In 2002, when I was soliciting submissions for the anthology Everything I Have Is Blue: Short Fiction by Working-Class Men about More-or-Less Gay Life, I received this message on a Working-Class Studies listserv: “Excuse me for saying so, but isn’t gay and working-class kind of a contradiction in terms?”
It was such a great line that I ended up using it in the book. Obviously, the short answer is no, but the impulse behind the question isn’t hard to understand. For decades, popular concepts of the “gay community” have so frequently been paired with middle- and privileged-class status markers that “gay” sometimes resembles a brand name. And what about those stereotypes? We’re DINKs, Guppies, trend-setters, gentrifiers. We’re “hyper-acquisitive” and, of course, we have those “high disposable incomes” everyone gets so excited about.
Far from it. Recent studies, in fact, suggest that LGBTQ people may actually be more vulnerable to being poor: more likely to experience food insecurity; more likely, in rural settings and/or among people of color, to be at income risk; more likely than U.S. adults in general to report annual incomes under $30K (39% vs. 28%).
That is, of course, unless you believe in the secret “Better Living Through Homosexuality” fund. You know, the one that provides us with the unlimited financial support we need to enjoy better education, healthcare, and housing; develop superior taste in food, clothing, and culture; and finally quit going to SuperCuts. Of course I’m being ironic, but you might be surprised how many people behave as though they thought such silliness was true.
But the real point is this: If most Americans are working-class or poor (and they are), then most LGBTQ Americans must be as well. And plain facts sometimes get lost in debates over whether to define class through “labor-capital analysis (in the Marxist tradition) or [by means of] occupation, income, and formal education (in the liberal one)”—as University of Massachusetts professor Lisa Henderson put it in Love and Money: Queers, Class, and Cultural Production. Or, indeed, over whether to “imagine class as fundamentally … a cultural form.”
I had Henderson’s perspectives in mind as I prepared Blue, Too: More Writing by (for or about) Working-Class Queers, the recent follow-up to Everything I Have Is Blue: how to place what Henderson termed a “study of queer-class conjuncture” alongside a political, economic, and cultural analysis. But novelist and essayist Dorothy Allison, who has probably done more than any other contemporary queer writer to articulate “conjunctures,” was on my mind as well. As Allison observed in her essay “A Question of Class”:
Everything in our culture—books, television, movies, school, fashion—is presented as if it is being seen by one pair of eyes, shaped by one set of hands, heard by one pair of ears. Even if you know you are not part of that imaginary creature—if you like country music not symphonies, read books cynically, listen to the news unbelievingly, are lesbian not heterosexual … you are still shaped by that hegemony, or your resistance to it.
I’d go a bit further. To be queer, from or in the working classes, and committed both to class solidarity and to full citizenship for queer people often means not solely battling the “one pair of eyes” approach but being caught between what I would call the “traditionalist” working-class organizing/labor-studies camp (which sees the working-class as nearly exclusively blue-collar and views any “oppression” that is not determined by economic relations as bourgeois “identity politics”) and the bourgeois identity politicians for whom discussions of class are antediluvian, irrelevant, and sectarian in the context of the LBGTQ civil-rights “agenda.”
So if contradiction is the issue, there’s plenty to go around.
Fortunately, what there also turns out to be plenty of is a rich body of materials on which to base the kind of study Henderson describes. Likewise, there are plenty of examples of resistance on the part of working-class queer writers, thinkers, activists, and artists to being seen as anomalies and paradoxes.
Modern Family stereotypes aside, in fact, the impact of class and economic issues has long been clear to many of us here in the Homintern. Pride at Work is one example—a lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender group of labor-union activists (and an AFL-CIO affiliate) born out of a 1974 alliance between the Teamsters and San Francisco gay activists Howard Wallace and Harvey Milk. Together, they pulled off a highly successful community boycott of Coors. Amber Hollibaugh’s Queers for Economic Justice project worked tirelessly for twelve years to build a platform for the poor and low-income queers whose voices are often unheard in the mainstream fight for gay rights. (Sadly, the QEJ project closed in 2014 for lack of funding.) The National Center for Lesbian Rights, meanwhile, recently founded the RuralPride Campaign to increase LGBTQ visibility in rural America and make sure services and resources are accessible to queer people and their families in those areas.
Queer scholars, social historians, and artists in and from the working class take part in the same conversations. I’ll mention just three examples: Kelly Cogswell’s memoir, Eating Fire: My Life As a Lesbian Avenger (founded in 1992, the Avengers were a direct-action group that focused on gender, race, and class); the impressive body of work left behind by the late Allan Bérubé, whose moving essay about his childhood in Bayonne, New Jersey, “Sunset Trailer Park,” is a classic; and the just-released comedy, Pride, which is based on a true story. In it, UK gay and lesbian activists raise money for the families of Welsh miners during the long National Union of Mineworkers strike in 1984. The film hasn’t yet opened where I live, but I’m excited about the conversations it might inspire. I’ve known for nearly my entire adult life that working-class queer people were deeply involved in union building, neighborhood organizing, economic justice issues, and anti-racism work. I wish other people knew it, too.
And that explains why I thought the time was ripe for Blue, Too, a way to bring queer activism and cultural production together with the traditions of LGBTQ and working-class studies. In addition to short stories, performance pieces, and autobiography by twenty writers, Blue, Too includes a study guide that applies working-class-studies and queer-theory approaches to analysis of each contributor’s work. The book also contains an annotated bibliography of more than 500 items (the first-ever attempt to create an exhaustive listing of materials related to queers and class) and an in-depth critical essay that reviews the history and present of working-class queers in literature, media, pop culture, and scholarship.
What emerges from all that are some interesting points of departure. Consider, for example, what LGBTQ and working-class cultural production have in common. Historically, they’ve both been unintentionally overlooked, randomly misinterpreted, or deliberately suppressed—albeit for different motives—and both may need to be reclaimed in order to bring their broadest implications to light. At a deeper level, writing that foregrounds lesbian and gay perspectives, ethics, and consciousness can “queer” assumptions about a heterosexual universe and about the “proper” deployment of sex roles, physical sexual behavior, and gender just as working-class writing can “queer” certitudes about opportunity and class mobility, “natural” social hierarchies, and the dream of liberty and justice for all. They are both—or they can be—subversive.
I’m convinced this is a conversation worth having—within Working-Class Studies and in academia more generally, in reading groups, and among friends. Literature and media, after all, are the propaganda of a culture, and working-class queer people are often propagandized right out of the picture.
Wendell Ricketts is a writer, editor, and translator; a somewhat-unwilling resident of the hanging-chad state; and, as a university adjunct, a member of the great American “precariat.”