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Howard Wallace
(? - living) U.S.A.

Howard Wallace

Labour organizer, gay activist

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Wallace, who started working in political groups as a high school student in Denver, says his activism was influenced by his sexuality - even before he came out. "I was aware of being gay in the second grade," he says. "It gave me a strong empathy with other underdogs that stuck with me all my life."

As a student activist, he learned that his principles had a price. Halfway through his first year at the University of Denver, he was forced to choose between his education and his political work.

"I left some United World Federalists stuff on the dining-room table," Wallace says. "My dad saw it and said, 'What is this communist shit?' " His father insisted he give up politics. "He put a couple of checks on the dining-room table - the checks for next year's tuition - and said, 'Get out [of activism] and you can have those checks.' I tore them up in his face, and that was the end of my college education."

Wallace and his father have since reconciled, but "it's been a rocky road," he says. "He's one of my earliest authoritarian figures, and he made me an antiauthoritarian."

When he left college and took a series of blue-collar jobs, Wallace's antiauthoritarianism led him to become active in unions - most importantly the Teamsters. And when he moved to San Francisco in 1967, he began working to unite the labor movement with the leftist causes that were close to his heart. The hard work of Wallace and other progressive labor activists paid off when northern California's labor councils were the first in the country to officially oppose the Vietnam War.

In 1974 he found a cause that could bring together labor and the nascent gay-liberation movement. Teamster delivery drivers had organized a boycott of Coors beer to gain leverage in a long-standing dispute over union representation. One of the Coors practices they objected to was a lie-detector test for employees - and one of the questions asked on the test was 'are you homosexual?'

Wallace helped bring Harvey Milk and other gay community leaders on board, and soon the bars lining Castro Street had stopped serving Coors.

The campaign served to out Wallace in his workplace. After a TV appearance backing the boycott, he says, "somebody at work just said 'saw you on TV last night,' and that was that. Two weeks after coming out, I was elected shop steward at Planters Peanuts."

It also helped build a working relationship between the unions and the queer movement - which has become one of the defining features of the San Francisco left, thanks in large part to Wallace and a string of union-friendly gay politicians such as Milk, Harry Britt, and Tom Ammiano. Bay Area Gay Liberation, which Wallace founded in the mid-'70s, helped lay the groundwork for queer support of progressive economic causes such as rent control, while labor has pushed for antidiscrimination clauses and domestic-partner benefits in contracts.

In recent years, as an organizer with Service Employees International Union, Local 250, Wallace has focused on building support for health care workers in Bay Area communities. He has also spearheaded the Lesbian-Gay Labor Alliance and its successor, the AFL-CIO-affiliated Pride at Work. He's still working to bring together workers, queers, and others under the banner of equal rights and economic justice.

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Source: http://www.bestofthebay.com/1999/wallace.html

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