, but neither his critics nor his supporters questioned the assumption that the creating of a traditional nuclear family was the best way out of poverty.

Women on welfare, more concerned with their families' survival than with being perceived as "matriarchs," began organizing into grassroots groups in California in 1962; the movement quickly spread to the Northeast and Midwest. Tactics were similar to those of the 1930s unemployed movement organizations: street demonstrations against cuts in public assistance, agitation at welfare offices, and legal resolution of grievances on a case-by-case basis—advocating for women who had had their benefits illegally cut, for example. By 1967, some middle-class civil rights leaders saw the groups of mostly black welfare mothers as a field ripe for "professional" organizing, and George Wiley, former director of the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE), and several others formed the National Welfare Rights Organization (NWRO). That year the NWRO held its first national convention; by 1971 the movement had grown to nine thousand local chapters in all fifty states. But the women who had begun the movement eventually wrested control of the organization from the black and white men who ran it, and welfare activist Johnnie Tillmon became the NWRO's executive director in 1973. Tillmon formed alliances with feminist groups and attempted to educate women of other economic classes about the myths of welfare. Unfortunately, church groups and private foundations were uncomfortable dealing directly with the welfare mothers who now ran the organization and withdrew funding; by 1975 the NWRO was essentially defunct.

The organization had an impact on many women, though. When the federal government increased benefits after the War on Poverty, a program initiated in 1964 by President Lyndon B. Johnson, and welfare rights activists began to improve some conditions for recipients, the stigma of receiving welfare decreased and the number of people receiving aid increased. Many women with children used government benefits to escape abusive marriages, and others were able to continue their education. In this context, some lesbian mothers received welfare benefits and were able to raise their children while doing volunteer work for the feminist and lesbian movements.

Several grassroots urban groups concerned with poverty attempted to build coalitions with the LGBT movement after the Stonewall Riots. Although it is not often remembered as a poor people's organization (known instead for its high-profile street activism and militancy), the Black Panther Party did run successful social programs for the inner-city poor, including sickle-cell anemia testing, free breakfasts, and Afro centric home schooling for children. In a 1970 manifesto, one of the party founders, Huey Newton, advocated Panther solidarity with the emerging gay and women's liberation movements.

AIDS, Homelessness, and Trans Action

A large number of middle-class gay and bisexual men were introduced to the indignities and prejudices the poor routinely experienced in dealing with the social service system when they became sick with HIV/AIDS in the 1980s and 1990s. In response, members of the direct action group AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power (ACT UP) and other social welfare organizations began to assume a greater care-taking role as clients and friends lost their housing and were often forced to remain in the hospital, sometimes in the hall or an emergency room, because they had no homes to which they might return. ACT UP formed a housing committee to address the ensuing crisis in the gay community, but a lack of affordable housing continues to be a key problem among AIDS patients, particularly as rents skyrocket in urban areas.

Many homeless shelters refuse to serve those with HIV/AIDS, and even if the directors are welcoming, clients often find it necessary to hide their HIV-positive status or LGBT sexual orientation from other residents. Verbal, physical, or sexual assault is a distinct possibility in the shelter system, and the rape of homeless women on the street is common. Homelessness remains such a prevalent problem among LGBT youth that agencies in many cities have opened shelters for those under twenty-one. At the other end of the life span, Seattle now has a support group, Salt & Pepper, for homeless LGBT people over fifty.

The transgender community is another sector of the LGBT population forced to cope with chronic unemployment and homelessness. In 1971 Sylvia Rivera and Marsha P. Johnston founded Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries (STAR), originally a caucus of the Gay Liberation Front, to help trans youth, many of whom could not secure employment because of their gender presentation and thus ended up on the streets selling drugs or themselves. This group initially lasted only a few years, but Rivera, a drug addict who eventually ended up homeless herself, reformed STAR in 2000 after she had gone into recovery and transwoman Amanda Milan was murdered in Times Square.

Beyond Welfare Reform and Queer Markets

When the U.S. Congress began to debate the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act of 1996, the law that drastically cut entitlements for the poor, individual LGBT activists and national organizations lobbied against the legislation. The National Gay and Lesbian Task Force (NGLTF) Policy Institute and the Queer Economic Justice Network held press conferences and produced publications such "Leaving Our Children Behind: Welfare Reform and The Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual and Transgender Community." They point out that the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) program of President George W. Bush's administration, with its emphasis on marriage as a method of removing people from the public assistance rolls, discriminates against lesbian mothers and other LGBT individuals and families. It also falls in line with the Religious Right's opposition to gay and lesbian marriage and the conservative definition of family as a heterosexual marriage and children. Meanwhile, these activists and others have noted, and protested, the way marketers and slick gay and lesbian magazine publishers of the past decade have successfully sold to the public an image of the LGBT community as teeming with wealthy "double income, no kids" households. Besides increasing the invisibility of the community's poor, this message has been used by the right wing to help promote anti-LGBT legislation.

The welfare system by its very nature discourages coming out, so many of the current public LGBT welfare rights activists are former recipients. As various local and national LGBT organizations continue to focus on such middle-class concerns as corporate domestic partner benefits and gay and lesbian marriage rights, impoverished members of the community are increasingly left to fend for themselves. A few scholars have suggested that the intrusive character of government agencies assisting the poor encourages more covert coping strategies that may not be best characterized as a "movement," but is just as effective for survival. Some of these strategies—including hiding from authorities sources of cash income and relationships that might change aid recipients' household status—are similar to tactics that LGBT people have used to obscure or manage their identities. Comparisons and questions like these are especially important to examine today in light of increased government surveillance and the erosion of civil rights protection in the United States.


Abramovitz, Mimi. Under Attack, Fighting Back: Women and Welfare in the United States. New York: Monthly Review Press, 1996.

Cahill, Sean, and Kenneth T. Jones. "Leaving Our Children Behind: Welfare Reform and the Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual and Transgender Community." Washington, D.C.: National Gay and Lesbian Task Force Policy Institute, 2001. Available at http://www.ngltf.org/pi/index.cfm

Deming, Barbara. "Mud City." In We Are All Part Of One Another. Edited By Jane Meyerding. Philadelphia: New Society Publishers, 1984.

Gilliom, John. Overseers of the Poor: Surveillance, Resistance, and the Limits of Privacy. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2001.

Gonzalez Paz, Juana Maria. "From Battered Wife to Community Volunteer: Testimony of a Welfare Mother." In Out of the Class Closet: Lesbians Speak. Edited by Julia Penelope. Freedom, Calif.: Crossing Press, 1994.

Lane, Molly. "Against Fear: Salt and Pepper Group Offers Affirmation Amidst Prejudice." Real Change News. Available from http://www.realchangenews.org/pastarticles/features/articles/fea_salt_pepper.html

Moynihan, Daniel Patrick. "The Negro Family: The Case for National Action." U.S. Department of Labor, Assistant Secretary for Polity, 1965. Available from http://www.dol.gov/asp/programs/history/webid-meynihan.htm. [note:"meynihan" is correct for this URL address]

Piven, Frances Fox, and Richard A. Cloward. Poor People's Movements: Why They Succeed, How They Fail. New York: Pantheon, 1977.

Shepard, Benjamin, and Ronald Hayduk, eds. From ACT UP to the WTO: Urban Protest and Community Building in the Era of Globalization. New York: Verso, 2002.

White, Deborah Gray. Too Heavy a Load: Black Women in Defense of Themselves. New York: Norton, 1999.

Michele Spring-Moore

see alsocapitalism and industrialization; class and class oppression; cross-class sex and relationships; hay, harry; national gay and lesbian task force (ngtlf); rivera, sylvia; rustin, bayard.

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