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By Tim Retzloff
ANN ARBOR – Within LGBT contexts and in society at large, class differences too often get ignored or brushed aside, according to Susan Raffo, a noted Minneapolis fundraiser, activist, writer, mother, partner, and editor of the 1997 anthology Queerly Classed. “What’s lost is how class affects everyday lives.”
Speaking Feb. 6 as part of a monthly brown-bag series sponsored by the University of Michigan Office of LGBT Affairs, Raffo provided an overview for understanding class in general, and then specifically how class relates to LGBT communities and experiences. Approximately twenty attended the discussion, held in conjunction with Raffo’s presentation on privacy the night before at the Ann Arbor District Library.
In general terms, Raffo proposed that people in the U.S. have difficulty discussing class because the language available, originating in the industrial revolution, is inadequate to describe today’s economic circumstances. In particular, terms like middle class or working class don’t take into account regional differences or the history of slavery, genocide, immigration, and segregation.
Hierarchical frameworks of class likewise mask complex ways in which people either have or don’t have power. Onetime definitions of middle class life, she noted, such as homeownership and possessing consumer products, are now distorted by the prevalence of credit ensnaring people into years of debt.
Besides being unspoken and often unspeakable, Raffo also stressed that class distinctions are intertwined in American society with race. She noted, for instance, that African Americans and Native Americans are presumed to be poor, while Asians are presumed never to be poor and whites are seen as being the very epitome of middle class.
Ultimately, Raffo defined class in relation to the small number of elites who control vast amounts of wealth at the top of society, and “lower class” people who make things or provide services that other people consume at the bottom. The cluster in between, the vague and fluid middle class, she characterized as having some access to economic and social power but lacking significant ownership.
In linking class with LGBT concerns, Raffo argued that so-called “gay and lesbian issues” have been defined and determined by middle class organizers pushing for middle class reforms. The push for employment protections and domestic partnership benefits, for instance, reflect a corporate cultural bias that assumes everyone is not only employed, but employed in a potentially gay-friendly workplace.
In other examples, Raffo pointed out that the gays in the military controversy is complicated by the importance joining the Army can play for many queers hoping to move up the economic ladder, and that queers can face the possibility of slipping down the economic ladder in the event of disability or retirement because the government doesn’t recognize LGBT relationships in granting Social Security benefits. For transgender people, their ability to obtain surgical change is largely determined by the economic status and their access to health care. They likewise face profound barriers to employment typically not experienced by other members of queer communities.
Raffo suggested that serious class differences cloud even LGBT activism’s most central ethic, the belief that coming out is always good. “This moral imperative to be an out queer person is problematic if you’re the only person in your family working and you have people economically dependent on you,” she explained. “How can your community ask you to come out in such circumstances?”