Class is a subject we are forbidden to talk or even think about. It’s like a big dirty secret in our US culture, and the punishment is severe for breaking the rules of silence and obedience. That’s why it’s so important for Lesbians and other people to dare to discuss class.
Class affects every part of our lives. Classism in patriarchy determines who will eat and who won’t — literally who will live and who will die. Class decides how healthy we will be, how much medical care we will have (if any), how much pollution we’re exposed to in our air, food, and water, including when we were growing up, which continues to affect our health for the rest of our lives. Class determines whether you are homeless or not, and whether you live in an ugly, depressing place or beautiful, spiritually uplifting place. Class affects our quality of life and therefore our mental and emotional health.
Class is also about far more than money and resources – it’s about culture and every part of our lives — how we think, talk, write, and how we treat each other.
Something that affects everyone’s lives so deeply is either ignored or lied about in US schools and media to the extent that many people don’t even know what class they are. Even worse, they are trained to identify with the classes who are oppressing them.
The “middle class” referred to in the media – those who are out of work or are over-working simply to stay alive — are working class or the working poor. As long as people are told they are middle class, they are less likely to want to change things. This myth/lie is consciously continued for political reasons. I’m sorry, but it reminds me of a dog who’s told “Good dog!” after being kicked. Keep people grateful for any crumb, and, whatever you do, make sure they don’t realize how bad things really are.
The majority of people in the US are working class, with a growing number of poverty class. Yet, the words “working class” are almost never said in the media or by politicians. It’s one of the biggest lies perpetrated on us, and is a uniquely US phenomenon. In other countries, people know what class they are from childhood, while in the US most of us are told that we are “middle class,” even when that is obviously not true. The middle classes are the professionals and people with privilege, in terms of money and education. Even if someone middle class becomes poor, they still have that sense of superiority and entitlement which comes from growing up with privilege and they remain culturally middle class and often still have access to family money. And if someone class-oppressed has “made it,” they still retain some of their culture.
Almost everyone I know is out of work or over-working to the point that their job would have been enough for two people in the past. I believe our “economic crisis” is completely artificial, just as was the “potato famine” that killed a huge part of the Irish population in the 19th Century. (There was enough food, but colonized Ireland was forced to export food by the English.) The rich are richer in the US now than ever, but as long as everyone else is forced to spend almost all of their time working, looking for work, or struggling to survive on inadequate income, there isn’t time to even think, let alone change things. The ruling class learned from the Sixties, when, for the first time, many poor and working class people were able to go to universities and began organizing to change things on a massive scale. The once free universities now cost way more than most people can afford, with the result being that we have an ever-widening class divide in the US, and a population much easier for those in power to control. When most people don’t even know their own history, they can be conned into believing almost any lie. Too many believe this country is the “land of the free,” rather than a dictatorship built on slavery and genocide where only a few class-privileged European-descent men had basic rights. Most don’t know the atrocities that the US has committed and is still committing against other countries. Most don’t even know what colonies the US owns. Those who didn’t know that the men said to have caused the 9/11 attacks were mostly Saudi Arabian (or as some think, by our government), are happy to go kill people in Iraq in revenge for 9/11– which makes about as much sense as attacking Canada.
Some political radicals wonder why people in the US seem so stupid, but we don’t have any idea what most people in the US think since the media controls our perceptions, telling us what the class-oppressed feel. If we believe most are right wing, then we expect voting to reflect that and aren’t suspicious of government voter fraud. It hasn’t been my personal experience at all that the class-oppressed are less aware than the privileged. In fact, I think we’re more likely to question lies we’re told, including about the assassinations that dramatically changed the direction of the U.S. government in the Sixties. Most African-descent people are class-oppressed and, from friends and even strangers I’ve talked with, they are far more savvy about what lies those in power have perpetrated on the rest of us.
The main lesson we are taught from our childhood in the US is to not question things. Not only should you accept whatever lies you are told, you should be hostile to anyone who challenges those lies. Ridicule is the main weapon used to get people to stop thinking clearly. “Conspiracy theories” have become a joke, with “documentaries” made by the mainstream media to explain why what is obviously a lie actually is true. How can anyone believe James Earl Ray killed Martin Luther King Jr.? King’s family doesn’t. How can anyone who’s seen the Zapruder film showing JFK’s head being blown open from what is clearly a shot fired from the front still believe the Warren Commission? The ABC documentary explaining the impossible has been on television many times, but it’s more difficult to find the eight hour British documentary, “The Men Who Killed Kennedy,” which interviews people who witnessed the actual assassins. Another European documentary, the “Origin of AIDS,” explains how a US-funded doctor, trying to beat Albert Sabin in finding a live polio vaccine, inoculated people in Africa in the Fifties with HIV from chimpanzee blood. If this were common knowledge, imagine the lawsuits the medical industry and US government would have to face. Some people remember when Lyme disease didn’t exist — before the spirochete Borrelia Burgdorferi was injected into Ixodes Scapularis (the Black-legged tick) by scientists at the biological weapons lab on Plum Island, near Old Lyme, Connecticut.
The medical industry responsible for so much heartache, pain, and death. It affects everyone in the US, but the class-privileged have more access to alternative healers as well as getting their choice of the best doctors. Because of their confidence and privilege, they’re also more likely to be treated better by doctors, while the class-oppressed are often easier for doctors to bully. After my poverty class mother died directly as a result of believing doctors and taking their toxic drugs, almost everyone I told about her had a story about a loved one who also was killed by doctors and the medical system’s arrogance. We are told to ignore what are clearly epidemic cases of cancer, autism, Alzheimer’s, etc. by being told these diseases are only appearing because of people living longer now. I’m amazed that anyone believes this. When I was a child in the Fifties, no one I’d heard about ever had Alzheimer’s or autism, and cancer was so rare that not one relative in my huge extended long-lived family had had it. If you adjust statistics to account for infant mortality and women dying in childbirth, people are dying much younger now than in the past, and of diseases that used to be rare. I have known so many fairly young Lesbians who’ve died of cancer. The cancer rate is now 1 in 2, even though it was 1 in 4 just 30 years ago. This information is in many people’s own experience, yet unless someone dares to question those in authority, people believe lies that are being used to control them and laugh at those who say the obvious.
The industries that pollute are killing people, and the poorest people live in the most dangerous areas. The same companies that cause cancer make drugs to “treat” cancer, which torture people and cause further cancer. Diagnostic tests using radiation cause cancer, yet we are lied to about that. Safer tests are ignored because the medical industry doesn’t make money from them. People are conned into taking massive amounts of drugs for “problems” that the medical industry knowingly creates. The AMA that told people to eat transfats (hydrogenated oils) instead of healthy saturated fat is now pushing statin drugs. (Contact me if you want to hear why I believe the AMA line that cholesterol is a “health risk” is completely false.)
The further someone is outside the system and the less they feel “all-American,” the more likely they are to question the “truths” we are told. My friends who are oppressed by racism or are from other countries or with immigrant parents tend to think more clearly. I learned my politics and awareness in the Lesbian Feminist and later Separatist communities – my family was all-American, so I believe if I can learn to think, everyone can.
Those whose identity is more tied to the US patriarchal system have the hardest time being open to reality. Until the past few years, I had primarily related with Dyke Separatists and my last three lovers have been from other countries. I’ve been completely stunned by some new Lesbian friends who actually say things like “God Bless Our Troops” and fly US flags on 9/11. When I protest that the flag represents genocide and imperialism, I’ve been told to “love it or leave it.”
Equally upsetting to me is the number of Lesbians who don’t question patriarchal biases at all. Forty years after Feminism, almost every Lesbian I know calls any animal she sees ”he,” just as we were taught before Feminism. This may seem minor, but it’s a terrifying reflection of the level of acceptance of male supremacy in the US.
I believe that those who actually are in charge are consciously turning our country into one with massive class divisions, like in England, where the European-descent class-oppressed now look like a different ethnic group from the class-privileged. A society that gives decent education only to the class-privileged, and then forbids the class-oppressed from going to museums by charging outrageously high admission fees, is making it very hard for the class-oppressed to even educate themselves. Museums and parks that were once for everyone have turned into elite country clubs where the privileged don’t even have to see the class-oppressed. We are all being trained to accept the loss of what we once had, and many people don’t know how things used to be. When I talk about how even museums are now unaffordable, almost every Lesbian, except for the most aware, repeat the lie that there just isn’t enough money. The US is one of the only countries without decent health care for everyone, yet the money is there to give to corporations, dictatorships, and to kill people in other countries on behalf of US corporations.
Another strange US phenomenon is that the Left is extremely classist. The US Left is a primarily middle class movement, which appears to despise the very people they pretend to support – the poverty class and working class. Leftist writing and radio shows are incredibly elitist and academic – which means they’re also unnecessarily removed from reality and boring. All I can think is that for some classist people, being Leftist is yet another way to feel superior. When I was at a university as a teenager, we were required to read an academic book about working class women, which was so removed from reality that it didn’t even recognize myself or my family in it. It was Lesbians who’d come out after recently being in the Male Left who did the most bullying I witnessed of other Lesbians about class, as well as telling me that I was middle class – even though they’d met my obviously poverty class parents and I was clearly from that culture (no books in our house, rampant alcoholism resulting in many of my mother’s family spending time in prison, my mother working as a waitress, and my father health being destroyed by the toxic chemicals he had to work with.) These Lesbians were classist to me and my family, but I didn’t realize that until years later. Of course, many of them returned to men and heterosexual privilege (but that’s another article.)
I love Lesbians — Lesbians are my people. I want us to have the best relationships and communities possible. I want classism to no longer damage us.
In the almost twenty years since I wrote my previous article on classism, I realize that my focus now has to be very different since so few Lesbians I know have any awareness of class at all. In the radical, primarily Lesbian Separatist community I had been in, class was at least recognized as an important issue, even if not always dealt with well. Now, instead of discussing the intricacies of our relationships and whether class-privileged Lesbians should ever share resources, I’m reduced to just wanting to ask class-privileged friends to help pay for gas and bridge tolls when a class-oppressed friend gives them a ride. Or to ask friends to at least pay Lesbians they hire in servant roles (as cleaners, gardeners, etc.) a livable wage, as opposed to paying them what would have been a livable wage twenty or thirty years ago. (I’m not exaggerating. When I mentioned this to a friend, she explained that the Lesbian she hired enjoyed working for her so it didn’t matter that she wasn’t paying her enough to live on.) Another issue is when a Lesbian with a good income is working for extra money and unconsciously acts as a scab by charging much less than would be a livable wage, which changes the standard of what anyone doing that job could get paid.
I often forget that some Lesbians grew up with servants. A middle class Lesbian who I’d been in a Separatist group with in the early Seventies and seemed a true ally, later lived in a very privileged area and hired my poverty class lover (at the time) as her cleaner. (I am not talking about disabled Lesbians who need help in their homes, but able-bodied Lesbians who are too lazy to clean their own toilets.) Then there are the “class experts,” like the middle class Lesbian who posted a criticism of Lesbians hiring immigrant cleaners, but didn’t mention she’d hired my immigrant lover to clean for her. Some of the most classist Lesbians I’ve ever known do workshops (for money!) to teach other Lesbians about class. But then classism is about arrogance.
I’ve heard a middle class Lesbian saying she’d learned from such a workshop to not say “thank you” because working class people don’t (!), while I’ve literally been yelled at by another middle class Lesbian because she’d thought I said “thank you” too much.
I am still stunned when Lesbian communities are segregated by class, which is enforced by having events affordable only to the very privileged. This cruel class segregation usually also involves segregation based on race, disability, and age. In the San Francisco Bay Area, there is a Lesbian rights organization that has events which are outrageously unaffordable for many Lesbians, while other Lesbians would never dream of turning anyone away. Work exchange can be done with respect — or with classism, as when the arrangement is to work during most of the event for a fraction of minimum wage. (Many of us who are disabled wouldn’t have the energy to both work and attend the event.) This is a basic issue of having an accessible community. I do believe that some producers intentionally want their events for the privileged only. Ironically, they are keeping out some of the Lesbians who helped create our Lesbian culture, as well as some of the most interesting and creative Lesbians in our community. (When I’m among mostly middle class Lesbians, unless they’re very unique, I miss the vibrancy, warmth, intensity, and wit I feel among class oppressed Lesbians.) I appreciate so much my producer friends of all classes who never want anyone to feel left out and who truly want an inclusive community, and so their sliding scale starts at zero or their event is by donation only.
It would be so much easier to deal with our classist mainstream culture if we at least had support and safety in our Lesbian communities. I think that Lesbians as a group do try to be fair, kind, and loving (and are often working to help everyone other than Lesbians), but classism still exists among us. Class is so obvious to me that I can often identify someone’s class background just by seeing or hearing them, or even looking at a photo. It’s clear in their body language, expression, and voice, yet some middle class Lesbians deny that class differences exist — or they claim to be class-free – which means they are denying class-oppressed Lesbians’ existence. The only way to fight classism is to acknowledge it. The status quo culture is middle class, and unspoken classist rules are enforced about how we’re supposed to behave. Unless she’s aware of classism, a middle class Lesbian will treat less privileged Lesbians in classist ways — she may be sincere in saying she doesn’t notice differences, but still acts on those differences. It’s also important for her, as a good friend, to recognize how differently we are treated in the rest of the world, as well as in the Lesbian community.
U.S. culture teaches us to not respect those who are oppressed. Not many have the courage or sense to reject such stupidity. The main problem I feel with class-privileged Lesbians is their arrogant assumption that theirs is the only reality and that they’re superior – whether it’s conscious or not — which shows in how they speak to us, treat us, and try to enforce their middle class values. Most even feel superior about things they know nothing about.
When I went to the Botanical Gardens with a middle class friend, she actually laughed at me when I told her the plant labels were often wrong. She sarcastically repeated back what I’d said as if I were an idiot. It didn’t matter that I’ve been a gardener for decades and had been coming to the Gardens for forty years – working class me just had to be wrong and ridiculous. So I explained that many labels remained after plants had died and new plants sprouted in their place, at least one plant (Dracunculus Vulgaris – the Dragon Arum) had been mislabeled as being in the Compositae family when it was an Araceae — which is like calling a calla lily a daisy. I still don’t know if she believed me, but the gardener who’d made the mistake in labeling was glad I’d told her – but then she’s a sweet working class woman who fought hard to keep the gardens free when the university wanted to start charging high prices. (Guess who won.)
My middle class friend considers herself to be very wise. She advised me to give up my below the poverty level disability income and health insurance because that would cause money to flow to me. She then borrowed money from me.
Class differences can make misunderstandings in friendships, but can be disastrous in other settings, such as working together politically. I’ve seen coldness, cruelty, and oppressiveness in class-privileged Lesbians’ writing that is considered fine because it’s done in a “proper,” acceptable middle class style, while a class-oppressed Lesbian writing in an open and impassioned style, is likely to be accused of being “too angry,” even when she is defending and supporting others. As a result, some of our most brilliant Lesbian ideas in writing are censored. If these standards were in place in the early Seventies, I wonder if Lesbian Feminism would ever have happened since the strongest and most courageous writing was in that passionate, angry style. That’s what attracted us to it. If you love those who are being oppressed, you show your feelings. Even many of the most privileged recognized that their families’ and dominant culture was bland, empty, cold, stifling, and oppressive, so they were attracted to the warmth, directness, and loving in more oppressed cultures.
I remember how early Lesbian Feminism and Separatism supported us to reject the patriarchal propaganda we were taught about who was superior and who was inferior so that we could have the most open, equal, caring, inclusive, diverse, and loving community possible. We didn’t want any Lesbian left out and we didn’t want to add to any Lesbian’s oppression. All hierarchies were challenged. Where once Lesbians had collectives, they now have boards of directors.
We also knew that having degrees meant someone was less likely to be aware and clear-thinking – not more. Professors’ idolizing the revered male writers, theorists, scientists, psychiatrists, etc., some of whom had committed terrible atrocities against females and Lesbians, were likely to transmit female-hating and Lesbian-hating ideas. Most Lesbian publications would never dream of editing someone against their will to fit male and classist academic standards in order to weaken their ideas and politics. (That’s different from a Lesbian working with another as an equal to help her make her ideas easier to read.) Writers’ bios said who they were, as opposed to listing only their academic credentials. But now, most published Lesbian writing is academic and/or in that vapid, boring, badly-written, often meaningless class-privileged style. Entire books were written and published with only a few worthwhile ideas plagiarized from someone else – yet were lauded like the Emperor’s New Clothes. Even some middle class friends thought something was wrong with them because they couldn’t understand the writing. Censorship led to our best writers giving up. We now have “Gender Studies” (which is meaningless or worse) instead of “Women’s” or “Lesbian Studies” at universities and bookstores.
Lesbians have mourned the Lesbian manuscripts lost to us over the centuries because of being banned and burned by men, but where is our concern for Lesbian works, usually the most radical and creative, which are being now banned and censored by Lesbians? Do we really only want the most privileged, or those who follow their rules, to be printed? One of the only ways we can speak to each other across great distances is through our Lesbian publications, which is why it’s so important that they be accessible and non-oppressive. I’ve gotten international support for my writing and politics, but what about more isolated Lesbians who don’t have support to counteract feeling not good enough when the editors rejecting them use the traditional weapon of classism – condescension, ridicule, and humiliation? When creative, courageous Lesbians give up, we all lose. What important, original ideas are we being denied?
Choosing to give up the fantasy of being superior means learning who we all really are, and is actually good for the privileged. Feeling good about ourselves without doing it at anyone else’s expense frees us in unimaginable ways.
I know that classism is a choice because I have class-privileged friends who are intelligent and compassionate enough to know they are not superior, and who treat their class-oppressed friends as equals. They also are aware of our cultural differences and are wonderful allies. I love them dearly. One thing I’ve noticed is that the true allies often have experienced treatment in their lives where they felt like outsiders – whether because of racism or disability or being oppressed as Lesbians at a young age or other reasons. That separation from feeling part of the dominant culture gave them understanding and empathy. Plus, I do believe they just have the courage to believe the truth.