Electoral work, canvassing and door knocking can be powerful vehicles for social transformation. (Aliaksandra Ivanova / EyeEm)

Calling All Progressive Queers: Time To Dive Into Electoral Work

Creating a better, more Queer world takes a whole lot of door-knocking and canvassing.

BY Michael Collins

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The task for Queer progressives is daunting: We must overcome neoliberalism, and our approach must contest the very halls of power that doom the most vulnerable in our community to early and sometimes violent death.

Electoral work, issue campaigns, popular education and canvassing can be powerful vehicles for advancing a broader strategy to overcome neoliberalism and win Queer liberation. Our goal as Queer political beings should be to dream up a positive vision of the future—and develop the institutions and politics capable of calling that vision into being. We are reminded of the critical importance of these tactics on the eve of the primary.

A Queer political program is one that consciously rejects the “naturalness” of gendered and sexed differences, instead demanding that communities create new institutions and traditions. Within this framework, we aspire to take responsibility for how we treat each other—and to love more people more fully. A Queer political approach must be embedded within a larger social justice project that addresses the varied interests of Queer folks in all of our dimensions, from the bathroom to the boardroom. The expansion of Queer politics can only be won by using a variety of tactics to engage and persuade our neighbors.

A permanent canvass operation is one tool Queer organizers can use to break through the isolation and atomization characteristic of our society. One of my first forays into local politics was through a deep canvassing program run by my local neighborhood group, United Neighbors of the 35th Ward (UN35), located on the Northwest Side of Chicago. I was trained to ask a single question: “What would you like to see changed in the neighborhood?” With this directive, I knocked on doors and shared stories with neighbors, who started developing a collective vision for the neighborhood. I was challenged to talk with folks who might not share my specific vision of a Queer utopia, but wanted solutions to problems like potholes, expensive property taxes and underfunded schools. 

Through building relationships, we were able to talk about Queer solutions to these problems, like a federal jobs program to invest in public infrastructure that doesn’t discriminate based on race, sex, gender or criminal history. We also talked about a progressive income tax to ensure everyone can get access to the healthcare they need, whether it’s undocumented families or Queer homeless youth. By having lay-leaders produce, train, door-knock and debrief the canvass operation, we created avenues for community members to become leaders and engage with the broad diversity of our ward.

Deep canvassing also creates the basis for a robust electoral program that can put Queer politicians into power. UN35 was one of the early endorsers of Alderman Carlos Rosa, Chicago’s only openly socialist Latinx to represent our Ward in city council. Rosa is a trained community organizer who shares a progressive vision for a world beyond our broken system, and he won with an astonishing 67 percent of the vote.

In the 2016 election cycle, UN35 won all of our endorsed races, with our precincts outperforming the broader districts. In total, the organization’s leaders knocked on more than 4,000 doors and made roughly 6,000 phone calls. In coalition with Reclaim Chicago, we collectively donated 5,000 hours of time and contacted 90,000 voters for progressives. Taking on the crumbling Chicago machine was challenging, but there is potential that a Queer that focuses on changing the structure of society also has appeal outside of the urban core.

As we approach the March 20 primary vote, we face similar organizing challenges. In a federal congressional district spanning from dense urban Chicago to the sprawling suburbs of La Grange, Marie Newman is challenging a Democrat in name only, Dan Lipinski, and is hopefully poised for a primary upset. Newman, whose child is transgender, founded an anti-bullying non-profit. But bullying isn’t the only issue facing Queer folks in the 3rd congressional district, and Newman has committed to support the People and Planet First budget to ensure all Americans receive the benefits of progressive taxation, healthcare for all and a federal jobs program. She has also committed to demanding binding wage and labor standards as part of any future transnational trade deals ensuring that Queer workers here and abroad get a living wage.

Newman’s victory in tomorrow’s primary is not assured, as she lacks name recognition and trails her opponent in fundraising. But when constituents are informed of Newman’s stances on the issues compared to Lipinski, she has a 5 point lead in the polls. This suggests there is a progressive majority that is eager for an inclusive and progressive alternative to the status quo. A powerful tactic to seize state power for Queer organizers is to find contradictions like those facing voters in in the 3rd congressional district, highlight the tensions to the general public, and provide a clear progressive alternative to the status quo.

Popular education is critical to this electoral work. To bridge the gap between low wages abroad, poor working conditions domestically and the terrible job market for LGBT folks in particular, I worked with a team of leaders from The People’s Lobby (TPL) to produce Popular Education trainings to help understand how the race to the bottom effects Chicagoans and Queer folks in particular.

Popular education, inspired by Augusto Boal, can be used in a variety of settings, learning styles and education levels. For abstract topics like globalization, popular education is particularly useful tool because it can bridge our local experiences of oppression to a broader structural critique of capitalism. Building on the work of the Asia Floor Wage Alliance, we analyzed how safe working conditions and rising wages are powerful tools for advancing feminist politics. This was a jumping-off point to imagine how a progressive, Queer vision of multinational trade agreements could advance Queer politics along the same lines. We wrestled with ideas and then practiced persuading friends and family on the merits of global solidarity as a way of expanding struggles for Queer liberation across borders.

Beyond training and education, TPL founded a Global Minimum Wage campaign to demand legislators support binding wage and labor standards in future trade agreements. As of this writing, Jan Schakowsky and Danny Davis have verbally supported the platform. In coordination with allies throughout TPL’s network, we are working to recruit and train movement politicians to advance a global vision of Queer justice. This combination of strategy and tactics suggests a path forward for local community groups to engage in transnational politics moored in local experiences. 

Neoliberal society has exhausted its progressive potential, and our world is rife with token representatives who lack the power—or interest—to alter the structures of society. The considerable resources of local, state and national governments have been captured by the corporate elite, and the effects of our disastrous world order are felt locally, but produced globally.

The task for Queer progressives is daunting: We must overcome neoliberalism, and our approach must contest the very halls of power that doom the most vulnerable in our community to early and sometimes violent death. Our strategy must be globe-spanning, because the corporations that profit from ecological crisis exist beyond the bounds of any single congressional district or national government. 

For the casual observer, this strategy may seem an impossible task, but the recently departed Ursula K. Le Guin reminded us that, “We live in capitalism, its power seems inescapable – but then, so did the divine right of kings. Any human power can be resisted and changed by human beings.”

Ours is a world dominated by a single maxim: profit at all costs. To move beyond this narrow politics, Queer political actors must develop strategies and tactics to expand the moral horizon of an exhausted political and economic system. Queer organizers can use these tactics to address the concerns of Queer folks not just as sexual beings, but as workers, students, residents, citizens, migrants and the litany of other identities we inhabit.

A path to victory is not certain, but our best chance requires a strategy that directly addresses the root causes of our collective oppression and tactics that empower our community. As Queer organizers, we walk this path one door-knock at a time.

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Michael is the Executive Director of the Center for Progressive Strategy and Research where their research interests include race, employment and transnational labor solidarity. They currently sit on the board of The People’s Lobby Education Institute and have previously served on the boards of the Crossroads Fund and In These Times magazine. They are a proud member of Chicago's progressive queer community.

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