Guest Blogger

Coming Out in Wisconsin

Filed By Guest Blogger | March 13, 2011 11:30 AM | comments

Filed in: Living, Politics
Tags: budget repair bill, labor rights, lgbt rights, Ryan Biava, scott walker, union protests, unions, Wisconsin

Editor's Note: Ryan Biava is a PhD Candidate in political science at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, and was a founding board member of Equal Rights Washington. [Disclosure: He is a member of the Teaching Assistants Association, a public-sector union affiliated with the American Federation of Teachers, representing graduate teaching assistants at UW-Madison.]

biava-photo.jpgWisconsin has been the site of massive coming-out rallies over the last several weeks. In their tens of thousands, people have showed up in Madison and across the state to proclaim loudly their pride to the world. Their posters, songs, chants, and even outfits at times rivaled those you find at festivals around the U.S. every summer.

The main difference, of course, is that these people have been coming out not as LGBT, but as supporters of trade unionism--something that in some quarters of today's America is as stigmatized and hated as being LGBT. Understanding this similarity is essential to understanding what is happening in Wisconsin and across our country.

Coming out has long been the number one strategy advocated by LGBT rights groups to effect social change in our favor. Those of us who have come out again and again to our family, friends, and acquaintances have seen first-hand the power of this singular act. We put a face on an otherwise foreign and suspect abstraction, reduce social pride-button.jpgstigma, and build collective strength.

The union supporters are now engaged in this same process, in communities large and small from Wisconsin to Washington State. Wisconsin Governor Walker and his Republican legislative allies appear to have unleashed a social force that can no more easily be contained than a bell can be un-rung. I'm not convinced Walker realized this when he introduced the bill, and I have doubts that he grasps this reality today.

Trade union supporters, though, are slowly beginning to come to terms with the gravity of the path to which they have already committed themselves. For the vast majority of them this must be a painful awakening. I have watched my non-LGBT friends stand slack-jawed and enraged that their government would take away their rights. For my part, I've looked back at them with a raised eyebrow, a knowing smirk, and a shrug, silently replying: "Welcome to the club."

Most LGBT Americans can remember a moment in their lives when they realized that life was going to be a fair deal rougher and much more painful than they expected. This sobering time comes to define many of us, and guides the development of our personalities and our outlook on life. It also shapes the contours of our community's social life and institutions; it is not for nothing, after all, that so much of our social lives revolve around activities that encourage positive self-expression and campy reassurances of the value of our very lives.

Our non-LGBT friends - in particular those who are part of the dominant culture in our country -- are only very rarely confronted with such moments. The present situation in Wisconsin has ripped away the semblance of justice that has comforted these everyday citizens for their entire lives. In taking away their collective bargaining rights, Wisconsin has stripped public union members of what they had experienced - most likely blissfully and unconsciously - as majority status. We are familiar with their frustration in this moment.


I have friends and family on both sides of the issue of unionism. My own extended family has traded surprisingly and disappointingly angry emails and phone calls as a result of what is happening in this country with respect to union rights. Like LGBT rights before it, the mere existence of unions in the modern economy seems to divide Americans in troubling ways - as if our society needed more polarization.

Personally, I count myself among the quiet ranks of pragmatic centrists: I believe in the importance and ability of the private sector to drive innovation and create good-paying jobs, every bit as much as I am committed to the right to real health care and a meaningful social safety net. I reject the false choice - often engineered by parochial interests on both sides of the issue - between uncompromising, blind unionism, and the outright suppression of unions.

Ultimately, though, it is my training as a political scientist that wins out. Unions are the most effective method we have found to allow workers to have their interests fairly represented in our economic and political system. Without them and their collective voice, there is little upward pressure on wages, in a world economy where management and capital are increasingly structurally advantaged. Over the last half-century, it is this unionist pressure that brought - transformed - the working class into the broad, American middle class. We know that in nearly every society where it is powerful, the middle class is responsible for keeping liberal democracy from careening out of balance. A democracy with a neutered middle class is in a perilous position.


Regardless of one's own position, however, on the proper shape and role of trade unionism in 21st-century America, I believe that LGBT Americans have a great deal to offer individuals and groups who are now walking around their communities, stunned and bewildered by a government that no longer takes their rights seriously.

We LGBT Americans have necessarily learned how to perform our own delicate balancing act in response to a society that has long belittled our existence: we have built up a movement that allows us to fight vigorously and ceaselessly for our rights, while still giving us the space to live out full and meaningful lives. We have also learned how to live in relative peace with those who prefer that we remain second-class citizens - no small psychological feat.

If we can lend moral support to our friends in the labor movement in what is for them an extraordinary and trying time, so much the better. This is a moment to put into action our community's commitment to social harmony. It is an opportunity for each of us to re-examine our own place in the broader American conversation. ?

And if we are to be consistent with our values, we will share all of this equally with our friends who oppose unionism, as well, since we know that magnanimity is as virtuous as righteousness. This allows us to explore, too, the diversity - political, social, and economic - within our own movement.

This is an extraordinary time. As someone who has been on the ground in Madison over the last weeks, I have seen the emotions that have been exposed on all sides by this political confrontation. LGBT Americans have much humanity to contribute, as long as we are willing to share our voices.

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Nice piece, Ryan.

You make it seem, however, that you can't be both pro-union and pro private sector. I think most people who are pro union are both, but the unions also help stabilize a minimum wage IN the private section by helping set "market rates" for salaries.

Rising tide lifts all boats, as it were.


Ryan Biava | March 13, 2011 6:39 PM

Thanks, Helen, for making this point. I certainly agree. The politics of the situation in Wisconsin have been a bit clouded by the fact that we're talking about public-sector unions; if we broaden the conversation to include all unions, I think we're better off. Thanks again.