Yeah marriage is cool, but have you ever had secure housing? Gaining clarity about self-interest as a working-class queer

Photo credit: Emmett Valentin

Queer and trans people are in dire need of affordable housing. Thirty percent of trans folks have experienced homelessness as a result of being trans, a statistic that increases to a staggering 41% for the Black trans population.  Queers as a whole are 15% less likely than the general population to own a home, and transgender people are 4 times less likely to achieve home ownership. Our community needs housing more than we need drag shows, representation in the media, or gay marriage. So why aren’t we in the streets demanding it?

One reason is that we are too exhausted from working multiple jobs and side hustles to organize. Many of us have also internalized the myth that if we haven’t managed to achieve housing security, it’s our fault somehow. Another reason is that we have been indoctrinated by capitalist ideology to think of the housing market, the public housing system, and the whole U.S. economy as a self-regulating ecosystem governed by impartial laws, much like nature, and as far too complex for us plebeians to understand, much less challenge. So we keep our heads down and work, or stay in our activism silos, and never build real power. The non-profit industrial complex encourages this behavior, because its existence depends on our current model of class stratification and disempowerment.

The Historically Black Neighborhood Assembly recently propositioned a local queer organization to sign a petition in support of the Historically Black Neighborhood Ordinance, an ordinance that would require development projects in historically Black neighborhoods to pass a displacement assessment before accessing public funds or resources. The organization declined to sign the petition on the basis that the concerns addressed therein exceeded their scope as an LGBTQ organization. In other words, the queers they cater to don’t have to worry about displacement.

These ruling class queers, Liberalism’s darlings, will call out conservatives, religious bigots, and TERFs all day, but are unwilling to call out the gentrifiers who are driving poor queer BIPOC out of their homes. Don’t get me wrong: I dislike J.K. Rowling as much as the next trans person, but she has done exponentially less damage to trans and queer BIPOC than, for example, Gill Holland, Louisville’s most famous gentrifier, whose projects have included the demolition of the Clarksdale Housing Projects and displacement of the Clarksdale residents, and the ongoing gentrification of the Portland and Russell neighborhoods

If liberal LGBTQ orgs really exist to uplift and advocate for all queer people, then they should use their power to fight these injustices and use their platforms to call out their perpetrators. But then they would piss off their donors and fiscal sponsors, which would not be in their self-interest. And unlike poor and working class folks, who have been misled, manipulated, and lied to about our self interests our entire lives, the ruling class has clarity about their self-interests. They know where their allegiances lie, and it’s not with the working class and it’s certainly not with organizers who threaten the existing order.

Poor and working class queers must achieve this same level of clarity and organization, or our most pressing needs will continue to be ignored. “But that’s where mutual aid comes in!” Relying on mutual aid to save ourselves and our people from capitalism is like relying on pain meds to treat cancer. These methods only treat the symptoms, not the sickness. And in the words of Marxist economist Richard D. Wolfe, “the sickness is the system.” Capitalism isn’t sick, we are sick, and capitalism is the cancer. 

Fortunately, there is a solution. Louisville is at the center of a growing tenant movement in the U.S. that is already competing with the capitalist ruling class in terms of clarity and organizing power. The Louisville Tenants Union (LTU) is a tenant-led organization that fights for tenants rights, an end to all evictions, and for community control of housing. Unlike most organizations and activist groups, the LTU does not derive its power from the state or individuals, but from the relationships we build with each other. We are poor and working class, housed and unhoused, tenants and homeowners (a.k.a. bank tenants), trans and cis, queer and straight, Black and white, disabled and able-bodied, old and young and everything in between. We build power by organizing across the lines that are used to divide us.

Trans people in the South are well aware of the need for tight-knit, grassroots support networks – “base-building” as it’s called in the activism world. And if they aren’t aware, they’re about to be. To quote my comrade Erika Sommer, who is also trans: “As the right wing pushes to turn trans Kentuckians into exiles and pariahs, it becomes all the more important for us to strengthen our ties with working class people of all genders and sexual identities.”

Since the LTU was formed just one year ago, we have won a number of major campaigns targeting everything from giant out-of-state corporate slumlords to wealthy private schools. We were even part of the core team on a nation-wide Homes Guarantee campaign that shaped the recent White House initiatives on tenant protections.

We win because we are organized and militant, and because we trust and are accountable to each other. These factors enable the kind of strategic risk-taking that is necessary to escalate in battle, and to unlock the power and confidence that is necessary to take those risks. LTU tenant-leader Sandra Booker expressed this idea beautifully in a press conference statement last September: “I have to admit that I am fearful of speaking out. I am fearful of retaliation. I am fearful of being evicted for speaking up. However, my faith and my anger are greater than any fear that I have. What grows in the dark dies in the light of exposure, and it is time to expose this mess.” 

If my own experiences with housing and job insecurity have taught me anything, it’s that reasoning with your oppressor, or fighting back on your own, are extremely ineffective tactics. My safety and power are inextricably tied to my comrades, the people who share my self-interests and have my back. There’s no better proof of this than the fact that it was these folks – poor and working class communists – who sat beside me in the Franklin County Jail after being forcibly removed from the state capitol for protesting the omnibus anti-trans bill, SB 150, as the house was overturning the governor’s veto. I think Sommer says it best: “As a member of the LTU, I’ve found more love, acceptance, and genuine allyship than in any ruling class ‘LGBTQ+ space.'”

Access to safe, stable, comfortable housing is a fundamental human need, and a key social determinant of physical and mental health. And as Sommer points out: “We could very well see an increase in young trans folks moving to Louisville and Lexington as it becomes harder again to be trans elsewhere in the state. Those young folks will doubtless have little if any family support and will be at high risk of homelessness if there isn’t affordable, safe housing available to them.” It is preposterous that in the richest country in the world, housing security is considered a privilege, one that grows increasingly unattainable for queer and trans people, and for poor and working class people as a whole, whose decisions, bodies, psyches, and lives have been shaped by inequality and capitalist greed in ways we can’t even begin to disentangle.

But you are not alone, and you are more powerful than you know. Come to a meeting and see for yourself. If you decide you want to join, an organizer will follow up and schedule a one-on-one meeting with you.

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