Thursday, May 19, 2005

Class in the US & Working Class Gays in MA

If you haven't been reading the fabulous New York Times series on class in America, you can find it here. My mind is swirling.

Class is something I think about a great deal, probably too much, if truth be told. Obsessed? No, not me. My obsession is based on a life-long interest in all things political.liberal.controversial.difficult, as well as a multitude of personal experiences. Championing the underdog and exploring the social structures that develop and sustain class differences has always been a part of my wiring. Yes, I have spent many hours/days examining where this may have come from, and I don't know.

I was raised in conservative upstate NY by two Republicans who are conservative fiscally; moderate/liberal on women's issues; downright scary right-wing on immigration/international issues/war and welfare; and conservative/moderate on race. As you can see, this was a confusing experience for me. I distinctly remember asking my father what a Republican was, and if I was one. He explained a couple of the main areas of departure, welfare being the most significant in his mind, but to his great credit, the majority of the conversation involved him asking for my opinions on various issues. He let me make up my mind, and even then, and much to his chagrin, I identified as a Democrat.

Even in grade school, I championed the underdog. When a new person was introduced by our teacher, and all the other children preceeded to needle and poke the new kid, I felt it my moral obligation to make that person feel comfortable and liked. Sometimes this went a little too far. The new kids didn't always enjoy being my pet project.

We have a family joke that my younger brother never had to worry about neighbor kids picking on him. After all, I, his sister who was older by nearly 7 years, would kick the ass of any kid who dared to pick on MY little brother. This didn't prevent me from locking said little brother out of the house, destroying his carefully created Lego constructions, or other such sisterly torment. After all, I was allowed to treat him like crap. No one else was afforded this luxury. By the way, that's still the case. His Legos led him to engineering school and now that he's 6+ feet tall and built like a "shit house rat" (as my Daddy would say), he can take care of himself. But should an unkind word about my Little Bro pass the lips of someone outside the clan, the Mafia will take up arms. You are forewarned.

The first two decades of my life revolved around my hometown, my family and my school friends. But in the 3rd and 4th decades of my life, I moved away, met new people, and started to realize how important class distinctions really are. Starting with an attempt to transfer from my local community college to a fancy women's College, and being told by the Director of Financial Aid (after many unhappy meetings, mind you) that if I "couldn't afford [College], then I shouldn't have applied." Pissed? Yes. Empowered? Oh yeah. Traipsed off the President of College? You bet. After 1 1/2 years of fighting this particular battle, I finally got the financial aid that I needed. But more adventures in the upper class white women's college world awaited me upon entry.

Prior to leaving for College, my Gramma presented me with a gift. She said, "now honey, I know that you're going off to a rich girl's college and those girls will have some pretty nice things. So I made this for you, so you'd have nice things too." She then presented me with a small plastic waste basket that she had lovingly decorated with a hand-painted sunflower garden on one side, glue-gunned spare buttons on the other side, and a border of cream colored lace around the top. It was hideous. But she was so proud of herself, and I felt so loved. I took that waste basket with me to College, and everytime someone asked about it, I told them how she had raised six kids (one of them retarded) as a single mother on a single factory paycheck.

One of my first friends at College came to my room one night and sheepishly asked me how to balance her checkbook. Shocked? Yes. Understanding? Kinda. Helpful? Certainly. However, this little claw stuck in my head. I couldn't believe that my life brought me to College after spending 4 years post-high-school moving all over creation, working for several people/organizations, and learning at one the feet of some of the best professors I ever had (at community college). This woman went to private girls schools, and went directly to a private women's college. Sheltered? Yep. Pampered? Yep. Naive? For sure. But is that bad? Didn't I wish I could have such a simple view of the world? Yep. I was simultaneously jealous and bitter and proud of my hard-earned life skills.

My first two loves were other women from working class backgrounds. Mind you, Love #2 was raised in the urban working class and thought it was hilarious to tell me that my magnet of Sharon Stone in that sublime moment prior to "crossing her legs" in Basic Instinct was "white trash." But Love #3 was 'of manor born,' and it was a huge problem. She didn't understand why our differences played out so significantly, but it was clear to me from day 1 that our relationship was going to be fraught with challenges around food/cars/college loans/job prospects/neighborhoods/and nearly everything else.

Most recently, this class shit has been plaguing me in my life as a Mom. I want my son exposed to progressive like-minded people, but after periods of finishing college (my wife's) and unexpected unemployment (both of us), the last 3 years has destroyed any chance of fanancial stability for the foreseeable future. Throw into the mix that having a baby wasn't cheap (roughly $2500, and we were lucky!), and working with a lawyer to develop some semblance of financial/legal stability for our family (another $3000+) was costly, and we realized that our progressive community values had to be sacrificed. We're hoping that all the financial issues will be semi-solved within a few years so we can move back to a progressive public school system prior to his formative grade school years. It's expensive to be progressive and gay.

As I sit here on May 19th, reflecting on the joys that came with the May 17th Marriage Equality in Massachusetts, I am also struck by another important story. May 20th. That's the day when all the working class gays in Massachusetts got married. Once you sign an "intent to marry" form in Massachusetts, you are legally required to wait 3 days before performing the ceremony. So for everyone else Massachusetts who didn't have the money to hire a lawyer to do the waiver, or didn't have the extensive political/legal/bureaucratic knowledge to even know that a waiver was available, I salute your anniversary. May 20th. Congratulations. We are the Massachusetts gays that keep the offices clean, keep the T running, keep the paperwork moving from desk to desk, and build those fancy buildings. And May 20th is our day.


Anonymous said...

such a good post, thanks. class is an incredibly big issue here but of course for many, especially the rich and privileged, it doesn't even exist! in some families, and believe me i know what i'm talking about, it's craaaazy talk to even mention class issues.

although i don't have any kids yet, i also worry about how they're going to be raised - the advantages and disadvantages of the varying classes. and oh yeah, all that is decided on how much i earn, right? scary.

oh, and please say that rich women's college wasn't bryn mawr! i had big issues with my school but that level of snobbery and delusion would put them on another level entirely.

BerkeleyBecca said...

Yeah, I've been following the series closely, too, because I think a lot about the effects of class. When I was growing up, it was one of the "elephants in the room." Talked about endlessly in code words, but never analyzed forthrightly, and no honest examination of attitudes and received notions. And now I see class disparities right on my own block, but it's not something you talk about.

Anonymous said...

so very well said.
i've been struggiling with class a whole lot latley. (given my partner is unemployed now, and when he is employed, it is underemployment... ha.)& latley i've been feeling that what i do is just the modern equivlent of taking in the laundry.

where i live you have these million dollar second (or third?)homes less than a few miles away from people who are living well below the poverty level. it is totally mind blowing the class distinction here. (and VT. is "progressive".)


i keep erasing what i write, so i'll stop. ha.

Anonymous said...

Really a great post. You could very well have been describing me when you described yourself as a child. I felt the same way as the daughter of two Republicans~ always a champion for the "underdog".

Anonymous said...

fascinating post. here in the UK we're quite often told about how we live in such a class-based society, often with the implication that the USA is a 'classless' society. HA.