By Samantha Gardner, Education & Employment Resource Specialist
The night was bitterly cold and the wind coming off the lake stung our faces when the ANCHOR Project crew arrived at the Chicago Hilton for the Creating Change conference. Chandeliers loomed over our heads as we walked between the marbled grand staircases with our luggage dragging behind us. Instantly, I became hyper aware of my borrowed winter coat, my secondhand jeans, and my old sneakers. A sense of unease crept up in me that brought to mind my years of wearing my sister’s hand-me-downs. This hotel was the fanciest place that I had ever stayed in my life. The Hilton’s luxuries made my conference mission, to help the unemployed find jobs, seem so ironic.
There was energy in the air as so often when a large group of LGBTQ+ folks gather. My nerves, social anxiety, and jetlag made it hard to sleep that night. Like a kid waiting for Christmas morning, my mind raced with what I could learn from this conference. My goal was to network and knowledge-share with other professionals who were dealing with LGBTQ+ job development and career coaching. I am the first in my position at both SAAF and ANCHOR so I had to take my previous experience and use it to modify curriculum and tactics. But there are times when I wondered if I was working harder and not smarter. I knew that I needed to see what other professionals were doing. I had hoped that I would met the right person or get the right Dropbox link and my queries, worries, and roadblocks around queer unemployment would be explained.
I learned many things from Creating Change (and in subsequent posts, I will elaborate more), but my biggest lesson that I learned that the LGBTQ+ movement still needs to dedicate more resources to poverty and unemployment. We address some of the symptoms including youth homelessness, substance abuse, and lack of healthcare, but it seems like the myth of Gay Cash (i.e. the idea that queer folks are affluent due to their assumed lack of children) is one that the community finds hard to shake–even as our social workers, activists, and community members are triaging crises, exacerbated or caused by poverty, on the front line.
This isn’t unique to the LGBTQ+ community. It is an American problem to ignore the poverty even when we are or aren’t interrogating the racist/misogynistic/queerphobic/etc. mechanisms that organize the class system. John Steinbeck once wrote that “socialism never took root in America because the poor see themselves not as an exploited proletariat but as temporarily embarrassed millionaires.” Poor is a 4-letter word that inspires shame in Americans that can even override other social taboos and crimes. Dorothy Allison, femme lesbian author of Bastard Out of Carolina, experienced this shame when her family reacted with outrage to her semi-autobiographical novel yet it was not because of the account of incest and child molestation, but the depiction of the family as poor.
Most have heard about cat shaming, but I believe that a more common form of shame is poor-shaming. This stigma around being poor, working class, working poor, or whatever one wants to call the experience of scrambling and hustling to live in America, needs to end so the LGBTQ+ movement can fully address this issue.
Waking up for the first day of the conference, I was ready to address queer poverty. I carefully put on my best professional clothes before talking the golden elevator to the lobby. I saw snow gently falling beyond the revolving doors. With a glee that only an Arizona kid can summon, I raced outside to tip my face up the snowflakes and enjoy a simple pleasure before the work of the day began.