Intersectional Coalitions: The Paradoxes of Rights‐Based Movement Building in LGBTQ and Immigrant Communities

Published date01 March 2017
Date01 March 2017
Intersectional Coalitions: The Paradoxes of
Rights-Based Movement Building in LGBTQ and
Immigrant Communities
Erin M. Adam
Over the past decade, inter- and intra-movement coalitions composed of
organizations within the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, and Queer
(LGBTQ) and immigrant rights movements have formed at the local level.
These coalitions speak to a massive organizing effort that has achieved some
rights campaign successes. However,coalition unity that culminated in “wins”
like marriage equality came at a cost. While both movements expanded and
unified, they simultaneously ossified around goals that matter to the most
privileged segments of their respective communities. The result is a paradox:
coalitions do sometimes form within and across movements, promote endur-
ing unity across seemingly divergent movements, and facilitate rights cam-
paign “wins.” However, coalitions simultaneously reinforce hierarchical
exclusions through the continued marginalization of issues that uproot con-
ventional power dynamics, like police violence, economic inequality, and gen-
der justice. This essay argues that the construction of a common “civil rights
past” identity within coalitions can help to explain this paradox. The develop-
ment of this collective identity expands movements, occasionally thwarting
the power dynamics responsible for the centering of the interests of the most
privileged constituencies within social movements. However, the episodic
nature of rights-based campaigns simultaneously contains and undermines
the formation of this collective identity, reinforcing movement divisions based
on race, gender,and class.
The author gratefully acknowledges the assistance and encouragement of George Lov-
ell and Michael McCann as well as Chandan Reddy, Rachel Cichowski, Naomi Murakawa,
and Dara Strolovitch who provided feedback and support at various stages of this study.
The author would also like to thank members of the Comparative Law and Society Studies
Center at the University of Washington (UW), especially Heather Evans and Tanya
Kawarki who provided feedback on early versions of this essay in a writing group and
Katherine Beckett, Steve Herbert, Stephen Meyers, Arzoo Osanloo, and Carolyn Pinedo-
Turnovsky whose comments during a workshare helped develop this essay. The author is
further grateful for the constructive comments of numerous academic conference attend-
ees and discussants, especially Anna-Maria Marshall, Michael Bosia, Scott Barclay, Shauna
Fisher, and Zein Murib, and various anonymous reviewers. The author would also like to
thank the Harry Bridges Center for Labor Studies and the Department of Political Science
at the University of Washington for the grant funding necessary to complete this study.
Finally, and most importantly, the author would like to thank the organization leaders,
advocates, community workers, and activists who participated in this study,whose incredi-
ble movement-building in the face of seemingly insurmountable odds she is in complete
awe of and whose amazing work in the struggle against oppression far surpasses the con-
fines of academic research.
Please direct all correspondence to Erin M. Adam, Department of Political Science,
University of Washington, 101 Gowen Hall, Box 353530, Seattle, WA 98195; e-mail:
Law & Society Review, Volume 51, Number 1 (2017)
C2017 Law and Society Association. All rights reserved.
In the late 1990s and 2000s, the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Trans-
gender, and Queer (LGBTQ)
and immigrant rights movements
were struggling to advance their different agendas in the wake of
substantial legal losses in Washington State and Arizona. The
movements operated separately, and to some degree in a hostile
manner toward one another. For example, in 2004, when leaders
of one immigrant rights organization in Washington State pro-
posed intervening in a doomed marriage equality lawsuit on
behalf of same-sex couples, members of the organization vehe-
mently objected on religious grounds (O’Hagan 2013). In 2008,
the No on Proposition 102 Campaign, which failed to thwart the
passage of a statewide constitutional ban on same-sex marriage in
Arizona, did not include coalition partnerships with Latinx
immigrant rights organizations or leaders (Arizona Together 2008;
Vote No on Prop 102 2008).
Shortly after 2008, these same organizations began to unite
through intersectional coalitions around legislation and ballot ref-
erendum campaigns, including: statewide marriage equality cam-
paigns in Washington and Arizona; a campaign to provide state
financial aid for undocumented students in Washington; and a
campaign to stop Senate Bill (SB)
1062 in Arizona, a proposed
expansion of the state’s Religious Freedom Restoration Act
(RFRA) that, if passed, would have allowed state businesses to
Many of the LGBTQ organizations referenced in this project do not use the same
acronym or terminology to identify sexual orientation and/or gender identity and expres-
sion. This is a reflection of broad debate and community tensions both among organizations
and within academia over language and identity. Inorder to best achieve clarity and inclu-
siveness, and because this project concerns inter- and intra-movement alliances, I use the
term “LGBTQ” to broadly refer to the organizing of mainstream organizations that focus
on issues like marriage equality and anti-discrimination laws as well as marginalized queer
and trans organizations that focus on issues like socioeconomic, racial, gender,and disability
justice. In other words, I use the term “LGBTQ” when referencing the social movement as
a whole. I use “lesbian and gay,”“L esbian, Gay and Bisexual (LGB),” “mainstream Lesbian,
Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender (LGBT),” and “mainstream LGBTQ” to refer to main-
stream organizations that have primarily focused on legalizing marriage equality and pass-
ing anti-discrimination and hate crimes laws from the early 2000s to today. I use the terms
“queer,” “transgender,” “gender nonconforming,” and “trans” to refer to marginalized
organizations that are committed to economic racial, and gender justice issues that are
broadly aimed at contesting power.
The term “Latinx” started to surge among student, activist, and community building
groups in 2015, including groups that are part of this study as a gender non-specific term to
describe the range of gender identities present within Latino/a, Latin@ communities
(Logue 2015). Although the term is still deeply contested, the author uses it in this study
because it has been used by various study participants in describing themselves.
The abbreviation “SB” (short for “Senate Bill”) is commonly used to refer to legisla-
tion that originates in the Senate, the upper house in a bicameral state legislature. “HB”
(short for “House Bill”), by contrast, refers to legislation that originates in a state’s House of
Representatives, the lower house. These legislative entities can have other names, such as
General Assembly or Legislative Assembly, in different states.
Adam 133
refuse service to LGBTQ-identified people. Despite these notable
successes, however, these coalitions have largely been resistant to
advancing racial, economic, and gender justice issues that matter
the most to the more marginalized members of their respective
movements, like immigration detention, police violence, and
trans equity.
The achievement of LGBTQ and immigrant rights successes
in Arizona and Washington reveals that a paradox exists at the
center of coalition formation. On the one hand, coalitions some-
times can form across movements, contributing to new partner-
ships, fostering lasting unity across organizations that represent
people who hold seemingly disparate identities, and facilitating
rights campaign “wins.” On the other hand, these newly formed
coalitions often reinforce existing hierarchical exclusions through
the continued marginalization of those issues that uproot conven-
tional power dynamics the most. This study seeks to explain this
paradox. What contributes to successful coalition formation? How
do we explain coalitions like the LGBTQ and immigrant rights
alliances described above that are simultaneously inclusive and
exclusive? I argue that the development of a collective “civil
rights past” identity, based in the recognition of common oppo-
nents and the construction of a shared social movement past, aids
in the formation of intersectional coalitions. The development of
a common civil rights past identity is not something that happens
automatically, but has to be constructed, highlighted, and worked
at. It expands social movements by fostering the inclusion of new
groups and constituencies that can aid in the fight to achieve
rights campaign “wins” and thwart “losses.” However, at the same
time, the mechanics that drive the construction of this collective
identity reinforce hierarchical divisions both within and across
the groups that compose the newly formed coalitions.
In explaining this paradox, this study draws from the work
of intersectionality scholars who decry the casting of social move-
ments within a single-identity, unidimensional lens that ignores
and makes invisible important differences (see e.g., Cho, Cren-
shaw, and McCall 2013; Collins 1989; Crenshaw 1989; Crenshaw
1991; Hancock 2016; Puar 2011). Most intersectionality scholars
focus on how constructions of single-group identities reinforce
social stratification. For example, studies conducted by these
scholars explain how the centering of white women’s experiences
in struggles for gender justice erases the experiences of women
of color or how the construction of modern queer subjects
depends on the production of terrorist bodies (Crenshaw 1991;
Puar 2011). Yet, intersectionality also refers to the formation of
multi-group identity along different structural strata, across mul-
tiple movements. Intersectionality in this sense, for instance,
134 Intersectional Coalitions

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