LGBT

"A Home at the End of the Rainbow":

Working-Class Writing by and about Gays and Lesbians

 

Wayne Elliott

ENGL6923: Working-Class Literature

Spring 2010

 

Everything I Have is Blue, edited by Wendell Ricketts, is one of a handful of texts that presents writings by people from the working class who also happen to identify as gay.  It is worth noting that there is not a shortage of American writers who self-identify as gay, and there is an increasing body of work that can be characterized as working-class literature.  Combining the two issues, however, is new ground, and Everything I Have is Blue fills in the void. This anthology offers multiple examinations of class, gender, and sexuality.  Issues commonly viewed as characteristics of working-class literature are explored in a series of short stories about mostly gay life.  Many of the commonalities are visible:  a distrust of authority figures, a strong awareness of class and class oppression, representations of the working body at work, a strong appreciation of humor and sarcasm, and to a certain degree, a desire for the writing to go out into the world and have agency.  While the book as a whole focuses on trying to illustrate the trials and pain involved in navigating the larger, hetero-normative society, the protagonists in these stories often find themselves in classed and gendered bodies.  Being gay and working-class in a culture that praises heterosexuality and middle-class values is challenging and painful.  The discrimination, hatred, and oppression that gay men encounter in these stories could just as easily describe the plight of the working class or the struggles of an individual with a disability. 

 

Critical analysis of texts that are viewed as both working class and gay is recent and sparse.  To get a better appreciation of the rejection of shame common to both groups, see Renny Christopher's essay "Shame and the Search for Home."  Christopher details the pain and longing that are common themes of gay people in America.  These themes permeate the pages of Everything I Have is Blue.  Christopher includes personal details concerning her struggle against heterosexism and disorientation in the middle-class system that she had just recently entered-topics that some writers would leave out in order to display academic distance and a position of imagined neutrality.  This inclusion of personal narrative marks quite a bit of the research surrounding gay literature.  As with working-class literature, some of the writing is necessarily focused on recreating the actual experiences of the working class, not as an act of pantomime, but in order to provide a space where people can feel represented. 

 

 "Queer Liberation is Class Struggle" is an excellent essay on the problems of assimilation politics and simultaneously serves as a call for action.  The shift from a passive discussion for an academic audience to a more direct and people centered focus seems a great place to begin.  Again, as an exploration of working-class literature, this essay demonstrates the desire for the literature to go out into the world and have an impact. 

 

Although none of these works fully encompasses the difficulties of living in an able-bodied, white, heterosexist, middle-class America, the fictional stories collected by Ricketts go a long way towards fixing this blind spot.  The stories in Everything I Have Is Blue are excellent examples of working-class writing.  Sometimes, as in this section from "advancedELVIScourse" by CAConrad, the story does not follow a neat and linear trajectory: "P.S.  Did you know there are no lesbian romance titles that begin with the letter R?" In this section, the writing circles around the narrative voice, Elvis, lesbianism, and family life, among other topics.  However, most of these pieces show the working-class gay protagonist in a realistic setting and follow him as he tries to do the best he can in a less-than-ideal situation.  In "Food Chain" by Jim Grimsley, the working-class reader (and, especially the working-class gay reader) can see a reflection of himself: 

 

[Newell] moved as fast as he could, did everything he could see to do, and hoped for the best.  His whole mind focused itself on the need to note the level of water in a glass across a room despite cigarette smoke swirling in the air and bodies moving this way and that across his field of vision; he concentrated on the balance required to haul a heavy tray of dishes over the heads of customers, who were often staring at him as he moved, trying to make eye contact.

 

In Everything I Have Is Blue, Ricketts has begun a conversation that is long overdue.  This collection of stories may be fictional and it may focus on only working-class gay men, but the conditions explored will feel very familiar to people from the working class.  These stories do not operate in isolation, away from working-class writers, but rather they work with the messy, complicated, and real world that they describe.  In short, these writings help to illustrate the actual lived experiences of working-class gay men-something heterosexist society has mostly succeeded at silencing. 

  

Related Links

Interview with Wendell Ricketts, by Susan Raffo.  In this discussion, Wendell Ricketts explains the impetus for creating an anthology of working-class gay writing, the reasons such an anthology are long overdue and his general take on literary patterns, the working class, and how these two topics intersect in popular culture and society.

Still Blue:  More writing by, for, or about Working-Class Queers  This is a link to the electronic continuation of Everything I Have is Blue.  In addition to short fiction, the website now includes sections for poetry, essays, and memoir writings. 

Wendell Rickett's Blog, "Una Vita Vagabonda" Blog issued by W. Ricketts, Editor of Everything I Have is Blue.  His writing contains commentary on politics, society, literature and the arts.  He is a self-described expat-currently residing and working in northern Italy.

CAConrad's website and blog Website created for and maintained by the author of "Advanced Elvis Course".  Poet and activist currently residing in Philadelphia, PA.  Also contains links to the author's blog, links to other writers, and contact information for the author.

Jim Grimsley's website and blog Homepage for the playwright and novelist Jim Grimsley, author of "Food Chain" (in the Anthology, "Everything I Have is Blue") currently residing in Atlanta, Georgia.  This website also contains reviews of his writing and a summary of the many awards given to the author. 

Equality Ohio Website Homepage of the non-profit organization dedicated to making an "Ohio where everyone feels at home".  Contains valuable links to the issues surrounding LGBT community, and a multitude of links to facilitate involvement.  This page also has video links to related organizations and a calendar of local and state wide events.

GLBTA International Communications Hub is the source of the rainbow flag image;

this website also has LGBT themed movie reviews.

  

Recommended readings:

 

Archer, Louise, Simon D. Pratt and David Phillips.  "Working-class Men's Constructions of Masculinity and Negotiations of (Non)Participation in Higher Education."  Gender and Education.  13.4 (2001):  431-449.

 

Barrett,  Donald C. and Lance M. Pollack.  "Whose Gay Community?  Social Class, Sexual Self-Expression, and Gay Community Involvement."  Sociological Quarterly.46 (2005): 437-456

 

Christopher, Renny.  "Shame and the Search for Home."  Feminist Studies 30.1 (2004):  178-192.

 

Mallon, Gerald P.  "Oh, Canada:  The Experiences of Working-Class Gay Men in Toronto."  Journal of Gay & Lesbian Social Services.  12.3&4 (2001):  103-117.

 

McDowell, Linda.  "Masculine Identities and Low-Paid Work:  Young Men in Urban

Labour Markets."  International Journal of Urban and Regional Research.  27.4 (2003):  824-848.

 

Sherry, Mark.  "Overlaps and contradictions between queer theory and disability studies."  Disability & Society.  19.7 (2004):  769-783.

 

Links to some Gay Authors of Interest

Baldwin, James

Bérubé, Allan

Burroughs, Augusten

Campo, Raphael

Crisp, Quentin

Doty, Mark

Maupin, Armistead

McNally, Terrence

Rice, Christopher

Sedaris, David

Wilde, Oscar

Wojnarowicz, David