The Hye-Phen

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The Queer Poor Aesthetic

by | Sep 10, 2016 | Essay

There’s a viral and ironic trend that i’ve been lately noticing in and beyond my qtpoc community: my wealthier friends own everything but their class privilege.
I lived in northern California for three years and recently moved to San Francisco; I have the privilege to navigate many spaces that normalize intersectional justice and privilege-checking. But, in these spaces something problematic is also normal: the absence of social class from the discourse of identity politics. This conversation is so necessary for me to have as a trans and queer person of color who grew up and is still considered poor in the united states. I feel like the only one who’s talking about it.
Here’s a story that illustrates what I’m talking about:
I didn’t know I was poor until I transferred to college. Growing up, I assumed that there wasn’t really a difference between being a minority and being poor, because I grew up in a non-white, disenfranchised area. But, in college, I learned that poorness means much more than money: it can be a feeling, it can be appropriated, and it can effect everything.
My university was overpopulated with excessively privileged and annoying students. So, I gravitated toward the cooperative student housing community—it was painted as a sort of refuge for people like me: queer and trans folks of color who had liberatory politics. I lived in three co-ops, and each, I directly got to learn about the magnitude of being poor, and more: what class privilege looked and felt like, and how wealthier queers routinely downplay theirs.
One co-op stood out: it was the embodiment of check your privilege. The house was made up mostly of trans and queer people of color. My roommate and I were the only working class folks out of 13 residents, who’d mostly talk about their daily experiences with oppression—like, in classrooms. But, neither of us knew that all of our housemates were class privileged until I moved out—they all (passably) pretended to be poor as fuck.
One of my housemates stood out, too. They’re a mixed-race, white-passing trans and queer student. For months, I thought that they were like me: poor and from a disenfranchised upbringing—or, like, “the hood.” They’d never talk about where they came from but instead about how exceptionally hard their life was. I had no logical reason to think they were wealthy: they’d participate—openly and loudly—in the shit that poor people routinely have to do for survival (and are shamed and ashamed for).
They’d come with me to get free food through public programs or dumpster diving. They’d get stick n’ poke tattoos, make zines, complain about money, roll their own cigarettes (it’s cheaper), wear “distressed” clothes, thrift, “free box,” or steal shit like it was a necessity, not a privilege—like that’s what they grew up doing, like they didn’t get accepted into a prestigious university as a 4.0+ high school student, as if they didn’t have a nice family in a nice home in a nice white village to fly home to on vacations, as if they actually knew what it meant to live “the struggle.”
Something felt off about them, even before I found out they were ballin. We shared a weekly cook night for the house, and every week, I’d get so anxious that I’d emotionally prepare for and plan around it. I felt small, dirty, and uneducated around them. And we didn’t have much to talk about—they’d cook some fancy, elaborate shit, and I’d cook some basic canned shit. But, I knew that something about them felt different from me: they seemed comfortable, enough to navigate any space, and to exist freely. This was new to me.
So, I vented my feelings to a mutual friend to help me process. My friend is also a queer, upper middle class, white-passing person of color. When I told them that I felt routinely shitty around our friend, I’ll never forget how they responded: “are you just insecure?” I kept revisiting this. And I realized that, often, “insecurity” is another, apolitical word for “internalized oppression.”
Poor people statistically tend to have lower self-esteem, and more mental health issues. This makes sense considering capital defines one’s self-worth. When I felt super shitty around my housemate, I was weighing their privilege against my lack of it. Feelings can be political—they can indicate someone’s privilege and your secret desire for it. This is the case for all kinds of capital: skin, body, gender, prestige, sociality, wealth.
So, after I moved out, I decided to finally confront my housemate. We sat on my bed one night and I gently told them everything. I told them that I knew about their background; that I noticed they would code-switch around me; that it wasn’t okay to romanticize or aestheticize poverty; that it wasn’t “cool” to appropriate real people’s struggles for social points; that class privilege isn’t something you can simply reject, and it’s something you can’t just check once; that poverty only looks and feels good on wealthy people.
I had to break their class privilege down for them and why it mattered. I had to explain the psychological, social, physical, and economic affects of actually being poor—shit that I have to experience everyday—shit that isn’t a theory—shit that isn’t fun or cute but real and long-term and time-consuming and depressing and embarrassing.
But, they sat there, quiet. So, for them to finally tell me about their background, I asked them questions like: “where are you from?” and “what kind of labor do your parents do?” and “did you go to school with lots of white people?” They still tried to downplay most of it and the conversation levitated back to the ways they experience oppression.
It wasn’t only them I felt this way around. It was around mostly all the TQPOC I lived with. For months, I was too anxious to wear baggy comfort clothes or sleep in or eat hot cheetos or slip into my accent. I was too afraid of being perceived as lazy, uneducated, unhealthy, barbaric—as someone who asked and deserved to be poor.
The queer poor aesthetic was blooming in that house. But so was irony (the problematic kind). Wealthy students try hard to look unemployable. A poor queer on EBT gets a hoverboard and new bicycle for Christmas. Another poor queer gets mailed cute care packages. The most “distressed” queer asks me what EBT even is. Minus these clues, I still felt privilege radiating off their bodies, living, silent, dormant, irrational, but so loud. Class might be invisible, but to me, it’s like a personality type.
I couldn’t “be myself” in a space built for people like me. I couldn’t identify with people I shared identities with. The identity that significantly affects my daily life was erased in a culture that consumes identity politics. The only times my anti-capitalist housemates mentioned class was when it was theoretical and not about them personally, as if being marginalized makes you entitled to know how every kind of oppression feels. It’s easy to hide behind your oppression.
Here’s another story—because I can’t write about class privilege in the TQPOC context without mentioning DarkMatter.
The housemates I lived with practically deified DarkMatter, a highly influential trans South Asian poetry duo who’ve seem to become the poster queers for the TQPOC community. Although their work centers identity politics, a lot of it is academic, elitist and hard to follow—and, they haven’t really come out of the closet about their class privilege.
Last year, I was involved in a queer student organization that helped fund DarkMatter to perform at my university. They requested a few thousand dollars that they’d then donate to The Audre Lorde Project. But, even with combined funds from other similar organizations, we could only offer less than half the amount they requested. They agreed and came to perform.
I went to the show. Seconds before it started, Alok Vaid-Menon, who’s part of the group, critiqued the audience for attending a university that invests in oppressive politics—but, throughout their entire set, neither members mentioned that they both graduated from Stanford. And, they didn’t consider that they came to speak at a public university with a significantly higher acceptance rate than, like, 1%. I knew the majority of people in that room—many were working class people of color, and didn’t go to their show to be shit on and criticized by “more intelligent” and seasoned queers.
And, it didn’t get “bitter.” It got bourgie. Alok had paused in between one of their poems to lecture the audience literally with some shit like: “You think you’re queer because you have a ‘punk’ haircut? Sorry, you’re not queer unless you donate to queer organizations.”
While donating to grassroots organizations is important, this shit was clearly classist: Alok, who stood in a relatively clear position of power, limited queerness to financial ability and framed it—the queerness of others’—as only something they could—and could only—define. They generalized the audience and projected their class privilege onto us. And they did it in a sneering, cruel and authoritative way—like they didn’t want to be there, like it was a privilege to see them. This is all gross to me—it triggered times in which I was bullied in high school by cis white boys for identities I couldn’t change.
Queer and trans bodies of color (and critical theory) are not really digestible to the mainstream yet. I think DarkMatter’s breaking of that high ceiling has a lot to do with their class privilege.
Even though both members are queer and trans people of color, they still have access to the social and material resources, financial confidence, and respectability necessary to break that ceiling. They aren’t stereotyped as “threats” or “rowdy” or “angry” but as “interesting,” “intelligent,” “new” and “refreshing.” Their politics aren’t new and don’t directly affect them—but they’re getting largely credited for them. And in this, they take up space among the working class Black and Latinx trans people that their work—but not really lived experiences—represents.
To break their privilege down, it’s significant. It looks like: attending an ivy league university where social networks, intellectual capital and prestige are often gained; having access to people who own expensive cameras; having the ability to purchase a range of clothing and accessories that express your gender identity; comfortably living in New York; having access to an unprecedented global platform on which to talk about their personal struggles and the decades-old struggles of Black and Latinx people, and having people listen; earning thousands for an hour of labor, and still feeling salty about it; touring the US and the EU after graduating college, and flying to multiple continents for philanthropic work or keynotes.
On more poetic terms, the two members also have the privilege to “follow their dreams.” Dreams are an investment—they’re expensive and involve a lot of risk that working class people can’t in many ways afford. Poor people aren’t allowed to pursue their dreams.
(Side note: I personally messaged Alok about all this shit a few months after it had happened. Their response was fairly weak—and they failed to take accountability for the affects they had on real people they have the privilege of speaking to and for.)
This is an irony that I’m noticing with most class privileged queers I run into now. The folks who often preach “check your privilege” don’t really check their own, and this includes DarkMatter. In the longer-term, this approach to identity politics is harmful and individualistic.
Class is different from other identities: it’s invisible, nuanced, relative, and people generally don’t like to talk about it. This is because class is also powerful. It divides real people into the categories of “worthy” and “unworthy” of basic necessities. Poor people are socially motivated to be too ashamed—not proud—to identify as poor because of the many ramifications that accompany it, and wealthy people are uncomfortable with their desirable comfort.
Class is powerful for another reason: it shapes how we view and in turn treat groups of people. Class structurally disenfranchises and criminalizes marginalized communities: it’s how anti-Black and anti-Latinx racism, transphobia, misogyny, and nearly every other kind of oppression legally operate and take real form.
That’s why it’s necessary to treat class how we treat race, color, gender, and sexuality. But first, we need to start by talking about it. (Checking your class privilege once is like saying “I’m a white male—I have privilege,” and stopping there.) We need to have an ongoing, honest conversation and not abuse the ways in which we self-identify for our own benefit.
Our community has a phobia of privilege—especially when it’s ours. Because privilege isn’t cool anymore, we’re taking great measures to downplay ours and only selectively highlight the ways in which we’re oppressed. Because class is relatively invisible and awkward, it’s easiest to hide—especially when we’re marginalized in other ways.
When we talk about overthrowing capitalism, or Marxist theory, or identifying ourselves and spaces we occupy as “anti-capitalist,” we can’t not talk about our own class. When we self-righteously sneer at others to check their privilege, we have to check our own, repeatedly, not just once, even if it makes us uncomfortable.
If we are participating in this movement to destroy and bring visibility to all forms of oppression, we have to stop glamorizing the queers who are highest on the food chain and listen to and empower those who are most marginalized. We have to deconstruct the fucked up, invisible ways that we’ve been programmed to think and feel. And we must start by being honest about ourselves, our privilege, and our politics.
Sevan Mujukian