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The flip side of the pink dollar: queer activism and free labor
To create financially viable and politically sustainable queer communities, activists can use their skills to find collective solutions.
About the author: C Lou Hamilton is an activist and freelance author, editor, and translator. Her latest book is Veganism, Sex and Politics: Tales of Danger and Pleasure (2019). She writes a regular newsletter on writing and activism.
I first heard talk of the pink dollar, the supposed purchasing power of LGBTQ+ people, in my baby dyke days in Montreal in the 1990s. I was a student, buying my urban femme attire in the second-hand stores on the Plateau-Mont-Royal, drinking cheap beer and eyeing up cute butches over the pool tables in the queer bars along Saint Catherine Street.
Every so often, we’d go across the road to the fancy gay diner and order some three-pepper fries — three times the price of the plain ones at the local take out. It was a treat. We were usually the youngest people in the restaurant, often the only women. We weren’t poor, but our resources had limits. The average patron was white, gay, salaried and male: the coveted customer with cash.
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Since the late 20th century, the concept of the pink dollar has proven attractive to both queer entrepreneurs and mainstream businesses keen to capitalize on the perceived wealth of “the gay community.”
But that’s only one side of the story. Queer people are a diverse lot, divided by class, gender, race, ability and other factors that impact how much or little we earn. And while some queer-run businesses profit handsomely by marketing themselves to middle-class LGBTQ+ consumers, queer volunteer organizations and political groups often rely on cheap or free labor for their very existence.
I saw this in action when I discovered the joys of do-it-yourself queer activism in London at the turn of the millennium: organizing benefits for migrant support groups or sex workers’ rights campaigns in squats where we cooked vegan meals in make-shift kitchens from food collected from dumpster-diving. When friends were arrested at a demonstration, a couple of us took a hat around a queer club collecting change for legal expenses. Not the most efficient way to raise money, but it was fun to flirt while fundraising. We took for granted that most queer people were generous but not flush, and we were used to doing politics on a shoestring. This was also a point of pride. We were part of the anti-globalization movement. Capitalism was the enemy, and we were all suspicious of money.
It never occurred to me that I should be paid for that activism. This wasn’t work; this was solidarity. Anyway, I already had a job. Not everyone earned as much as I did. Some probably earned more, or had inherited money, or owned their houses. Others lived in squats or rented cheap rooms or lived on public benefits. But we didn’t talk about our personal finances.
Fast-forward to 2023. The squats have been torn down, inflation has skyrocketed, years of austerity have trashed benefits, cash has been replaced by cards, and London’s noncommercial social spaces have all but disappeared.
Suddenly, every hour I dedicated to politics was an hour with no earnings.
But it was only when I left my full-time job and started working freelance that the penny dropped. Suddenly, every hour I dedicated to politics was an hour with no earnings. I saw others step back from activism they were good at because they had to work longer hours to pay higher rent.
In an atmosphere where money is scarce, there’s a risk that only people who have it can be activists. The whole point of progressive activism is to make the world a better place for everyone. Movements are meaningless if they exclude the people who not only need to be involved the most, but need to be at the center of change.
The ideal solution would be to pay everyone for activism — though that would kill most small, radical movements. The projects I’m involved in can barely afford to rent a meeting room let alone hire staff. Fundraising — the real kind, not the pass-the-hat variety — is a specialist skill. Professionalization and monetization come with their own costs.
I’ve learned many of my most valuable life skills through activism: making collective policy and strategy decisions, engaging in nonviolent direct action, facilitating meetings, holding passionate political debates while dancing to dyke punk bands in a room full of sweaty queer bodies.
I wouldn’t give up the lessons or experiences of DIY activism for the world. There’s a solidarity and camaraderie that’s missing in formal, professional spaces, where hierarchies and competition reign. Donating a few bucks through GoFundMe can’t compare to the glee of a spontaneous street benefit.
Queer collectives already know lots about making pleasure and politics affordable, like doing sliding scales for events. But activist economics is not just about how to make things economically accessible. It’s about recognizing the role money plays in our movements. Like class, race, gender and disability, economic inequality is real — and often linked to those other inequalities. Like not talking about homophobia and racism, not acknowledging levels of economic privilege is oppressive.
LGBTQ+ activists can support our communities and fight for change without committing to a life of low pay or relying on others to do so. To create financially viable and politically sustainable queer communities, we need to use the skills we’ve learned and shared as activists to find collective solutions.
Queer organizations need to be honest about how much money they have and whether there is any money to pay activists who cannot afford to do activist work for free.
Ideally, individuals should also be upfront about what they earn and whether they can afford to contribute to group costs. These discussions should acknowledge how personal and collective finances are shaped by sexism, racism, ableism and class.
People who pride themselves on rejecting conventional attitudes to sex, love and relationships can have normative ideas about money.
Such conversations are tricky in societies where it’s considered rude to ask people how much they earn. Queer communities aren’t immune to this. I sometimes think of money as the queer return of the repressed: People who pride themselves on rejecting conventional attitudes to sex, love and relationships can have normative ideas about money, as if it’s fine to have sex in public but money is something we do in the dark, behind closed doors.
When organizing events and asking people to contribute skills — as musicians, artists, cooks and so on — activist groups should be upfront about whether and how much people will be paid for their work. It might be appropriate to ask those who can afford it to donate their time and labor, while paying those who cannot. It’s only possible to make those decisions if all parties are clear about their needs and expectations in advance, and all decisions are transparent.
Activists also need to be clear about what we’re willing to do for free and when we need to be paid. As a writer, I’m often asked to or volunteer to write or edit political material. If I don’t have time to do that work or it’s taking up too much of the time I need to do paid or creative writing, I turn it down. The problem is when there is an expectation that people should do activist work for free.
Activism can cost money as well as time. If it involves travel or eating out, political groups need to find ways to make it affordable for everyone. Groups might decide that people who earn more money should pay more; those people should be clear on what they’re willing or not willing to contribute.
Too often there’s a laissez faire attitude to money matters in political groups. When that happens, we end up recreating the very hierarchies and exclusions we’re trying to eliminate.
2. Conflict resolution
Even if all the above are taken into account, there will be conflicts over money as well as many other things. The most important lesson I’ve learned from years of activism is never to get involved in groups that have no measures for conflict resolution.
There must be decisions about how conflict will be dealt with and who will do that work. Conflict resolution is a skill, one often involving feminized labor. If a group decides an outside mediator will be required to resolve a conflict, that person — like musicians, artists and writers — should not be expected to work for free
If conflict resolution is to be a priority, it has to be part of an organization’s budget. If it needs to be done on a voluntary basis, this labor should be distributed equitably and not fall on the shoulders of those deemed to be “naturally” good at it (all too often women and femmes).
People who do activism cannot be expected to take responsibility for each other’s financial situations. What we can do is make fighting for greater economic equality an integral part of our activism.
Money is often a problem in queer and other alternative communities because they’re marginalized and economically precarious. But these issues are exacerbated when activists turn inwards, expecting to solve all the world’s problems in their small circles instead of looking at the bigger picture — making alliances with people involved in other struggles. There can’t be true social justice of any kind without a redistribution of wealth on a global scale, whether we believe economic equality will come about after the revolution, through electoral politics or by supporting a Universal Basic Income.
As queer activists, we don’t have to embrace the pink dollar to take money seriously. But we can hold ourselves and each other accountable for financial honesty: not expecting others to work for free, contributing financially where we are able and willing, and working collectively to ensure economic justice is a queer activist priority.
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