Queer Alliances
How Power Shapes Political Movement Formation
Erin Mayo-Adam




Political movements are dynamic and volatile entities that are never formed, but always forming. When we talk about political movements, we tend to construct them as monolithic, linear entities with clear goals and trajectories. This characterization is misleading. Most movements grow and contract through a series of rapid bursts of energy that captivate our attention for a moment and then dissipate, leaving those who lived through them feeling galvanized, empowered, disoriented, dejected. This is perhaps most apparent if we see movements through the eyes of the advocates and community members who are closest to the center of their fury.

In order to better understand the phenomenon of political movement formation, let’s turn to some examples of grassroots organizing. In April 2010, Arizona’s governor signed Senate Bill (SB) 1070. SB 1070 was an omnibus anti-immigration bill that enabled local law enforcement officers to stop and question people who they have reason to believe are undocumented immigrants. When signing the new legislation, then governor Jan Brewer proudly claimed that the legislation ensured that the “constitutional rights of all in Arizona remain[ed] solid, stable, and steadfast.”1 In many ways, SB 1070 has had a profound impact on politics in Arizona and has ignited struggles to protect against threats to constitutional rights—but probably not quite in the manner imagined by Governor Brewer and other conservative politicians and activists who passed SB 1070 with the goal of curtailing the flow of migrants into the state. The signing of SB 1070 awakened the re-formation of political movement building in Arizona; initiated a fervor of coalition advocacy that spanned the immigrant, labor, and Latinx communities; and fueled a growing grassroots queer migrant justice movement.

This re-formed movement was, by some accounts, wildly successful. Six years after SB 1070 was signed into law, much of the law had been dismantled through lawsuits, and the state senator who authored it was forced out of office through an embarrassing recall election. Sheriff Joe Arpaio, who infamously and aggressively enforced SB 1070 and federal immigration law in Maricopa County, lost a series of humiliating civil rights lawsuits. In 2016, due in large part to the political movement organizing that grew in response to SB 1070, Arpaio lost his reelection campaign to a Democrat after serving twenty-four years as the Maricopa County sheriff. That same year, a successful ballot initiative campaign increased the minimum wage across the state and required employers to provide paid sick leave.2 An institutionalized grassroots advocacy coalition had expanded in Arizona.

Juan, a community organizer with the queer migrant movement in Arizona whom I interviewed for this book, was one of the individuals who became more involved in movement building as a result of SB 1070. Juan and his peers first created a queer migrant organization in the state to call attention to the experiences of those who identified as members of the queer and/or trans, and migrant communities. According to Juan, the queer and trans migrant organizing born out SB 1070 ultimately “rippled” into an array of organizing spaces in the state. The queer migrant community conducted several political actions and educational forums in the 2010s. During the afternoon I spent with him, Juan recalled in awestruck terms how he and other queer migrant activists pushed for new imaginings of movement, community, and being in the wake of the devastating anti-immigration law. In one action orchestrated by queer migrant activists, the pop star Lady Gaga publicly condemned SB 1070 when her 2010 Monster Ball Tour came to Phoenix. In another, activists forced space for a queer and trans migrant contingent in the Phoenix Pride parade, capturing the attention of local media and the crowd in what they argued had become a mainstream LGBTQ movement space, dominated by large corporate funders and mostly white gay men and lesbians. For Juan and many other queer migrant community workers I met during my fieldwork, the 2010s were a powerful moment for re-imagining and challenging the limits of political movement organizing that they argued centered heteronormative experiences and discrete rights-based goals that rarely served queer migrant interests.

This book examines how political movement coalitions, like those that emerged in Arizona in the aftermath of SB 1070, unite and fracture around campaigns to achieve legal rights wins and thwart rights losses. What factors contribute to movement formation, and what factors limit movement expansion? How do intense legal rights advocacy moments impact movement formation? I argue that political movement formation has paradoxical effects that simultaneously involve the creation of new possibilities and the re-entrenchment of hierarchical power. I illuminate these paradoxical effects through a multimethod study conducted in 2014 and 2015 that includes an interpretive analysis of the language that movement actors use to describe their experiences of movement formation at the grassroots in two state contexts: Arizona and Washington State.

On the surface, the expansion of cross-community movement coalitions around episodic rights campaigns can appear to be mostly a successful illustration of how divergent minority communities come together and advance human rights. But discrete rights advances and movement expansion can also come at a cost. This was especially apparent in the Referendum 74 campaign for marriage equality in Washington State. Emilio was an advocate with the LGBTQ, Latinx, and undocumented immigrant communities in Washington. Emilio, like many other organizers and advocates affiliated with these communities in Washington, felt even further marginalized and exploited by the state’s same-sex marriage campaign. During our conversation, Emilio directly criticized mainstream LGBTQ movement advocates for claiming that marriage equality was an important issue for the queer migrant and undocumented immigrant movements that grew in Washington State, Arizona, and nationally throughout the late 2000s and 2010s:

Emilio: For a long time, many LGBTQ folks who are white or many gay folks who were fighting for marriage equality saw equality just in that, just in marriage, which is sort of a very singular issue to think about equality and equity. And I think that’s different for undocumented folks because why does it matter if we are married if we are both undocumented?3

For many people like Emilio, marriage equality served as an issue that centered the experiences of white gay men and lesbians who had citizenship status and who saw equality “just in marriage,” and who, thus, no longer felt the need to continue mobilizing for LGBTQ justice once same-sex marriage was legalized nationwide. As a result, a lot of funding for LGBTQ rights issues evaporated after marriage equality, leaving organizations that purported to serve all LGBTQ people, including queer and trans undocumented migrants, trans people, and LGBTQ people of color, in a severely under-resourced position in the immediate aftermath of the win. According to Emilio, in a statement echoed by other advocates, the de-mobilization that occurred in the aftermath of the successful Referendum 74 campaign for marriage equality exemplified “white LGBTQ folks not really understanding the whole idea of white privilege.”

Movement expansion around the Referendum 74 campaign in Washington and, to a lesser degree, against SB 1070 in Arizona involved the contraction of agendas in ways that benefited the most mainstream members of minority communities, those perceived as the most politically and socially acceptable, “deserving” minorities, at the expense of people like Juan and Emilio. Hierarchical power dynamics responsible for the centering of wealth, whiteness, and masculinity in the US are not confined to political institutions; they pollute political movement organizing as well. Both cases demonstrate how episodic rights campaigns can paradoxically expand and contract political movements. In the following pages, I argue that alliances that form across divergent movements often unite and fracture in frenzied bursts around legal rights struggles rather than along a linear trajectory forward toward progress, and that even the most egalitarian aims often coincide with the consolidation of hierarchical power.

In making this argument, this book draws from political movement and law and society scholarship. I define movements as political phenomena represented by “continuous process[es] from generation to decline,” in line with scholars who adopt a political process model of movements, and, thus, study movement formation by looking at how movement actors take advantage of political opportunity structures and respond to structural constraints.4 I enhance this understanding of movements by further envisioning political movements as entities composed of a series of shifting inter- and intra-movement coalitions.

Recently, sociology scholars have called attention to the failure of most empirical studies of political movements to recognize that movements themselves are composed of formal and informal coalitional networks of organizations.5 Most political movement scholarship assumes a structural homogeneity to movements, and, for this reason, many political movement studies focus on one or a small core of organizations that claim to represent a given minority movement. This is especially true of scholarship on what Eskridge calls contemporary “identity-based movements”: the collection of movements that arose out of the mass protests of the 1950s and 1960s, including the civil rights movement, the women’s rights movement, the gay rights movement, and the disability rights movement.6 Scholarship on identity-based political movements tends to focus on one or a few legal or national political organizations because of the limits of available organizational data.7 The focus on a small set of national organizations reinforces constructions of political movements in the classroom and in popular media that center the narratives of a small core of the most well-resourced leaders. This inevitably results in the marginalization of the role that grassroots advocacy networks play in movements for social change.

Today, there is a wide array of historical accounts of the role that national political and legal organizations like Human Rights Campaign, Lambda Legal, and Freedom to Marry played in advancing same-sex marriage across the US.8 However, there are very few accounts that focus on the complex roles that local actors played in the struggle for marriage equality or how LGBTQ rights campaigns and coalitions contributed to and limited movement building, with a few notable exceptions.9 The dearth of empirical studies on local advocacy networks is understandable. Grassroots networks, like those networks that developed in response to SB 1070 in Arizona and the Referendum 74 marriage equality campaign in Washington State, are not easily mapped. These networks are composed of collectives of constantly shifting formal and informal organizations and alliances. At the local level, it is common for organizations to emerge for several years and then disappear, only to be replaced by new formations that may or may not include some of the same movement actors. The various struggles that local actors are involved in are not always archived or well documented. Statewide ballot measure campaigns that collect enough signatures to appear on the ballot in a general election may generate a lot of paperwork and media coverage, but campaigns that fail to make it onto the ballot, legislative campaigns that are centered in state capitals, and local court case campaigns that do not make it to an appellate court often do not. This is especially true in the 2000s, when mass layoffs at local news media outlets resulted in severe under-reporting on local politics, and campaign websites and organizations were likely to appear for a few months during intense advocacy moments and dissolve once a campaign ended.

This book seeks to fill this research gap through an in-depth examination of grassroots coalition building within the LGBTQ and immigrant movement communities in Washington State and Arizona. By analyzing the formation of political movement alliances, this study destabilizes contemporary understandings of identity-based movements which assume that movement formation can primarily be found within a small collective of national organizations that represent one subject position. Instead, I advance a conceptual, methodological shift by analyzing political movements through alliances across a multiplicity of organizations and groups that hold an array of intersecting subject positions across intersecting structural hierarchies. This book employs a queer methodology that destabilizes homogenous and monolithic constructions of political movements that focus on mostly mainstream movement actors. In the same vein as the work of queer studies scholars, this book seeks to draw attention to other forms of political movement, other constructions of community, and other understandings of subjectivity.10 When examining political movements, it does not make sense to confine our understandings to national organizations dedicated to specific minority populations alone. National organizations tend to get involved in movement activity very late in the formation process and often claim credit for rights wins without engaging in any on-the-ground advocacy. Rather than form at the national level, movements expand at the local level through the advocacy work of people like Juan and Emilio—people who build grassroots organizations and alliances that are capable of responding to and halting threats to minority communities as they arise.

Constructing movements as expansionist entities that defy specific organizational ties and transcend individual subject-position boundaries is consistent with the critiques of scholars who decry monolithic understandings of activism and political movement studies that center organizational formation.11 In the same vein as Majic, who, through her study of sex-worker rights advocacy in California,12 argues that activists often simultaneously work in nonprofit organizations and conduct non-organizational movement activism, this study recognizes that advocacy networks are both within and outside formal organizations. The coalitions in this study encompass formal nonprofit organizations and advocacy organizations, and informal organizations that are composed of volunteers who unite under a common name and mission but have not applied for formal nonprofit status with the Internal Revenue Service (IRS). I argue that movement actors are not confined to the limits of formal organizations in their advocacy. Further, I contend that scholars should not only evaluate movements based on outcomes but also study political movements through the expansion and contraction of inter- and intra-movement coalitions. Movements should be measured not only by their ability to attain discrete rights goals but also by their potential to expand into new struggles against legal and political power.

Case Selection

This book examines LGBTQ and immigrant rights movement formation through case studies of two states: Washington and Arizona. My goal is to illustrate the complexity of political movement formation, to demonstrate the need for more attention to coalitions in studies of rights-based movements, and to explain how political movement advocacy is often connected to hierarchical power dynamics. I have identified Washington and Arizona as my core cases for several reasons. Washington and Arizona provide a good pairing because some similarities make it possible to study movement formation in each state, while other sharp differences between the two states mean that they can together reveal considerable complexity in movement mobilization at the local level and in the various roles that grassroots advocacy networks play in coalition formation. The two state variables described here are chosen not because they are perfectly independent and thus suitable for a linear causal analysis. This study is not an analysis of what causes rights wins or rights losses. Instead, my project is designed to reveal how political movement coalitions unite and fracture and why hierarchical power dynamics often persist in political movement formation.

As a threshold matter, inter- and intra-movement coalitions that span the LGBTQ and immigrant communities have formed in each state at the grassroots level. These coalitions formed around the same time that these communities experienced political setbacks. In Washington, there were few signs of effective cross-community coalition work in the early 2000s. In 2005, only one immigrant rights organization (Hate Free Zone, now OneAmerica) signed onto an amicus brief filed by civic and community leaders in support of gay and lesbian couples fighting for marriage equality in the case Andersen v. King County. By contrast, during the 2012 Referendum 74 campaign for marriage equality, a wide array of organizations that represent immigrant communities endorsed the referendum. Similarly, in Arizona, when the state passed a same-sex marriage ban in 2008, the statewide campaign to thwart the initiative included no visible partnerships with immigrant rights organizations or organizations representing communities of color. Since then, coalitions between LGBTQ and immigrant movement organizations have formed at the local level in Arizona.13 These new coalitions feature organizations and communities that have historically been marginalized in political movement spaces. In both states, queer migrant community spaces were formed by people like Juan and Emilio, the community workers discussed at the beginning of this introduction. These new organizing spaces became increasingly important in pushing the boundaries of traditional political movement organizing during this time.

Although the timing of coalition formation is similar across the two cases, there is important variation in Washington and Arizona on other dimensions. This includes variation across the two states (1) in the different ways that movement advances develop through political and legal venues, (2) in the dissimilar sequence of political and legal wins and losses, and (3) in the overall political culture. The Washington and Arizona cases show that rights losses and wins can provide an impetus for coalition building regardless of whether losses and wins come in the courts or through political processes. In Washington State, movement advances usually occur through political processes such as ballot initiative and legislative campaigns. In Arizona, by contrast, these political processes are almost entirely closed off for movements because the state legislative and executive branches are controlled by many legislators committed to anti-immigration, religious freedom, and right-to-work policies. Consequently, when movement wins do occur in Arizona, they often materialize through court campaigns that challenge the limits of state laws that movement actors argue violate the constitutional rights of minorities or through counter-campaigns designed to halt the advancement of anti-progressive issues.

In addition to the different ways that movement advances manifest in the two states, the sequence of advances also varies across Washington and Arizona, particularly for the LGBTQ and immigrant rights movements. Throughout the mid-2000s and 2010s, following significant policy losses in the 1990s, the LGBTQ and immigrant rights movements advanced a series of discrete rights wins in Washington. During this time, Washington experienced the institutionalization of in-state tuition for undocumented college students, the passage of an LGBTQ-inclusive nondiscrimination act, the legalization of marriage equality, and the passage of a law providing state financial aid for undocumented students. By contrast, throughout the same period of time in Arizona, legislators and voters instituted a series of debilitating rights losses for LGBTQ, Latinx, and immigrant rights organizations. Between 2000 and 2010 alone, Arizona enacted a stringent voter ID law that also limited access to state public benefits for undocumented persons, banned in-state tuition for undocumented students, passed a constitutional ban on same-sex marriage, and passed SB 1070.

Despite contradictory trajectories of rights wins and losses, inter- and intra-movement coalitions have emerged in the LGBTQ and immigrant communities in each state, due in large part to the political organizing of marginalized communities. By looking at both Arizona and Washington, contrasting cases of coalition development, this book provides a broader account of inter- and intra-movement coalition formation than studies that look only at national organizations, examine states with similar demographics and similar political contexts, or focus on a small subset of legal or political organizations rather than the coalitions of organizations that compose movements.

Methodology: Studying Political Movement Formation in a Contested Terrain

I rely primarily on the sociolegal and historical context framework used by political movement and law and society scholars to identify the context within which groups form inter- and intra-movement coalitions and the impact that the politics of rights has on movement formation.14 The analysis presented here details how political movement coalitions expand and contract movement mobilization at the local level, the role that intersectionally marginalized people play in movement expansion and contraction, and the relationship between episodic rights campaigns and social change as illuminated through fifty-one semi-structured, in-depth interviews with LGBTQ, labor, and immigrant community leaders and advocates; more than thirty participant observations; and organization and newspaper archives. I conducted interviews and participant observations between December 2014 and July 2015 in Washington State and August 2015 and October 2015 in Arizona. I conducted twenty-five interviews in Washington and twenty-six in Arizona. Interview protocols are included in appendix 3. The use of in-depth interviews is particularly well suited for investigations of identity politics, legal mobilization, and intersectional alliances, as it “is useful for uncovering aspects of a phenomenon that may remain hidden, [and] because . . . [the] trust that can be established between the researcher and subject in an in-person interview is invaluable when encouraging subjects to define issues for themselves.”15 The goal of this study is to develop a bottom-up, grassroots lens to delineate how inter- and intra-movement coalition formation contributes to mobilization.

The purpose of my chosen methodology is to explore how advocacy in different institutional and non-institutional forums contributed to and limited the formation of inter- and intra-movement coalitions. The results presented are meant to convey the experiences expressed during the course of my research in a manner that considers and reflects on my own positionality as a researcher and subject. For a broader discussion of the methodology employed in this book, including how I conducted the study in a manner that considered my own positionality, please see appendix 2.

The chapters that follow focus on those individuals who have been involved in large, statewide campaigns and more localized, municipal efforts that focus on issues important to LGBTQ, immigrant, and labor communities. All interviewee names used in this book have been replaced with pseudonyms; and identifiable details, such as the names of organizations that interviewees worked for, have been eliminated or altered in order to protect interviewee confidentiality. Confidentiality was necessary in order to give interviewees the space needed to reflect openly on their experiences with political movement formation without damaging their relationships with other movement actors. The life experiences recounted by interviewees are personal advocacy stories, which, in many cases, played out against a background of racism, classism, homophobia, transphobia, and sexism. The chapters in this book include excerpts from some, though not all, of these advocacy stories that delineate some of the factors that drive coalition unity and movement expansion as well as those that fracture and divide political movement coalitions.


1. Brewer 2010.

2. Pitzi 2016.

3. Interviewee names in this book are pseudonyms, except for politician interviewees who gave nonconfidential interviews. Interview excerpts are lightly edited to eliminate extraneous words (such as “um” and “you know”).

4. See, e.g., McAdam 1999: 36.

5. See, e.g., Van Dyke and McCammon 2010.

6. Eskridge 2001.

7. See, e.g., Keck 2009, Andersen 2006, Epp 1998, Tushnet 2005.

8. Cathcart and Gabel-Brett 2016, Becker 2015, Kaplan and Dickey 2015, Solomon 2014.

9. See e.g., Murib 2017, Price 2017, Chávez 2013, Stone 2012, Ward 2008, Levitsky 2007.

10. Eng 2010: 12–16.

11. Cohen 1999, Piven and Cloward 1979.

12. Majic 2014.

13. See e.g., Chávez 2013.

14. Chua 2019, 2014; Gleeson 2012; Ernst 2010; Lovell 2012; Levitsky 2007; Strolovitch 2007; Merry 2000; McCann 1994; Engel 1984.

15. Simpson 1998:163.