In a monthly column, Leah Kirts covers the work of queer organizers expanding food justice through mutual aid across New York City and beyond.
The lights inside of 3 Dollar Bill, a queer nightclub in Bushwick, glowed against exposed red brick walls. Beyond a long stretch of bar stools, vendors gathered for the first Queering Capitalism holiday market that was free and open to the public. On December 15, more than 20 LGBTQ-run booths filled the space, offering holiday shoppers a range of goods like herbal tincures, cashew cheese, vegan rainbow cookies, upcycled textiles, and accessories hand-embroidered with the words “QUEER AF.” Plant-based hot dogs sizzled on a portable grill next to an elevated DJ booth spinning dream pop and punk rock.
Organized by Marino Benedetto of Yeah Dawg, a vegan hot dog pop-up and retail company, and Lynn Casper of Homoground, a queer music podacst, the market represents their broader vision of rallying the local queer community to divest from toxic capitalism in support of each other and build a platform of LGBTQ entrepreneurs that will increase visibility and share success horizontally.
“How do you operate in a system that wasn’t designed to benefit you?” ponders Benedetto, who for years felt isolated within the small business world where gatekeepers and fellow entrepreneurs “all end up looking and acting very similar. Usually cisgender, white and middle-to-upper class,” they continue. Even at vegan events, the atmosphere felt less than welcoming for people outside of the gender binary and the status quo.
“As a vegan business owner who grew up working-class and identifies as a gender nonconforming trans dyke, I face unique barriers and challenges, even in a community that prides themselves on being compassionate,” Benedetto explains. Making nourishing food that draws attention to animal rights is just one part of what it means to enact a radical vegan philosophy that equally hinges on building relationships across progressive political movements and strengthening all marginalized communities.
Recents years have ushered in what some have hailed the ascent of queer food culture, but the systemic changes needed to sustain and value queer labor in and outside of the food industry—especially for those who seek social good over scaleable profit models—have yet to catch up to the fanfare.
According to a National LGBTQ Workers Center report, there are 11 million adult queers in the U.S. That’s 4.5 percent of the population of which one-third are people of color and one million are immigrants. Only 20 states prohibit gender and sexuality based discrimination, so it is unsurprising that half of all queer people are closeted at work. Of those who are out, 25 percent have been discriminated against, and for trans workers specifically, 27 percent have been fired, not hired or denied promotion due to transphobia. The same report cites that queers of color are twice as likely to experience discrimination on the job than white queers.
A lack of workplace protection against societal bigotry contributes to an alarming unemployment rate in the LGBTQ community of 12 percent (compared to 8 percent of heterosexuals). A trans person’s risk of poverty is 4 times higher than the rest of the population, and anywhere from 30 to 43 percent of people experiencing homelessness are LGBTQ. Trans women of color still experience the highest rates of public and private discrimination, violence and brutality, especially from law enforcement.
It makes sense that more queer people would turn to self-employment to avoid workplace harassment, but it’s actually difficult to measure how many queer people are self-employed or entrepreneurs because LGBTQ populations often aren’t accounted for, especially trans and nonbinary people. Because financial systems still operate within rigid gender norms, gender nonconforming folks often can’t or don’t apply for loans and grants (systems that still operate with gender and racial biases). There are gendered barriers to accessing small business training programs, and even when a queer person is able to enter those spaces, they risk discrimination, deadnaming and misgendering.
Yeah Dawg started as a dream of Benedetto’s, who studied social work, to employ queer and homeless youth while working as a chef and counselor at a drop-in center for homeless teens. A veteran vegan home cook, Benedetto began experimenting with meatless comfort foods at the center’s kitchen, and was inspired to recreate the hot dog, a quintessential New York street food that has largely been overlooked amid the vegan burger trend. Unlike its industrialized animal-based and vegan predecessors, a Yeah Dawg is handmade with recognizable, nutrient-dense ingredients: root vegetables, seeds, herbs, spices and gluten-free flour.
In 2015, after two years of recalibrating their recipe and working pop-up events but unable to secure investment for a food truck, Benedetto launched a Kickstarter campaign that raised $23,000 with the help of 396 backers to grow the retail side of the business and employ more LGBTQ folks looking for work while trying to get their own projects off the ground. That’s how Benedetto met Casper. While working side by side in the kitchen and at events, they connected “through music and our shared struggles of being queer business owners,” Casper tells me. They shared a frustration with their roles in capitalist society and were restless to create the kind of queer visibility that they missed as teenagers.
Growing up in North Carolina, Casper spent their formative years as a closeted queer Filipina who never saw themself reflected in their surroundings. Music served as a coping mechanism. It was through making and sharing mix tapes, MP3 playlists and podcasts that they found community. “I think being queer kind of forces us to do a lot of things that no one else is doing or be the first to introduce different ideas and concepts. To create the realities that we wish to live in,” says Casper.
Both Benedetto and Casper craved structural support while at the same time wanted to help other queers trying to launch their own businesses. In 2016, with the help of their friend Nikki Daye, they organized a weekly peer mentor group that brought together artists, writers, teachers, musicians and designers from different backgrounds who also lacked support within their fields.
The group still doesn’t have a formal name but continues to grow and provide space for members to chart goals, track deadlines and discuss topics like financial planning, time management, burn out and fundraising. They’ve been mentoring each other while learning how to survive under capitalism, creating new tools to measure power and success. December’s queer holiday market was a first step to collectively put those tools to work.
“We were ‘queering capitalism’ without even realizing it,” recalls Benedetto. “Traditional capitalism tells you to stomp on your competition, but there are alternatives to that. We built community without money or investors. We became each others’ mentors and propelled each other forward. We were creating the very visibility that we lacked just by supporting and listening to each other.”