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The Paradoxes of Building Social Movements Around Legal Rights

Erin Adam, JD/PhD Candidate in Political Science
University of Washington

Photo: LBJ Library
 Over the past decade, intersectional coalitions formed around struggles for LGBTQ and immigrant community rights at the local level in the United States. These coalitions contributed to new partnerships between cross-community social movement organizations and facilitated important rights campaign “wins” in limited contexts, like marriage equality and state aid for undocumented college students. However, coalition unity came at a cost. As the organizations that seemingly represent these disparate communities unified, this unification also reinforced hierarchical exclusions through the continued marginalization of issues that uproot conventional power dynamics the most, such as police violence, immigration detention, and trans-inclusive healthcare. In Intersectional Coalitions: The Paradoxes of Right- Based Movement Building in LGBTQ and Immigrant Communities,” I seek to explain this paradox and, in the process, demonstrate how intersectionality theory can enhance legal mobilization scholarship. How do we explain social movement alliances that are simultaneously inclusive and exclusive? In answering this question, I examine the extent to which rights-based movement coalitions formed to “win” rights and thwart rights “losses” represent and serve intersectional and more marginalized communities—groups in social justice movements that are understudied in contemporary law and social movements scholarship.

Through in-depth interviews conducted with organization leaders, advocates, activists, community workers, and politicians in Washington State and Arizona, two state contexts characterized by burgeoning mobilization within grassroots LGBTQ and immigrant rights communities, I argue that the construction of a common “civil rights past” identity within coalitions can help explain this paradox. The development of this collective identity expanded the LGBTQ and immigrant rights movements in both states and occasionally thwarted the power dynamics responsible for centering more mainstream constituencies within the two movements at the expense of intersectionally marginalized people. However, the episodic nature of rights-based campaigns simultaneously contained and undermined the formation of this collective identity, reinforcing movement divisions based on race, gender, and class.

Many legal mobilization and intersectionality scholars have echoed Stuart Scheingold’s argument that rights activism tends to fragment collective action and social movement efforts by reifying exclusionary political identities. These scholars argue that rights-based claiming individualizes mobilization efforts, hindering any collective action outside of judicial forums. Other scholars have challenged this point, and offered empirical studies showing that rights claiming and litigation can support collective political action through social movement coalitions. Intersectional Coalitions argues that rights can concurrently unify and fragment social movements, at once advancing solidarity around limited egalitarian aims and reinforcing the marginalization of intersectional groups and interests in ways that sustain hierarchy and power inequities. Consequently, I conclude by encouraging scholars to think about legal rights in terms of their paradoxical implications for collective, political action rather than in one-dimensional, static, either/or terms.

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