Pam posted an interesting question on her site:
I guess my question is are we all fighting the same fight from very different points of view that make it difficult to understand what a logical, sane strategy for success is when it comes to our movement's branding?
Her post was about Joe Solmonese winning a Fashion Award from Washington Monthly for his love of Dolce & Gabanna.
Maybe I have a bizarre perspective on issues of class, coming from the very flyover country Pam says is too poor to really get how being well-dressed is part of real activism. But I came from a town that was divided in two, with one half filled with wealthy pharmaceutical management and middle management whose kids went to school usually wearing the fashion of two years ago. They had money, definitely, but fashion wasn't what they were spending it on.
Right now I'm living in HLM housing, public housing with low rent and usually not maintained all that well. I know, France is the froo-froo hated anti-Real America, but average income in France isn't too far off where it is in America. And in my neighborhood, I see the kids and young guys hanging out in the middle of the day, doing nothing but shooting the shit in the street, wearing T-shirts with huge "D&G" logos on them and shoes with gaudy swooshes.
I hope I don't have to say that these guys (and they're usually guys) aren't actually rich, or that the people I grew up with in the Indianapolis suburbs aren't actually poor even though they don't never wear designer labels. What does impress me is how these symbols work, how people can hang their hopes of class mobility on a T-shirt they associate with wealth or how others can pretend like not being fashion can be a substitute for substance, for a real working class background.
The symbols don't represent substance
Now, that's not to say that Joe Solmonese isn't actually rich. On the other hand, I was struck by the same Newsweek interview with Dan Choi that's made its way around, especially this part:
Within the gay community so many leaders want acceptance from polite society. I think there's been a betrayal of what is down inside of us in order to achieve what looks popular, what look enviable. The movement seems to be centered around how to become an elite. There is a deep schism [in the gay-rights movement], everyone knows this. But this shouldn't be about which group has better branding.
I like the work Dan Choi is doing generally, and I oppose DADT as much as the next person out there. But if he's suddenly opposed to "acceptance from polite society," then why is he asking to be in the military? Polite society loves the troops; that's why so many members of polite society put yellow ribbons on their cars and get cases of the vapors if anyone so much as suggests that a US military servicemember could do wrong. Sometimes I wonder if the disproportionate amount of resources that go into DADT repeal within the movement, which often come from LGB people who have never served and have no intent to serve, isn't just to get a little of the "Support the troops" mentality to rub off on gay people.
There is a schism in the community based on class (there are lots of class schisms all over the US), and it should be fairly obvious which side Choi's on. While, as Pam points out, he doesn't wear D&G, he was probably making around $52,000 a year, with health care and housing covered on top of that, with various bonuses (including a big one for linguists) and extra benefits on top of all that, which probably all total over $100,000 a year. A close friend of mine in the military is Choi's age, at the same rank, and is currently single without kids, and I know that he's not living a working class life. He told me a few years ago that he had so much money that he was investing it in the currency market, and this was after getting a three-story apartment. In other words, if he wanted to buy D&G, he could. He just doesn't care much about fashion.
But not caring much about fashion doesn't make someone working class any more than buying a ranch and affecting a Texan accent can turn a Yaley born to an old wealth family into a regular Joe who's fun to have a beer with.
It's a bourgeois game they play, a show they put on for each other that we're all invited to watch. They create, first, a caricature of what working Americans are like, and then they try their best to live up to it and then criticize or compliment each other on their performances. Consider this from a recent profile of uber-wealthy and openly gay fashion designer Karl Lagerfeld:
Despite owning a private jet and multiple luxury homes, he is anti-materialistic and remains detached from his possessions, particularly as he has become more mature. He has a healthy appreciation for what some people might consider the "low life"--prostitution, promiscuity, what have you--and he is decidedly antibourgeois, which encompasses his distaste for the idea of gay marriage.
"Despite owning a private jet and multiple luxury homes." Let that sink in. The author decided to talk about class, about being, or not being, establishment, bourgeois, low life, and also decided that owning private jets and multiple luxury homes doesn't reflect on someone's class.
So while I agree with Pam that LGBT's (I'd go further and say Americans generally) don't know how to deal with class inequality, part of the problem is that our discourse on class is so stupid. I don't use that word too often, but, seriously, saying that someone is "anti-materialistic" despite owning a private jet and multiple luxury homes is just plain old stupid.
The inadequacy of identity politics discourse
But back to the original question that Pam posed, which is that we all seem to have different ideas about how to brand the movement. She preceded it with:
These questions are rarely dealt with primarily because of the tensions that arise on both sides of the economic continuum when it comes to class and how it affects the struggle for equality. You'll never get the gay haves to say that the have-nots are not adequate representatives of our movement because those at the bottom of the economic scale lack a level of education, access, experience, money and cultural commonality that those at the top share. That in itself -- the discomfort at the thought of opening up the class system for examination -- only solidifies the notion that they don't want to go there. It's too land-mine-laden. And for those not in the social stratosphere, it's easy to lob potshots at those at the top for making what seems like clueless decisions based on class blindness.
It's true that these questions are rarely dealt with, but it's not like people are uncomfortable with them for no reason.
It reminds me of when I took a course on critical theory back in college, which really could have been called "Identity Politics 101." We had a unit where we read about the African American civil rights movement, and another on women's rights, and there was the gay author we read. Overall, it was well put-together, the professor was great, and I learned a lot.
But when we got to the unit on class, we opened up with an "invisible backpack" sort of discussion where we had to list reasons why wealthy and middle class people were privileged over those who are poor or working class. I ended up wasting my group's time talking about how little sense the exercise made in a discussion on class, but I couldn't really put my finger on why. Later I was talking about the discussion with a friend, and he said, "Well, it's not like it's too hard to see why it sucks to be poor."
When we take the language and concepts we learn in the realm of identity politics, that we're supposed to listen to other people's experiences, that people on the disadvantaged side should be able to nurture pride in their identity, that representation and inclusion of the disadvantaged side needs to be sought by the advantaged side, and apply them to class, we sound like babbling idiots. That sort of discourse is just so woefully inadequate.
The problem in the LGBT community isn't that the elite activists, or the people who work for them, aren't listening to working class people all that much. Many of those that we refer to as the elites in the community come from working class backgrounds themselves.
The problem is that Gay, Inc., no matter what the people in it look like, is dependent on wealthy donors for its existence. And because it's dependent on those donors, it's decisions and priorities are going to reflect wealthy people's decisions and priorities.
These questions aren't questions of identity, they're questions of power. And once we start looking at how power works instead of just bean-counting, we're going to do better at understanding why this divide exists.
Our class discourse is stupid because misunderstanding of class inequality keeps rich people rich
Like I said above, our discourse on class is stupid. Pundits were telling us not even a decade ago that GWB was an average American we'd all love to have a beer with! And no one put them in a mental institution! What's up with that?
We latch on to these symbols of inclusion because our discourse on everything in the US, but especially class, is skin deep. If we feel like our economic class is being represented high above, then we're less likely to realize that we're almost completely excluded from the chambers of power. And we're more likely to feel like our economic class is being represented if millionaires on the TV, who rarely tell us what they make, are telling us every day that there are people like us in the elites looking out for us.
Now, I'm not saying that a misunderstanding of class in the LGBT community is being used to keep poor people poor. It's more likely a reflection of the fact that America, generally, has been lied to for decades when it came to these basic questions, so much so that most people are generally confused about the fundamentals like what makes someone an elite (hint: it's not their lifestyle), what makes someone bourgeois, why people of certain economic backgrounds tend to support certain policies and politicians.
Just look at the way we talk about economic policy: it's always in terms of "liberal vs. conservative" or "right vs. left" or "Democrat vs. Republican." How often did the cable TV pundits talk about Americans' views on health care reform in terms of class? Was it because income and money and wealth are unimportant to one's views on the health care system?
If this is a question of branding, then we're doing it wrong
Ultimately, though, this comes down to our acceptance or rejection of branding, which is what makes people think that various lifestyle choices and product purchases can change the actual people they are and their material status.
Branding is the process by which a product gets associated with a certain lifestyle. At heart, branding is neither a lie nor is it the truth; instead it's about creating a whole nother plane of reality not at all tied to the real world. Are Mac computers for creative class yuppies? Is Nike only for real athletes? Is D&G for rich people while Levi's is for the rest of us? If you answered either yes or no, you're wrong.
Being in Gay, Inc., or an independent activist, donating to HRC or to the Task Force, standing up and shouting a doing storm the troops style protests or quietly lobbying, are all interesting discussions and choices, but they're not about ideology or goals or interests. They're about tactics and branding and all sorts of other things. But our goals aren't all the same and the sooner we come to accept that the sooner we're going to be able to understand our own community.
More importantly, though, we need to get a better understanding of the way money affects politics, especially since our main problem is that we have a government that refuses to listen to voters on almost every issue since it doesn't have to, and that's causing us to start to point the finger at one another since we don't know what else to do.
The problem is huge and it's going to take a while to turn it around, if it ever gets turned around. People without power are at a disadvantage when they accept symbols over substance, since that's how they play the "up is down" game that confuses people out of voting for and favoring their own economic interest. But surface-level representation isn't going to cut it; we're going to have to fight to change the way power itself works.
And the only way we can do that is if we recognize who is wealthy and powerful, and who's not.