Eight months ago, 21-year-old Emily Reynolds was spending her days organizing on campus at the University of Vermont. She was involved in women’s rights and sexual assault advocacy.
In October of last year she read on her news feed about 700 people being arrested at Zuccotti Park in Manhattan. She agreed with everything they were protesting for.
“I read the Declaration of Occupation and I said, ‘Dear God, we’re having an anti-oppression, anti-capitalist, anti-homophobia, all these things movement in America,’” she said.
Since then Reynolds has spent her breaks from school at Occupy camps up and down the East Coast. The self-described queer activist has denounced capitalism, monogamy and homophobia.
First she visited Boston’s camp. Over spring break, she went to Manhattan and spent part of her week in jail for using sidewalk chalk in a public park. Charges were later dropped.
Now, she and an untold number of young queer activists have descended on Chicago for the weekend to protest the NATO Summit. Some are here to protest the supranational body for what they see as military occupation and suppression around the world. Others see the summit as an opportunity to energize the queer community and bring the disenfranchised back to the streets.
Judy Heithmar, 25, and her partner, Danelle Wylder, organized Queers Opposing NATO, a queer contingent that will march together in Sunday’s protest. The couple used Facebook, existing activist contacts and paper flyers to bring together young radicals.
Friday evening at Heithmar and Wylder’s home in Logan Square, dozens painted banners and prepared chants for the march. Some young queer activists were from Chicago suburbs like Wheaton, Schaumburg and Aurora but many, like Reynolds, had traveled from around the country to participate.
Heithmar said her reason for organizing the queer contingent against NATO was to revitalize the queer movement and get people involved.
“This is the perfect opportunity to get queer folks out in the streets again and organized,” Heithmar said. “We certainly still have a lot to fight for.”
Buoyed by Occupy activist networking, Couchsurfing and Facebook, many out-of-towners have pre-established networks with whom they can travel, stay and organize.
Perry Graham, 24, said he has been traveling around Occupy since mid-December. Originally from Maryland and now on hiatus from graduate school at the University of Oregon, Graham has been to Occupy camps on both coasts, in Texas and now the Midwest.
“This is the place to be this weekend,” Graham said. “From all of my travels, I’ve run into so many different people that I’ve met from all over the country. It’s been a giant family reunion.”
Graham said he identifies as a queer heterosexual.
Queer has in recent years has morphed into an umbrella term for those who choose not to comply with stringent norms of gender expression and sexuality. But for some activists the word has also become synonymous with an anti-capitalist economic view.
Reynolds, now a rising senior at the University of Vermont, said Occupy has been her first experience working in queer or LGBT activism.
“Before Occupy, I had a lot of critiques of the community. It was very male dominated, very white male dominated and wasn’t focusing on any issues that I was passionate about,” Reynolds said.
Same-sex marriage, adoption and the ability to serve in the military – the issues the mainstream LGBT movement has pushed for in recent years – were not her priorities as a biology and sociology double-major in a polyamorous community.
“It really didn’t affect the most underprivileged people in our community, the survivors of abuse, the poor, or people of color,” Reynolds said.
“On a fundamental level things haven’t changed. Women still make tons less money than men, black people make significantly less than white people and queer people still are getting beaten up,” Reynolds said. “Change has to be more than cultural. It has to be economic; it has to be this whole systemic approach.”