Vol. 32 No. 4 (April 2022) pp. 48-50

QUEER ALLIANCES: HOW POWER SHAPES POLITICAL MOVEMENT FORMATIONS, Erin Mayo Adam. Stanford, Stanford University Press, 2020. pp. 240. Paperback $ 26.00. ISBN 978-1-503-61279-2. Hardcopy $85.00. ISBN 978-1-503-61035-4.

Reviewed by Cyril Ghosh, Department of Government and Politics, Wagner College. Email: cyril.ghosh@wagner.edu.

Erin Mayo-Adam’s QUEER ALLIANCES: HOW POWER SHAPES POLITICAL MOVEMENT FORMATIONS is a superbly-researched and vital, addition to the scholarship on law and politics, social movements, legal mobilization theory, immigration, and sexuality and politics. The book also has the additional advantage of actually delivering on what it promises to deliver in its opening pages, which, as one knows well, is not something one can always count on.

Mayo-Adam invites us here to look at that which is away from the limelight. We can learn something, she correctly decides, if we pause for a minute and look at the progressive work that is being done by those who do not appear on our television sets, those who do not get profiled in the NEW YORKER, and those whose names do not appear in case studies we download from the Kennedy School of Government’s website.

In other words, Mayo-Adam wants us to understand both that – and why – our knowledge about social movements is incomplete, and by extension not very sophisticated at all, if we do not take stock of the social justice work that is being done by those who are (to borrow a term from postcolonial theory) the subaltern.

More specifically, Mayo-Adam investigates, using a queer methodology, and while drawing upon interviews and participant-observation, two episodes of coalition-formation and fragmentation in the context of what she refers to as “rights episodes” – Washington’s Referendum 74 campaign for marriage equality and Arizona’s immigrants’ rights campaign against SB 1070 – to discover the factors that contribute toward coalitions forming and fracturing. Each of these episodic movements centers around a specific set of rights demands without inevitably getting reduced to them but also not always being able to successfully achieve or exceed them.

In these rights episodes, we find, on occasion, concrete advances that get codified in the law. We also find, on occasion, the ossification of power hierarchies that reconsolidate the respectability of those who are “assimilable” while relegating to the margins those who are not. The episodes are, consequently, paradoxical. Indeed, as one of the people interviewed for the book says: “[T]he incredible focus on marriage equality has taken the focus away from the murders of trans women or policing or lack of access to health care that doesn’t rely on you getting married…” (p. 54).

Mayo-Adam’s most powerful contribution here is that she analyzes these rights movements and advances as well as their attendant re-inscription of power hierarchies through the prism of cross-community coalitions that involve sexual orientation and gender identity minorities, labor activists, as well as (regular and irregular) migrants. We read searing testimonies from interviewees that lament the divide between the mainstream and the marginalized, the historical exclusion of LGBTQ+ people of color from organizational spaces, the hegemony of white cisgender gay men in these movements, the arbitrary foregrounding of national conversations on marriage equality and comprehensive immigration reform accompanied by the systematic sidelining of the most pressing concerns of the unassimilable: the “UndocuQueers,” the deportable, the incarcerated.

Mayo-Adam also finds mainstream scholarship’s all-too-frequent and narrow focus on the idea of “venues” (legislation, ballot initiatives, litigation, rulemaking, and so on) of policy reform somewhat underwhelming. We are led to note that, about this matter, as in the case of much of the rest of life, there isn’t a general rule to be had. Our strategic choices are always tentative and provisional (here, Mayo-Adam cites as a case in point the almost “overnight” move from gay liberation to HIV/AIDS in the 1990s), as well as constrained by the political environment we find ourselves in. For example, what was unthinkable in the case of Arizona – mobilizing legislators to support the cause of LGBTQ+ rights – was one of the only options in Washington, given the failures LGBTQ+ rights activists had encountered in their litigation efforts there.

The book’s argument, however, although powerfully convincing, would be stronger, I think, if Mayo-Adam had done a few things differently. First, a key part of the argument is most unambiguously stated, somewhat unhelpfully, toward the book’s end (p. 145). Here, Mayo-Adam contends that there are four ways those engaged in political movements can attenuate coalition fragmentation. These are: constructing a shared narrative of historical injustices and the highlighting of common adversaries; dedicating greater resources toward nurturing the involvement of marginalized groups in coalition-formation; advancing an expansionist politics of solidarity while strategically utilizing rights episodes to further this commitment; and creating spaces to incubate grassroots advocacy networks outside of mainstream party politics. Foregrounding these arguments in the opening pages would better situate the ensuing discussions.

Equally, one of Mayo-Adam’s critical insights, one that is also strenuously underwritten by the testimonies of interviewees, is that the mobilization of rhetoric surrounding both shared past struggles as well as the identification of a common enemy frequently enables activists, although sometimes with mixed success, to collectively mobilize across cross-cutting, intersectional, and sometimes even oppositional (say, in certain contexts, between labor and undocumented workers), identities.

However, the force of the argument here is diluted, I think, by both Mayo-Adam’s (p. 142, pp. 146-147) as well as her respondents’ (pp. 126-142) emphasis on the strategic importance for coalition-formation. There is an extended discussion, for example, of the strategic importance of the work done by those whom Mayo-Adam calls “intersectional translators'' – the activists on the ground bridging the gap between the views of those who belong to mainstream organizations and those who belong to the more marginalized ones. This work includes the tactical use of rights campaigns, the creation of newer subgroups for those who are intersectionally marginalized, and running education campaigns such as Double Coming Out forums where undocumented queer migrants “come out of the closet” as well as “come out of the shadows.”

The reason why I think this emphasis on strategic importance dilutes the force of the argument is that it obfuscates a discussion of why or how coalition-formation’s purpose and significance might indeed exceed the bounds of the strategic as well as the purely political and might even, for some at least, constitute an ethic to which we all, for freestanding reasons, ought to be committed. I say this because it seems to me that there is something about coalition-formation that goes beyond simply strategically cultivating what the late Derrick Bell termed “interest-convergence.” Mayo-Adam herself points out examples of the latter when she describes the interests of apparently ideologically-divergent constituencies – such as, some immigrants’ rights advocates, certain religious folk (some Mormons, in particular), and some fiscal conservatives – converging and resulting in the removal of Sheriff Joe Arpaio from office in Arizona.

Surely, and I think Mayo-Adam will agree with me here, our commitment to coalition-formation is more than just the cultivation of this kind of interest-convergence for strategic and tactical reasons. To be sure, Mayo-Adam is not oblivious to the fact that something larger is at stake. Indeed, in the very lines preceding the discussion on the strategic importance of intersectional translation, she speaks of how coalition fragmentation “hinders the realization of both long- and short-term goals, such as creating solutions that account for the intersectional array of experiences of violent hate crimes and police brutality” (p. 126). Nevertheless, I think a more emphatic articulation of freestanding reasons that ground our commitment toward solidarity that go beyond our strategic needs would have been particularly useful here.

There is also a very useful discussion on the distinction between offensive and defensive rights episodes (p. 58) in the discussion of the Arizona case in Chapter 3. Offensive rights episodes are those in which a rights win is being demanded by a constituency, such as in the case of marriage equality in Washington (Chapter 2). Defensive rights episodes, on the other hand, are those that are created by opponents’ efforts to take away minority rights, such as in the case of SB 1070’s efforts in Arizona to limit privacy and other rights. However, I think this clarification would be more useful if it appeared in Chapter 1 before we read about either the Washington case or the Arizona case.

Finally, there is a fantastic illustration of the difficulties associated with studying intersectionality as a practice (pp. 120-122). This discussion is all the richer because Mayo-Adam correctly points out the multiple meanings as well as linguistic connotations the term has come to be associated with over time. But, one thing Mayo-Adam could have better developed and discussed here is the meaning and use of the term in its original formulation within the subfield of critical legal studies.

© Copyright 2021 by author Cyril Ghosh.