A rough trade

CLASS is an issue not widely acknowledged within gay circles. Homosexual or not, who you hang out with, have access to and have relationships with is either class defined or class restricted. Class differences within the gay community keep gay men separated through fear, historically grounded but unreliable feelings of disgust for other classes, and pressure to conform and participate in a community where we can all be "out" together. Class differences are a major barrier to gay liberation.

In general, working-class men are portrayed as the most crude, the most sexist, the most violent and particularly the most homophobic of all men. It crosses few people's minds to even consider there being gay working-class men. Yet among men, gay or straight, there is more opportunity for most working-class men to break out of the homophobia to explore being real mates. Many working-class men have a great ability to get very close to each other. Through work, sport and socialising, they have earned each other's respect and know they can depend upon each other. Despite the amount of sport they play, strong feelings of competition don't get in the way as they seem to for other classes of men. Neither is their approach guided by middle-class liberalism or guilt. Yet as with all men, they are only allowed to get to a certain closeness and homophobia dictates the rules of this closeness.

Classism within the gay community works in two ways. Firstly, the most common perceptions of gay people - who they are, what their lifestyles and attitudes are - tend to mean that upper and middle-class gay lifestyles become the stereotypical representation of all gays. This creates a divided gay community: visible (primarily upper and middle-class) gays and invisible (primarily working-class) gays.

Secondly, this inaccurate representation of gay men is presented as the only valid way to be gay. Yet the visible community of gay men and lesbians must not be taken to be the only valid way of being gay. In fact, many of the values, philosophies, standards, and styles of appearance and behaviour which dominate the visible gay community or sub-culture are upper or middle class in origin. Although a minority of working-class gays attempt to mimic these middle-class styles of life, the majority of working-class gays finds them alienating. In recent attempts to fortify gay pride - the desperation to be "out", larger than life, united and here to stay - not all forms of being gay have found a voice, and class issues particularly have taken a back seat. To be fair, the Sydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras has been quite successful in creating an inclusive gay community, if only for a night. This, however, is not a recognition of class issues within the whole gay community. In buying into middle-class gay pride, many gay men and lesbians have also bought into to wealth-dependent lifestyles and left their family, friends and heritage behind. With class issues unresolved, any attempt at unity and full gay liberation cannot succeed.

Rough deal

IF even gay men suffer classism, how then are working-class gays treated within the gay community? When a gay middle or upper class man fucks a working-class man, the act is known as "rough trade". This contemptible label represents a fundamental disrespect which underscores the classist attitudes working-class gay men endure most of the time. Even in a gay community which claims to be united, the working class is seen as undeserving of love and completely disposable. They become fuckable quarry within the gay community, and beatable quarry in the straight community.

Fucked either way? Not exactly. Working-class men adopt strategies to avoid these situations. Either they attempt to be part of the middle-class gay community, or they select when and with whom they reveal their sexual identity.

The process of "coming out" or revealing a gay sexual identity, is usually conceived of as a duality: you are either "in the closet" or "out". Another way of seeing it is as an unfolding narrative as the person "comes out" in more and more spheres of their life. Recent geographical research on gay and lesbian issues has revealed that the process is more complex, with individuals maintaining multiple identities in different spaces, and in one space but at different times. (See Gill Valentine's recent article in the journal Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers, vol.18, no. 2.) For working-class gay men this involves a number of difficult choices.

Whose gay community?

VISIBILITY is a class privilege. The concept of being "out" is one that sits most comfortably with the middle and upper classes. Liberal-thinking middle-class families and co-workers make it easier to come out and be visible. Many middle and upper class gays are separated from the people and places where they can be attacked by homophobes, and have the financial security, the educational advantages or the accessible role models that make the combination of visible and gay lifestyles workable.

Even the choice to be "out" is a complex and sometimes impossible one for working-class gay men (and lesbians, for that matter). The isolation of being gay can be very heavy. Yet, most working-class gay men and lesbians not only have to live a heterosexual half truth in public, but are then criticised for not adopting the attitudes and appearances that dominate the visible gay community. This is a further example of the classism within the gay community. Gay men who are not "out" are invalidated by their own gay brothers as "inadequate as gay men", as "too afraid to be honest and open with themselves", or as "traitors". This attitude denies the fact that these men adopt a strategy of hiding their sexual identity to evade homophobic reprisals. To blame the working-class gay person for this lack of participation is part of this classism.

Interestingly, inaccurate representations of gay identity have been represented as working in favour of some gay men. As the violence, prejudice and stigma directed towards gays in everyday situations forces many gay men and lesbians to conceal their sexualities, working-class gay men are rarely suspected of being gay because they don't conform to the middle-class gay stereotype. By "passing" as heterosexual they escape the direct and violent effects of homophobia due to their working-class camouflage. At best this can be seen as a survival strategy, and it remains a fundamental part of their oppression that they must hide their sexual identities in order to escape punishment.

The one choice left to these men to reconcile the competing pressures of being both working class and gay is to choose (not always freely) whether to be visible or invisible. This too brings costs. Sadly, the choice between being visible or invisible is often translated into another choice: your family and community of working-class friends and mates or your sexuality.

Replacing the owning and middle-class pressures to conform with a gay community which takes pride in all its diversity will be a big step in ending the alienation of working-class gay men. A truly inclusive gay community is essential to ending the oppression of gays. In addition, the working classes overwhelmingly make up the majority of the population of the Western world and so many of the liberation opportunities for all men and women, heterosexual or not, lie with them. Gay working-class men and women will be instrumental in ending the multiple oppressions of all people. In other words, gay liberation also requires class liberation


Reprinted with permission from the magazine XY: men, sex, politics. XY, PO Box 26, AINSLIE, ACT, 2602, AUSTRALIA. © Copyright 1995