Guest post from Anders Zanichkowsky (also posted here)
On Wednesday, February 18, the Madison Economic Development Commission discussed an ordinance proposed by Alder Weier that would create a protected class for homeless people in the areas of employment and housing. (Audio of the meeting and a recap can be found here.) This ordinance would specifically exclude protections for the homeless while using public accommodations. The justification for this exemption, according to Weier, is a few cases of people (who may or may not have even been homeless) who committed misdemeanors near the Capitol. Her stated reason for wanting to protect people in housing and employment, on the other hand, was that people need jobs and housing in order to get out of homelessness. She was curiously silent on how they would get their most immediate needs met, while still homeless, if denied public accommodations. This exemption certainly aligns with downtown business interests that wish to enforce their many existing anti-homeless policies, such as individual stores banning people perceived as homeless (which already violate laws protecting personal appearance) and groups of businesses working together with police and Downtown Madison, Inc. to enforce collective bans against individuals.
Alder John Strasser was opposed to this ordinance altogether, and cited his own membership in a protected class (being a gay man) as a reason for denying the credibility or importance of adding new protected classes, such as homelessness. He said that adding more classes “dilutes” anti-discrimination laws, and he wondered how long it would be “before anyone can find some way of getting on the protected classes list.”
Alders Weier and Strasser seemed to misunderstand two fundamental aspects of discrimination law: First, that being a member of a protected class does not mean you cannot still be prosecuted for criminal behavior; and second, that everyone belongs, in some way, to every protected class. It is when someone is targeted as a member of that class that it constitutes discrimination. The purpose of these laws is to recognize both historical and contemporary disenfranchisement, but the laws protect everyone -- including those in the majority.
The following letter was written by Anders Zanichkowsky, a housing advocate and another openly gay man, who shares many intersections of privilege with Alder John Strasser, in response to his comments at last Tuesday’s meeting. It was forwarded to all alders, the mayor, and staff at OutReach, Inc., Madison’s LGBT community center.
February 19, 2015
Dear Mr. Strasser:
I am writing as one gay man to another, in response to your recent comments about discrimination, homelessness, and public accommodations in Madison. I am strongly in favor of protecting homeless people from all forms of discrimination, especially in public accommodations. Being gay is at the heart of my support for this, and I’d like you to know why.
For me, it begins with honoring a legacy. The Stonewall Riots – and the Gay Rights Movement – were started by transgender women of color who struggled with homelessness, women like Sylvia Rivera, Marsha P. Johnson, and Miss Major. For many people, the Stonewall Inn and the Compton Cafeteria were some of the only safe places to be at night. Thus, safety in public accommodations was a top priority for the transgender, homeless activists who created what would become the Gay Rights Movement.
Today, you and I both enjoy a relative amount of privilege as gay men, compared to the past and also to LGBT people now who are women, people of color, or homeless, for example. This is true even though many of our freedoms were won by their struggle. At the same time, other privileges you and I enjoy come directly at the expense of other LGBT people who do not have the same social, economic, and institutionalized power we have as white, middle class, college educated men. This idea of interconnected forms of oppression is sometimes called kyriarchy, an idea which greatly helped me understand my role as both a privileged and marginalized person in the world.
Consider the fact that we can go to a drag show at a gay bar raising money for the AIDS Resource Center of Wisconsin, without fearing a violent police raid. Yet people of color, homeless people, and transgender people are disproportionately more likely to need ARCW’s services, because of the ways transphobia, racism, and sexism put people at greater risk of poverty and HIV infection. Or, consider the homophobic hatred of effeminate men: This is rooted in a hatred of femininity and sexism that will disproportionately harm women and girls, in addition to many gay men. You asked whether including more people among protected classes would "dilute" the meaning. I say: Absolutely not. Rather, it enlightens the meaning.
To refer back to the example you gave at the Economic Development Commission meeting last night, if either of us were to lose our current housing, no doubt we could again stay in the comfort of a friend's guest bedroom. A black lesbian in Dane County, being far more likely to live in poverty, is far less likely to have this option, knowing few (if any) people who would have room for her, or could support her without risking eviction from their own landlord. As a woman, she is also more likely to be supporting any children she might have, which adds to her barriers. And, even if you or I did need to stay in a homeless shelter, you would still enjoy privileges as a man which I do not, being that I am also transgender. This is a fact I would not be able to hide in a communal shower, where I would face an immediate risk of violence and bigotry.
I am offering these examples as proof of what Audre Lorde said: That “there is no such thing as a single-issue struggle because we do not live single-issue lives.” This is true whether or not the "issue" in question puts us in the minority, as gay men, or puts us in the powerful majority, as men who are not homeless.
It is for this reason I was so disheartened to hear you invoke your gay identity last night as some kind of credential for denying someone else’s oppression. You spoke of protected classes in "Zero Sum" terms, as though there is a limited quantity of justice in the world and, having been served our full, gay men should not have to extend the offer to others who were late to the table.
First, ending discrimination against the homeless is not a new goal. And as I see it, one of the reasons homeless people still don't have a seat at the "Protected Classes" table is because gay, middle class, white men like us do not always see our struggles bound up with homeless issues. Instead, privileged gay people kicked women like Sylvia Rivera out of what was once a grassroots movement. Now we have groups like the Human Rights Campaign, paid for with blood money from vulture funds, and the privileged gays who dictate the priorities of the mainstream Gay Rights Movement are using the radical legacy of Stonewall to fight for private property rights – whether their own, through marriage equality, or through US imperialism, by gaining access to the military.
These private property interests, like the ones you want to protect in Madison, are in direct conflict with social justice and sustainable economic development. We need only look to the LGBTQ youth still being kicked out of their homes and forced into crimes of poverty for survival to see how your pro-business interests will hurt LGBTQ people, among many others, and place this burden on tax payers in the form of emergency and social services. In Chicago’s Boystown in 2011, gay men who look very much like you and me tried to shut down an LGBT community center for homeless youthfor fear it was bringing down their property values. Your comments have reflected similar values, wherein property is more important than people, and the work of eliminating discrimination is considered done, against all evidence to the contrary. Just like in Boystown, at the EDC meeting discussing homelessness as a protected class, some alders used singular examples of criminal behavior to demonize an entire group of disenfranchised people and to argue the dangers of affording them basic civil liberties. Is that not the first red flag of prejudice?
I am calling on you to see how the liberation of homeless people from poverty and discrimination is deeply connected to our own liberation as gay men. I urge you to reconsider your position, and protect homeless people from discrimination while using public accommodations. For one thing, the public is where the homeless are forced to live most of their daily life, due to their poverty, increasing the impact of discrimination against them in public places. For another, the only arguments against this protection rely on the same anti-homeless prejudice the ordinance claims to protect people from in the areas of employment and housing.