A gap in our reality and imaginations remains and disadvantages the realities for many queer people.
For many decades, queer people in the US flocked to NYC and San Francisco as a refuge against homophobia and transphobia. As a teen in the 1990s, my best friend would tell me about her NYC dreams. They were important, safe places for us, and queer narratives are full of dreams of those two cities. I relocated from rural Oregon to Seattle for my safety and security. In my hometown, the first openly queer and trans city councilor recently resigned due to racism, transphobia, and homophobia. (They were also the first person of color on the city council.)
But 30 years later, US-based LGBTQ+ stories stay confined to major cities and center on white cis gay men and lesbians who are either comfortably middle class or upper class. The Will & Grace NYC-based characters were lawyers, interior designers, and actors who lived in multi-million dollar condos. In the current re-imagining of The L Word: Generation Q, even broke characters always bounce back with robust family and friend support, and many are still incredibly wealthy: wearing designer clothing, flying private planes, buying a nightclub on a whim, hiding away in vacation mansions, etc., in Los Angeles. Very few break this mold, like P-Valley and (I believe, but haven’t watched myself) the recent reboot of Queer as Folk.
The political realities of LGBTQ+ people and class
It’s not surprising that, after 2016, the New York Times couldn’t find a single queer person in rural or “red” America. LGBTQ+ political issues were for the “coastal elites.” Clearly, every queer person had escaped or would escape these terrible places!
US class statistics show more working-class and low-income LGBTQ+ people than not. This makes sense when you add intersections of race, gender, and other discriminatory opportunity and pay gaps. Then dig into the specifics of the LGBTQ+ umbrella, such as trans and bisexual people being much more likely to be lower income than cis gay men and lesbians.
Gentrification in cities has driven out many queer people from our traditional “gayborhoods,” whether the Castro in San Fransisco, Boystown in Chicago, or Capitol Hill in Seattle. More LGBTQ+ people live in White Center — a low-income and racially diverse neighborhood on the southwest outskirts of Seattle — than in the centralized Capitol Hill that features rainbow sidewalks and many of our struggling queer bars. Once a neighborhood populated by poor queers and artists, Capitol Hill is a hop and skip away from Amazon HQ. It features a walkable neighborhood and incredible views of Downtown Seattle and the Puget Sound. Cue white cishet tech bros in $300 North Face jackets utterly bewildered why their new neighborhood had those rainbow sidewalks or f-slurs walking around.
With the organizational development and millions of dollars poured into assimilationist goals like marriage equality, wealthy LGBTQ+ people and cishets will fund LGBTQ+ issues that align with respectability and don’t challenge white supremacist systems. These wealthy LGBTQ+ people tend to be white cis gay men and, to some extent, white cis lesbians. (Though pay attention to intersections as sexism hits even white cis women’s pay, and, of course, white cishet men comprise society’s highest earners.)
Housing, food insecurity, employment, and healthcare are all issues more important than “can LGBTQ+ people serve in the US military?” to the collective well-being of queer people.
Those organizations who led on marriage equality haven’t extended the same force of voice and cash to protect trans youth and adults (dismissing the need as paranoid, dismissing trans people, or dismissing “red” states). They now seem shocked that there’s talk about repealing marriage equality and reinstituting sodomy laws.
But what does this have to do with books?
The vast majority of queer people are born into cishet families. Many of us have no role models — or “possibility models,” as Laverne Cox puts it — and media may be our only way of discovering information about ourselves. It can serve as a bridge between our cishet families and us.
I knew I was queer by age 9. By the time I was 14, I’d come out to my other queer teen friends. But I was 16 before I met a queer adult (he was 19!) and was an adult in college before I had any significant platonic relationships with queer adults outside my direct peer group.
The US is a place where our possibility models cannot be: “I ran away by myself with zero support to NYC or San Fransisco at 18, and everything was great.” That wasn’t even true when I left my hometown 20 years ago, and inequalities and cost of living have continued to grow, and our social safety nets have further crumbled.
Stories are where our possibility models can grow to the deepest explorations. While I’m most concerned with fellow LGBTQ+ people, fiction also offers great empathy outlets to learn about people’s lives who may not be like us, and intra-community, our differences make us powerful.
For any books I discuss in-depth, I want to be clear that they were all books I loved, and I don’t expect a single book or author to do all the work. Many of these books juggle multiple, intersectional queer identities and themes, and I’m mainly focused on books set in the US. Here are some trends I’ve noticed in fictional books where class plays a role, and queer characters are working-class.
The characters are broke, not poor.
In this situation, characters typically have working-class jobs and may even fret about paying rent. However, they are broke, not poor, in that inside the class narrative, we never believe these characters’ lives are at stake. Broke is a stop on their way to future financial success.
In the f/f romance One Last Stop by Casey McQuiston, August moves to NYC for college and must immediately find housing and a job. Her relationship with her mother (middle class) is strained, and this move is part of her independence from her mother, not a situation where she fled her mother’s home over safety concerns. August easily finds affordable housing in a queer utopia with 3 other queer roommates. They help her land her working-class job as wait staff at a diner. August struggles, but if she crashes, she will make amends with her mother, and everything will be fine.
While I enjoyed One Last Stop, it is a great example of where class is not actually a factor. August is broke but not poor, and she has the safety valve of her mother. Many of us do not have a safety net. You need not look any further than the proliferation of GoFundMes from queer people, a symptom of our broken welfare, health care, and social support systems.
We do need more stories showcasing service work — not all blue-collar jobs are construction and factories. Restaurant work, retail, tourist industry support, and a ton of other minimum wage jobs comprise 1/3 of the US working poor, and queer people often do this work. How many queer baristas cite the first time they saw another visible queer person was at the local Starbucks?
Class is only sideways addressed.
These books have working-class characters and may even have some of these characters deal with the consequences of not being able to pay for everything.
In the YA novel Felix Ever After by Kacen Callender, Felix is a being raised by a single dad, who’s a janitor, and they have the added intersection of being Black. Felix is a teenager, so his observations about how hard his dad works are associated with how Felix must continue to do good in school (and maintain his scholarship spot at a wealthy private school) and his mixed feelings on how well his father accepts him as his trans son. Felix’s dad paid for top surgery and continues paying for Felix’s HRT access.
However, Felix’s entire social circle — his school buddies — are incredibly wealthy, including his two love interests, and they are NYC wealthy. Due to drama, Felix falls out with his wealthy friends and stresses over college prospects and his father’s acceptance. But never once do we, the reader, think Felix will end up doing janitorial work alongside his father, or even be required to make a backup plan for attending a more affordable college, or that his father would kick him out.
I give more leeway to this YA book as it deals with many intersections in Felix’s identity. I can buy a bit of a fantasy situation where Felix is slightly removed from the direct consequences of his family’s socio-economic status. However, many queer teens are growing up in low-income households or saving every penny to distance themselves from their parents once they turn 18. Felix Ever After is a great start to seeing more working-class YA books.
Poverty is the water the characters swim in, and there’s no other way.
These books typically aren’t considered “queer books” first or maybe even second because intersectional publishing marketing doesn’t exist. The Color Purple by Alice Walker is a rightfully noted African American book and a noted book by a woman — living somewhere between Women’s Fiction and Literary Fiction — and that’s as far as it gets.
I was surprised when I first read The Color Purple (and watched the film) to see a queer relationship portrayed because I hadn’t heard about Shug and Celie’s romance. Published in 1983, with a film in 1985, a time when any LGBTQ+ content was often received with a shocking highlight. I could be mistaken about the initial reception, given that I was born in 1983.
The violence in The Color Purple is a much-discussed feature. It’s misogynoir terror against these women, and so much of it comes from the desperate poverty the characters live in. Celie’s struggle to maintain independence and wealth (wealth = enough to live a decent life, not mega bucks) is the story’s center because this is the water her entire community lives in.
I’d love to see these community stories centered in the queer community. The Color Purple cannot do this because the story’s time setting ends right as modern Western concepts of LGBTQ+ people were congealing together. Queer people are born into every single type of family across the globe, and given that 95% of us at the bottom of the wealth pie hold only 28.4% of the world’s wealth, there are so many stories to mine.
What kinds of working-class books do I want to read?
Give me community stories. Give me the tales of low-income queer people in every town and city. Have them called to be heroes, have them be romantic leads, and have them be every type of messy and realistic person possible. It’s tempting to give characters “better” jobs or escape their socio-economic reality. We can still have joyous and hopeful stories even if the characters don’t transcend their class.
In my own novel (currently querying), The Reclamation Project, the main character Sean works as a Casual with the Longshoreman and then as a carpenter. His best friend Penelope goes from retail worker to customer service at a tech company. However, her rent gets raised so much that it zeros out her employment gains. Penelope may be on a promising track for future raises and promotions, but she is also stuck due to living in a gentrifying place. Sean and Penelope rely on each other, not just for friendship but for financial support, and when Sean falls in love with a middle-class man Damien, class issues feature in the dynamics between the characters. Additionally, Sean is a white man, and Damien is a Black man, and racial differences further complicate their differences in how they address class and seek material and financial security.
Queer communities have always relied on each other for support. Our community has always been vital, from nursing each other during the HIV/AIDS crisis to simply giving a friend money to make rent. The more marginalized a person is, the more community support is needed. Self-care and therapy are often out of financial reach, not to mention a time suck. Solving community problems requires a community solution, not individual-minded inaccessible “betterments.”
In the contemporary m/m romance Best Laid Plans by Roan Parrish, Rye is unhoused and unemployed. He inherits a house from his estranged grandfather in rural Garnet Run, Wyoming, and he spends his last bit of hope on moving there from Seattle. Rye expresses how Seattle’s gentrification pushed him out and kept him desperate, starting at 16 when he ran away from home and into adulthood. The house is an unsafe wreck. Luckily, Rye meets his love interest Charlie, who’s eager to help him fix everything from the house itself (Charlie is a carpenter) to his credit score. While centered on their emotional play as it’s a Romance and perhaps Charlie “fixes” too much, Garnet Run does have a small queer community that comes out to help Rye rebuild.
What’s it really like to be queer in America right now? Best Laid Plans felt 100 times more realistic than One Last Stop in what happens when you really start fresh in a new place.
How do we get more class variation in queer stories?
Agents and publishers are also responsible for caring for stories about and from working-class and low-income people. While this is another topic in itself, publishing is an industry that doesn’t pay well, and many people working in it are cis white women from comfortable middle and upper-class backgrounds. This causes a socio-economic and empathy barrier for writers telling these stories from lived experience. From the paycheck to the emotional understanding to the marketing, traditional publishing is especially fraught for class reasons, and then add on queer and any other intersectional underrepresented and marginalized identities. Not to mention, the US publishing industry has been very NYC-centered, which is yet another barrier to diversifying staff within the industry.
It’s a lot.
I believe the pandemic and the ever-widening gap between the uber-wealthy and the rest of us is wetting our reading appetites for “regular people.” We’re now more skeptical about the billionaires coming to save us or if tech companies actually bring better jobs or improve our cities and town. Even in rural places, housing markets have exploded beyond the means of many people. Rising discrimination against all LGBTQ+ people, especially trans people, means access to wealth is becoming harder and harder. Many of us are one late payment, large bill, or medical emergency away from losing it all.
Personally, I cannot wait to read more books featuring low-income queer characters. Give me your barista or Target employee. Give me your factory worker or auto-mechanic. Give me your farmer or a person living on disability or a childcare worker, or the one working a full-time job while going to community college.
Some working-class queer novels I’ve read and recommend:
- Stone Butch Blues by Leslie Feinberg (Read for free! Because ze was that kind of working-class hero.)
- Giovanni’s Room by James Baldwin
- Bastard Out of Carolina by Dorothy Allison
- The Color Purple by Alice Walker
- The Miseducation of Cameron Post by Emily M. Danforth
- Felix Ever After by Kacen Callender
- “Brokeback Mountain” (original short story) by Annie Proulx
- Best Laid Plans by Roan Parrish
- Stuck Rubber Baby by Howard Cruse
On my to-read list:
- Young Mungo by Douglas Stuart
- Shuggie Bain by Douglas Stewart
- Under the Udala Trees by Chinelo Okparanta
- Here Comes the Sun by Nicole Dennis-Benn
Wendall Ricketts edited two short-story anthologies on working-class queer life (primarily men): Everything I Have Is Blue and Blue, Too: More Writing by (for or about) Working-Class Queers. The first has been out of print since 2008.
Abdellah Taïa writes about working-class queer Moroccans, including an autobiography. Only some of his work’s been translated into English.
I’d be remiss not to shout out Real Queer America: LGBT Stories From Red States by Samantha Allen, a nonfiction travelogue about a white lesbian trans woman’s journeys in “red” states and her love for the queer people she met and the places she’s been. It certainly helped soothe some of my anger over the ignorance and assumptions about where queer people come from or are currently living.
If you have recommendations for queer working-class novels, please do share them!