Village Voice ("America's Largest Weekly
Newspaper") printed this letter from Wages Due Lesbians in reply to
the Queers Without Money article.
from Wages Due Lesbians to Queers
Without Money, published in Village
Voice July 11, 2001
As a multiracial grassroots network of lesbian women organizing
internationally on the economics of sexual choice since 1975, we were glad
to see Amber Hollibaugh's "Queers Without Money" [June 26].
lesbian women are poor because we are lesbian: We don't have access to a
man's wage and therefore survive on low women's wages which are even lower
if we are Black or Latina or on welfare or disability benefits. Our income
is further reduced by legalized discrimination that denies us medical
insurance and other spousal benefits. Many of us are also caring for and
supporting children and elderly parents.
women are forced into heterosexual marriage whether they are lesbian or
not. Without money, it's difficult to leave home or escape financial
dependence on a man; in Third-world countries, it's even harder to
consider the possibility of being lesbian.
gay men and now some lesbian women who have access to higher wages ignore
the issues confronting those living in poverty. They have instead embraced
respectable professionalism and welcomed the rampant corporatization of
the lesbian-gay-bisexual-transgender movement, in contrast to the
grassroots rebellion of Black, Latino, and other drag queens and
working-class dykes who led the movement that began at
can't afford sentiments like this year's New York Pride StageFest, which
said, "No politics, please!" As Dykes on Strike, we're part of
the Global Women's Strike because our lives depend on coming together with
other movements to "stop the world and change it".
International Wages Due Lesbians
mean, homosexuals have high incomes, they have high levels of education;
they're owners of major credit cards. There was a survey done.
So you're not talking about poor people, homeless people living
under a bridge. --
Reverend Lou Sheldon, a conservative Christian leader
lived the first year of my life in a converted chicken coop in back of my
grandmother's trailer. The
coop was hardly tall enough for my 6'4" father and 5'8" mother
to stand up in. My dad, a
carpenter, tore out the chickens' egg-laying ledges and rebuilt the tiny
inside space to fit a bed, a table, two chairs, a basin they used as a
sink (there was no running water), a shelf with a hot plate for cooking,
and a small dresser. They
used the hose outside to wash with, and ran extension cords in from my
grandmother's trailer for light and heat.
My bed, a dresser drawer, sat on top of the table during the day.
At night it was placed next to where they slept.
was sick the entire first year of my life.
So was my mother, recovering from a nasty C-section and a series of
ensuing medical crises. By
the time she and I were discharged, three months later, whatever money my
parents had managed to save was used up, and they were deeply in debt.
They had been poor before my birth, and poor all of their lives
growing up, but this was the sinker.
my first year, we moved from the chicken coop into a trailer.
My father worked three jobs simultaneously, rarely sleeping.
My mother took whatever work she could find: mending, washing, and
ironing other people's clothes. But
we never really recovered. We
were impoverished. Growing
up, I was always poor. I am
also a lesbian.
then, is my queer identity: I am a high-femme, mixed-race, white-trash
lesbian. And even after all
these years of living in a middle-class gay community, I often feel left
outside when people speak about their backgrounds, their families. And if you listen to the current telling of "our"
queer tale, people like me would seem an anomaly.
Because, we are told and we tell ourselves queerness can't
this seeming anomaly is the tip of the proverbial iceberg.
It represents hundreds of thousands of us who come from poor
backgrounds, or are living them still and are very, very queer.
would seem obvious when you combine the proportion of the population
reputed to be queer (between 4 and 10 percent) with the 37 million poor
people in America. Yet the
early surveys done on gay and lesbian economic status in this country told
a different tale: that queers had more disposable income than straights,
lived more luxurious lives, and were all DINKs (Dual Income No Kids).
"My book begins as a critique of those early surveys, which were done
largely to serve the interests of gay and lesbian publications and a few
marketing companies," says economist M.V. Lee Badgett in her new
book, Money, Myths, and Change: The Economic Lives of Lesbians and Gay
Men. "Those surveys are deeply flawed."
notes that "opposition to gay people is often based on the perception
that queers are better off than everybody else; that we're really asking
for 'special rights' and that breeds resentment." Badgett's research shows something else.
It constitutes the first true picture of queer economic reality.
Among other things, Badgett found that:
Gays, lesbians, and bisexuals do not earn more than heterosexuals,
or live in more affluent households.
Gay men earn 13 to 32 percent less than similarly qualified
straight men (depending on the study).
Though lesbians and bisexual women have incomes comparable to
straight women earning 21 percent less than men lesbian couples
earn significantly less than heterosexual ones.
. . . try finding representations of poor or working-class gay people on
Will & Grace. See
how hard you have to search for media images of queers who are part of the
vast working poor in this country. Find
the homeless transgendered folks. Find
stories of gay immigrants, lesbian moms working three jobs, bisexual
truckers falling asleep from too many hours on the road, gay men in the
unemployment line. Try
finding an image of queer people who are balancing on the edge or have
myth of our wealth goes deep, so deep that even other gay people seem to
believe it. We have tried to protect ourselves from the hard truths of our
economic diversity by perpetuating the illusion of material wealth, within
the confines of male/female whiteness. This is a critical aspect of how we
present ourselves in this country at this point in time. We treat the
poverty that exists among us as well as the differences of class
as a dirty secret to be hidden, denied, repelled. We treat economic
struggle as something that functions outside the pull of queer desires,
removed from our queerly lived lives.
Badgett notes, by celebrating the myth of queer affluence, we have
"drawn attention to exactly the kind of picture that Lou Sheldon is
drawing of gay and lesbian people." There is a richer and
ultimately more sympathetic queer reality: "We are everywhere
but we're all different."
is it so hard to acknowledge this? Why
is poverty treated as a queer secret?
And why does it produce a particular kind of homosexual shame?
Bear with me. Imagine what you've never allowed yourself to see before.
I directed the Lesbian AIDS Project at Gay Men's Health Crisis, stories of
the hundreds of HIV-positive lesbians who were a part of that project
literally came roaring out of those women's mouths.
These were lesbians who had almost never participated in queer
politics or visited any of New York City's queer institutions. On those rare occasions when they had tried, they quickly
departed, unseen and unwelcomed.
Spieldenner, a young gay organizer of color who has worked for years with
men who have sex with men, has a name for this phenomenon.
He calls it "a queer and invisible body count."
It is made up of poor lesbians and gay men, queer people of color,
the transgendered, people with HIV and AIDS and always and in large
numbers the queer young and the queer elderly.
Metropolitan Community Church, a largely gay denomination, reports that
the demand for food at its New York pantry has doubled since the beginning
of welfare reform in 1996. The Lesbian & Gay Community Services Center
says that homeless people in their addiction programs have tripled since
then. The Hetrick-Martin Institute, which serves "gay and questioning
youth," estimates that 50 percent of homeless kids in New York City
are entering a time when the economy is going into a slump," says
Joseph De Filippis, who coordinates the Queer Economic Justice Network.
"This isn't going to be like the '90s, when it was easy for employers
to give things like domestic-partner benefits.
There are going to be more and more of us who are affected by
joblessness and economic crisis. And
the welfare reform law expires in 2002.
It's our issue, damn it. It
has always been our issue."
Rivera, director of the Racial & Economic Justice Initiative of the
National Gay and Lesbian Task Force, has lived this issue.
"I was on welfare, I was homeless, I thought I'd be lucky if I
finished high school. I am a woman of color, I am a mother, and I am queer.
I've worked and lived in a poor world and I've worked in queer
organizations that are primarily white.
I've seen it from both perspectives, and there's a kind of
disconnect. In the gay,
mostly white world, race and economic justice isn't talked about as a
queer issue. And because of
that split, queerness becomes a white thing."
and outright destitution can happen to anyone and the queerer you are,
the fewer safety nets exist to hold you up or bounce you back from the
abyss. Queerness intensifies
poverty and compounds the difficulty of dealing with the social service
system. The nightmares even in this city, with its gay rights law
Being separated from your partner if you go into the shelter
system. Straight couples can remain together by qualifying for the family
Being mandated into homophobic treatment programs for drug or
drinking problems and having the program decide to treat your queerness
instead of your addiction. If you leave the program, you lose any right to
benefits including Medicaid.
Being unable to apply as a family for public housing.
Ending up a queer couple in the only old-age home you can afford
and being separated when you try to share a room.
Cassis came from a wealthy Long Island family.
But when he began to understand and acknowledge his transgendered
nature, his parents kicked him out. He was homeless, young, and broke.
"Thank God for drag queens," she says, looking back.
"A drag queen found me crying in Times Square and took me home.
She talked to me about what I was going through, let me stay with
her in her apartment, taught me how to support myself, how to get clients
as a prostitute or in the gay bars where I could work as I transitioned.
But then she died of AIDS and I was homeless again."
homeless shelters were the worst experience of all for Barbara as a trans
woman. Often, it felt easier to just stay on the streets. If you're
homeless, and you haven't transitioned which costs a fortune
you're forced to go to a shelter based on birth gender. The
risk of violence and danger is always high for everyone; the shelters are
crowded, short of staff, and the staff that is there has no training in
how to deal with trans or gay issues.
So if you are a trans person, just taking a shower means that
you're taking your life in your hands.
took me years to get on my feet," says Cassis, now an administrative
assistant at the Positive Health Project, "to start dealing with
being HIV-positive, and get the training and education I needed to find a
decent job. It has also taken
years for me to reconcile with my family, which I have.
If it hadn't been for the kind of people the gay community often
discounts and despises, I wouldn't be here today."
my mother said, the only difference between a poor drunk and a rich one is
which drunk can hide it. The shame of being poor is an acutely public
shame, difficult to hide. And queer homosexuality the kind of
queerness that makes gender differences and radical sexual desires crystal
clear this queerness triggers similar ruinous social perils.
punish people in this country for being poor and we punish homosexuality.
When both are combined, it does more than double the effect: It twists and
deepens it, gives it sharper edges, and heightens our inability to duck
and cover or slide through to a safer place.
It forces you to live more permanently outside than either
problem intensifies when you realize what queers are in the mind of
America. We stand for the
culture's obsession with the erotic.
It is we who are portrayed as always doing it or trying to, we who
quickly become the sexual criminals at the heart of any story.
We are the ones who are dangerous; our sexuality is more explosive,
more explicit, more demanding, more predatory.
so it goes for poor people: part stereotype (read trailer trash or welfare
queen), part object of blame for being too stupid not to have done better.
The underlying assumption is that the only appropriate desires are those
that rest comfortably atop plenty of money. The desires and needs afforded
by wealth and plenty of it, earned or not are appropriate,
acceptable, good. But messy
desires? Desires that combine with class and color?
Desires and needs that ricochet around the erotic?
These needs are not acceptable.
They are condemned.
wonder the gay movement can't see the poverty in its midst.
The one thing this culture longs for and seems to value in queer
life is the image of wealth. It appears to be the only thing we do right. And
it is the only piece of our queerness that we can use when our citizenship
is at stake. We learned this at the beginning of the AIDS crisis, when we
activated that wealth to do what the government wouldn't: We built
institutions to care and protect and serve our own.
It is a riveting example of how we have claimed our own and valued
what the mainstream culture despised about our lives. We could do the same with queer poverty.
the community got involved in the issues of being queer and poor,"
says Jay Toole, a lesbian in the LGBT caucus of the Coalition for the
Homeless, "it would be like the community saying, 'I'm here, and
here's my hand. You can go
further, I'm here.' "
is finishing school now. She
plans to work as a substance abuse counselor, to go back into the shelters
and bring gay people into the community, "so that they don't have to
be so alone as I was. Because
when Ann Duggan [from the Coalition] brought me back down to the Lesbian
& Gay Center from the shelter, it was finally like coming home."
Hollibaugh is the author of My Dangerous Desires: A Queer Girl Dreaming
Her Way Home, (Duke University Press).
of the same article:
Interview With Author Dorothy Allison
Speaking Trash to Power
Amber Hollibaugh with Ben Silverbush
Talk to me about being raised poor and being a dyke: What's similar,
hatred I experienced growing up poor seemed to me remarkably similar to
what I experienced growing up a dyke, and I couldn't imagine everyone
didn't see it that way. But
then, I still can't believe there are gay Republicans.
else do you remember?
thing people ask me is, What does your family think of Bastard Out of
Carolina? The thing my
sisters were mad about was not that I talked about incest, but that I
talked about poverty. That
was the thing they were humiliated by.
Nobody's supposed to know that we were poor.
The whole idea is that you are supposed to grow up, work hard, get
rich, and pretend you were never poor once.
But I always had the suspicion that I couldn't pass, so I might as
well not try. I've never believed that I could pretend to be the kind of
person that I am in awe of: women who think the world is made for them.
When my publisher sends me to really nice hotels, I'm always
expecting to be turned away at the door.
It doesn't change.
is there so much shame about this in our community?
it's America, and this country glorifies and worships money and success. Money is success. And
if you're poor well, it's like crabs in a bucket. People who feel more threatened and embattled do not
necessarily bond with other people they see as threatened and embattled.
They bond with the rich and the strong.
what combined for you because you were both poor and queer?
very hard when you are in that cauldron to sort it out.
The fear is so enormous and the sense of threat.
I mean, if they're coming after you, are you going to be more
afraid they're going to throw you out because you're a dyke or because
you're a working-class bitch who doesn't know enough to dress right?
you think about poverty, what does it mean to you today about who you are,
who you will always be, and how it is woven into your queerness?
lesbian and gay movement did me a whole lot more good than any of the
class movements in this country. I
very quickly started to fight any sense of shame I had about being a dyke. But I can still be made to feel ashamed by not having grown
up right. In real time, poor
people are scary, poor people make you feel uncomfortable. They make middle-class people ashamed of themselves at some
level. In this culture it's a whole lot more frightening to be poor than
to be queer. Being poor isn't
pretty and it doesn't have a sense of humor.
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