I 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
I 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.
I 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.
After 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.
This, 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 be poor.
Yet 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.
That 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.”
Badgett 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:
But . . . 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 fallen off.
The 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.
As 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.”
Why 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.
When 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.
Andrew 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.
The 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 queer.
“We 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.”
Ingrid 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.”
Poverty 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—include:
Barbara 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.”
The 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.
“It 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.”
Like 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.
We 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 condition dictates.
The 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.
And 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.
No 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.
“If 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.’ ”
Toole 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.”
Amber Hollibaugh is the author of My Dangerous Desires: A Queer Girl Dreaming Her Way Home (Duke University Press).
Amber Hollibaugh interviews author Dorothy Allison.