Susan Raffo: A Matter Of Class

Susan Raffo, the editor of Queerly Classed: Gay Man & Lesbians Write About Class — available from Amazon — has worked as a park ranger, a waitress, a taxi driver, a writer and a salesperson, among other things. So she knows something about differences in class.

The book, which she says sprang from a call for essays at a periodical she edited, is intended to explore individual lives by talking about the personal ideas lesbians and gay men have about class and the political implications of class on American society.

GIP PLASTER: Let’s be direct. Why would Queerly Classed be of interest to the average lesbian or gay reader?

SUSAN RAFFO: Such an interesting question — it immediately it makes me wonder who the “average” lesbian or gay reader is. This book is of interest to anyone who wants to know about the range of lives lesbians and gay men live. It is of interest to those who are curious to learn more about their community.

GIP PLASTER: So who do you think the average queer reader is?

SUSAN RAFFO: If we were to believe the mainstream image produced both by mainstream queerness and by the pop culture mainstream, the average queer reader is only interested in fashion, cruises, and the newest lesbian or gay knickknacks. Oh, and fighting for gay marriage. I don’t believe that is the sum-total of our interests. I do believe the questions and concerns raised in this book are of broader concern than they might seem at face value, especially in light of our changing economic times.

GIP PLASTER: Are people really concerned with class? Is it something people think about? That’s not a term I use very often — at all, actually.

SUSAN RAFFO: People think about class all the time. Every time they panic about money, bills, work, the future of Social Security or whatever — they are thinking about class. People are concerned about class when they talk about education and its role, when they talk about inflation and the changing economy. The problem is that we don’t have any political language — let alone a sophisticated political language — for talking about class.

GIP PLASTER: If we do talk about class, then, what is it we’re saying? What do we believe about class structures?

SUSAN RAFFO: I believe that the principle class belief in the U. S. that affects all our lives — in a huge variety of ways — is the belief that if you work hard enough, you can make anything of yourself or, at least, have a consumer-oriented middle class lifestyle. This ethic guides much political conversation, and it is used as a justification for many political changes and career moves.

GIP PLASTER: Are there uniquely gay issues involved, too?

SUSAN RAFFO: Queers are very concerned about class when they say we want to show the American people that we are just like they are; we are just like everyone else. The question begs to be asked: which “everyone else” are we like? The image usually offered is a particular kind of nuclear family — middle class, career and consumer oriented lifestyle. When gays and lesbians are embarrassed about other gays and lesbians who “act out” in ways they say will hurt the movement we are having conversations about class. We are having a conversation that compares behaviors: one kind being appropriate and the other kinds being inappropriate or low class or embarrassing.

GIP PLASTER: What qualifies the people who contributed to the book to write about class?

SUSAN RAFFO: The contributors are mostly writers of one flavor or another. They are qualified because they did the hard work of creating their pieces. Everyone is qualified to talk about class, and if we enjoy writing or want to write, to write about class. And their qualifications would have to include perseverance.

GIP PLASTER: Why are some of the writers’ contributions in the form of poems? That’s sort of unusual for a book like this.

SUSAN RAFFO: Class systems are about rules of order and hierarchies. I’m simplifying it in the extreme when I say there is a class system around writing genres. Usually writing considered appropriate for political analysis is filled with facts and strong sentences. I like that kind of writing. It gets my blood up and gives me tools to work with. It makes me feel a particular kind of righteous. But I also like writing that makes me connect through my heart and body. I know that poetry starts with body and ends up at brain. I think our general political conversations would be a lot more interesting — and a lot more honest — if we let our spirits and hearts take part as much as our brains. Poetry opens different windows than analysis. Those windows need to be open, too.

GIP PLASTER: What words do you consider synonymous with class?

SUSAN RAFFO: I see class in two ways: one, as something that determines an experience of culture and two, as a lens through which everything else gets focused. So for synonymous words, I would mention almost everything — status, champagne, Kmart, race, money, savings accounts, penny jar, doctorate — because everything is affected by class. Opera, country music, wage, career, rap, light-skinned, white trash, bath houses, public sex, dildos, sodomy laws, lesbian potlucks. The list goes on.

GIP PLASTER: That’s quite a list. So if you were writing about your book, what would you say?

SUSAN RAFFO: I would start by thinking about class and then by asking how this conversation about class is different because the voices discussing it are all queer. Is the conversation different? I think it is. I want this book to act as one point in a long discussion, a point by which we need to pass as our cultural conversation gets bigger and better.

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