Learning About Justice Movements from Queer Coalitions


Building coalitions to work on social justice and human rights issues is complicated. Activists often focus on specific goals, such as passing progressive legislation or defeating harmful measures, rather than working toward broader agendas. But targeted approaches can backfire. Movements set on a singular goal can dissipate once that goal is achieved unless coalitions are nurtured.

A new book, Queer Alliances: How Power Shapes Political Movements, looks at why and how political alliances “unite and fracture in frenzied bursts around legal rights struggles.” Author Erin Mayo-Adam, a professor at Hunter College, uses coalition-building in the LGBTQ and immigrant rights movements in Washington State and Arizona as case studies for the book. 

The two states provide stark contrasts. Progressives in Washington affirmed in-state tuition and financial aid for undocumented college students, passed an LGBTQ non-discrimination act, and legalized marriage equality. At the same time, Arizona conservatives limited benefits for undocumented people, banned same-sex marriage, and passed SB 1070, which allows state law enforcement officers to investigate the immigration status of anyone they encounter. 

Mayo-Adam describes these struggles to advance rights or fight oppression as “intense advocacy moments” that create opportunities for building coalitions. In Arizona, mainstream organizations working with marginalized groups to fight SB 1070 created One Arizona, a nonpartisan network for civic engagement that continues to work on issues including immigrant rights, voting rights, social justice, climate justice, labor issues, and LGBTQ rights. 

In contrast, Mayo-Adam says that once same-sex marriage was legalized, support for other LGBTQ rights issues–like fighting violence against trans women– “evaporated.” In Washington, Mayo-Adam says, “public education conducted through the marriage equality rights episode did not challenge gender norms.” That made it harder to mobilize support for trans rights on issues like the use of public restrooms. 

So how do activists keep movements going once specific goals are reached or crises have passed? Mayo-Adam says coalitions should highlight shared histories and common opponents, support marginalized groups and individuals and give them leadership roles, and form advocacy networks outside traditional party politics. 

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Queer Alliances: How Power Shapes Political Movements
Stanford University Press, 2020

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Erin Mayo-Adam (Professor, Political Science) | Profile 1