On May 1 LGBTQ communities around the world marched for May Day, a day historically dedicated to workers’ rights. In New York City, my colleagues from the Astraea Foundation and I joined the lesbian, gay, bisexual, queer, transgender, two-spirit, and gender-nonconforming (LGBTQTSGNC) contingent. The contingent was the first collaboratively organized event of five Astraea grantee partners: the Audre Lorde Project (ALP), FIERCE, Queers for Economic Justice (QEJ), Sylvia Rivera Law Project (SRLP), and Streetwise and Safe (SAS). These five organizations came together to increase visibility of LGBTQTSGNC communities in immigration and workers’ rights movements, and to show solidarity with LGBTQ immigrants, undocumented people of color, and low-income communities.
We spotted the contingent gathered under a big pride flag. Volunteer contingent security wearing walkie-talkie headsets gave us purple armbands and told us how to keep safe. Union Square was packed with groups of nearly every kind: union members and labor rights activists, immigrant rights groups, racial justice and anti-police-brutality activists, and Occupy Wall Street. And then there was us, an intergenerational, multiracial crew of over 80 people. Some donned glitter moustaches and T-shirts with their organizations’ logos. Many hoisted hand-made signs: “Queer Migrant Against Borders,” “Social Justice is FABULOUS,” “LGBT Youth + S-Comm + NYPD = Deportation.” On an outdoor stage, musicians and artists offered hip-hop and group dance interludes between organizers’ speeches. This sunny and vibrant May Day afternoon almost felt like a political activist SummerStage.
The LGBTQTSGNC contingent’s march marks an important moment in the confluence of LGBTQ, immigrant rights, and economic justice movements. Increasingly, LGBTQ organizations have brought light to migrant and worker issues within LGBTQ community organizing. Pointing to economic justice and immigrant rights as an LGBTQ issue, groups are rallying opposition to attacks on unions and worker organizing as well as increased police and law enforcement that put already vulnerable LGBTQ people at further risk of violence and deportation. Understanding that U.S. economic policies have created conditions that force people to migrate here, LGBTQ groups are calling for the human and economic rights and safety of LGBTQ communities, regardless of immigration status, to be protected.
The concern for legal protection is much-needed. According to a report by the National Network for Immigrant and Refugee Rights initiative HURRICANE, immigrants are the fastest-growing U.S. prison population. In addition, HURRICANE reports that over 50 percent of all people in deportation proceedings do not have legal representation or legal counsel.
Outside the U.S., many other Astraea grantee partners brought LGBTQ presence to labor rights marches. One group in Chile used May Day to bring awareness to transgender labor rights concerns. Organización de Transexuales por la Dignidad de la Diversidad named May 1 “Día internacional de los trabajadores Transexuales, Transgéneros, Travestis e Intersex” or “International Day for Trans* and Intersex Workers.”
New York’s LGBTQTSGNC contingent march follows recent developments in national LGBTQ activism opposing a controversial U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) program called Secure Communities (S-Comm). S-Comm is a federal program that automatically crosschecks fingerprints of anyone arrested by local law enforcement with federal immigration databases. The program shares information regardless of whether probable cause for arrest existed, whether someone is convicted of a crime, and regardless of the type of charge or its validity. SAS, alongside another Astraea grantee partner, Community United Against Violence (CUAV), and labor organizers National Day Labor Organizing Network (NDLON), have been leading opposition to S-Comm, gathering endorsements and support across the country.
SAS, CUAV, and NDLON have noted that S-Comm has contributed to skyrocketing numbers of detentions and deportations. According to the groups, even if a judge has ordered someone’s release or has dismissed the charges against them, S-Comm allows ICE to pressure local jails to detain people for deportation. As a result, programs like S-Comm add acute threat to the safety of LGBTQ immigrants and LGBTQ communities who already experience police profiling and hate crimes because of their race, class, sexuality, and gender. For many LGBTQ immigrants migrating to the U.S. has been a matter of fleeing not only unstable economic situations but persecution based on sexuality and gender. Additionally, the National Coalition of Anti-Violence Programs has voiced concern for LGBTQ survivors of violence, for whom it is not uncommon to be arrested when they call police for help.
Community opposition to S-Comm has grown in strength and momentum. Over 75 national, state, and local LGBT groups, including the Astraea Foundation, endorsed SAS, CUAV, and NDLON’s call for S-Comm’s end. Several states have responded by addressing ways to modify or opt out of the national program. In backlash the director of ICE, John Morton, announced that the program would be made mandatory, terminating all agreements with states and counties to modify it or opt out. This drew sharp attention from national organizations like the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force and the National Center for Lesbian Rights, spurring a wave of additional endorsements on National Coming Out Day in October 2011.
Against the backdrop of national LGBTQ immigrant rights organizing, marching in solidarity and voicing protest on May Day felt crucial and particularly powerful. Lively as ever, we sang chants down Broadway: Everywhere we go, people want to know who we are, so we tell them we are the immigrants, the queers, the poor, the workers, fighting for justice! Surrounded by our volunteer security who, hand in hand, lovingly herded us down to Wall Street, I felt lucky to be protected by community members in a moment of voicing political concern. Alongside myriad immigrant rights, workers’ rights and anti-violence groups, I felt a surge of energy when I shouted with the crowd, “Whose streets? Our streets! Tell me what democracy looks like! This is what democracy looks like!”