By R.J. Beaumia
While under no circumstances do I consider myself a patriot, this column is perhaps my most quintessentially American in that it involves three of the things we all love most: baring one’s soul in public, redemption and Wal-Mart.
This meeting of the master narrative and everyday low prices begins with a fat, depressed, gay man who worked in a restaurant for substandard wages, struggled to pay for college over many years, drank way too much, and had lots of good friends who always had lots and lots of good drugs.
Yeah, okay, it’s me.
Anyway, I was a combination of Julia Child, Mama Cass Elliot, Maureen Dowd and Neely O’Hara, but without ovaries or success.
Years drained from me, and as I felt them pulling away I got more depressed, more stoned, and less able to concentrate on college. I never missed work, though; the restaurant where I was employed had a bar.
After this montage of boozy lap dissolves and jarring quick cuts, the first scene of the second reel begins with a ringing telephone. Picking up the receiver, I hear the voice on the other end ask me if I’d like to work in an auto factory.
I had a physical exam, peed in a cup (the drug test miraculously coming up negative), learned the difference between a wrench and a mallet, and began a new life.
And I had a union contract.
I had a union contract that provided me with good wages, medical benefits, paid holidays, and lots and lots of self respect. I no longer had to calculate the time and distance of a drive, worrying about whether my car would make it from point A to point B, because I could afford a new one. I didn’t have to panic when I’d get strep throat, wondering if any of my relatives had any old, unused antibiotics in their medicine cabinets, because I could simply call my doctor (wow, I had “a doctor”) and make an appointment for an exam. I could plan an actual vacation, one that involved airplanes and hotels and taxis.
I finished not one, but two bachelor’s degrees, because of my union-negotiated college tuition benefit.
One of the proudest, most satisfying moments of my life was when I saw that a salary deduction, indicated on my paycheck, was for union dues. When I die I want everyone to know that I was a gay man and a member of the United Auto Workers.
As Labor Day approaches, my hope is that you will all keep in mind that one of your own was transformed, was lifted up to be able to attain the so-called American dream because of a union. I want you to know that decent wages and benefits can redeem even the most hopeless of cases, that they can restore simple human dignity to a complete fuck-up like me.
I’d also like to pass along this thumbnail bildungsroman to the folks over at the National Gay & Lesbian Chamber of Commerce (NGLCC), who have entered into one of the most bizarre combinations since Ethel Merman made a disco record.
In an effort to up-market its image in large urban areas, Wal-Mart has courted the gay community by entering into a partnership with the Chamber, which recently announced that “Dee Breazeale, vice president of divisional merchandise, Sam’s Club Jewelry, will serve on the organization’s Corporate Advisory Council.”
Oh, the cachet of a Sam’s Club box containing a gold nugget ring!
Snarky comments aside, on the surface this alliance is a fantastic idea. Through this move, the NGLCC hopes to have Wal-Mart open its doors to gay-owned companies and their merchandise. This would be a great achievement, and I’m all for it.
To play devil’s advocate, I must also note that Wal-Mart, according to the Washington Blade, has in recent years added sexual orientation to its employee non-discrimination policy, and has “begun an internal group for its gay employees.”
However, Wal-Mart is nothing if not one of the most brilliant companies in history. It is the largest private U.S. employer. According to the Web site Common Dreams, if it were a country, Wal-Mart would be the world’s 20th largest economy, larger than Austria or Turkey.
Needless to say, it didn’t get that big by offering golden parachutes to the middle-aged woman behind the frozen Coke and fried chicken counter. The San Francisco Bay Guardian reports that “associates” are paid an average of $17, 530 per year, which is below the poverty level for a family of four. The Guardian also points out that in California almost half of those associates’ children have no medical insurance and rely on the state to cover them. In the Golden State, Wal-Mart workers cost taxpayers $86 million annually in health care, the Guardian quotes the New York Times.
Does the NGLCC understand that not all gays and lesbians own businesses? That we are selling that fried chicken and stocking underpants? Apparently not, nor do they seem to care about Wal-Mart’s scorched earth business tactics or their marketing the fruits of sweatshop labor.
How could a gay group be so insensitive? Well, let’s take a look at one of the co-founders of the NGLCC, Justin Nelson. According to the Chamber Web site, Nelson fought for fairness in healthcare by helping “craft and implement [emphasis mine] the legislative agenda of one of the top medical specialty associations,” the American Academy of Ophthamology. In other words, he was a lobbyist for healthcare industry.
His resume also lists his four years as an aide to U.S. Sen. Craig Thomas, Republican of Wyoming. This is the same senator who voted against adding sexual orientation to hate crimes laws, voted no on a measure to prohibit job discrimination based on sexual orientation and, of course, voted twice in favor of a constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage.
Reading NGLCC’s news releases, we find that they applaud “bipartisan” rejection of the Marriage Protection Amendment. Never once mentioning the big Republican scheming that got this bill another consideration in Congress, the Chamber lauds the GOP for their 27 “no” votes in the 236-to-187 defeat of the bill.
The point is, our movement for equality is a civil rights movement, and we must not forget that economic justice for everyone is a part of that struggle. It’s not just about business, but about the people who make those businesses run.
The NGLCC should have considered this before becoming a wart on the ass of our movement’s progress.