‘We build a wall around our sanctuaries’: Queerness and Precarity

by Joni Pitt (Cohen) & Sophie Monk

28 August 2016

“To our own queer family.”

In this article, we hope to offer an analysis of the material conditions of queer lives in austerity Britain. We want to shed light on the multitude of violent forces that attempt to re-organise and destroy queer communities, but also point out the forms of struggle in which we are already engaged. Queerness and precarity go hand in hand. The fact that you are now reading this article is only made possible by the queer support and solidarity the writers share, and its successful completion is a continuing surprise to us both. Firstly, however, we must begin by de-centring the heterosexual household in Marxist analyses of production and reproduction, in the light of queer politics.

The heterosexual household.

The household is the means by which life is made and re-made under capitalism. Marxist feminism has offered incredible insights into the functioning of the household and the gendered division of labour and distribution of resources within it. Theories of social reproduction from the likes of Silvia Federici have displaced the male proletarian worker as the principle economic unit, and shed light on a network of people dependent on an indirect access to the fruits of waged work. Simultaneously they call to attention the underbelly of labour that goes into making and re-making the workforce. The housewife, the mother and the informally labouring child are all essential, and yet invisible parts of an economic system that is broader than the waged relation. Plan C’s excellent video “What the Fuck is Social Reproduction” provides further explanation of the ways in which certain forms of labour are feminized.

This gives us a picture of ‘masculine’ productive labour dependent on a broad base of ‘feminine’ and infantilised labour: in other words, social reproduction. Cleaning, ironing, cooking, fucking, caring, comforting, entertaining and most other forms of affective labour traditionally have fallen to the housewife. Even the child has a reproductive role to play, from undertaking chores, participating in the education system and the care and education of siblings, to informal waged labour in the forms of the paper round and Saturday job in order to financially support the household.

Although an improvement on the purely male-centric understanding of economic production, the division of labour we have thus far described is markedly heterosexual and cisgendered. It therefore provides us with limited apparatus to explore the production and re-production of queer lives.

Queer (in)access to the household.

The household described above is the hegemonic economic unit under capitalism, and yet, what about those who fall outside this form? What about LGBT folk who lack even the fundamental access to the household? Upon coming out, many queers are rejected by their families, orphaned, and denied the securities that integration into the family home provides. If our most basic unit of analysis is the traditional household, then we exclude from our study those who are excluded from the household. We must therefore draw inspiration from and simultaneously address the shortcomings of a Marxist feminism that neglects the structural homophobia and transphobia that the domestic household is produced by and through.

The majority of queers have, at the very least, a troubled relationship to the households in which they were reproduced. After a certain age, however, these relations are largely precarious and almost non-existent. According to a report by the Albert Kennedy Trust in 2015, 69% of LGBT youth have experienced rejection, abuse and violence from their families, resulting in a whole population of young people with little or no access to the household.

For estranged queers, the responsibility for taking care of oneself and managing one’s life is privatised to the individual. The proletarian queer is required to do both productive labour – for the wage – and the reproductive work necessary for the continuation of their labour power, through self-care, and the management of their own individual micro-household. We (the writers of this article) and the majority of our friends, live lives in which at many points we have had no choice but to rent single rooms in shared houses with people to which we have little to no emotional connection. This allows very little of the shared reproductive labour that the household usually affords us. Bulk buying food for the purposes of saving money is often impossible, and the the responsibility for the labour of maintaining our living environments and our own physical and mental health is individualised. In this situation, when we fall ill – as we often do – we are left to recover alone in our rooms, without access to care from housemates. The traumas of living in a cis-heteropatriarchal world have to be dealt with alone, or with the care of friends suffering the same conditions: those who are least equipped taking on the responsibilities of caring for another person. We must remember that the archetypal working man, does little to none of this reproductive work himself, but has his household members to provide this for him. The individual queer proletarian is then faced with a double serving of labour responsibilities, both productive and reproductive.

Queerness itself often necessitates a precarious relation to work, from the trans woman who faces the daily struggle of passing as cisgendered in order to keep her job, to the lesbian who experiences daily homophobia in low-waged, casualized bar work. Even when queers manage to get jobs, they are at a higher risk of losing them than their straight cisgendered proletarian brothers and sisters. Many queers have to hide their true identities, whether this be hiding partners, or their gender identities and presentations, in order to gain access to jobs. Vulnerability to systemic homophobia and transphobia often leads to traumas and economic conditions that render queers unable to gain access to or complete the necessary qualifications required for stable, contractual, waged work. If we acknowledge the wage gap between men and women in Britain, in which women earn 70% of their male counterpart’s salary, we must also recognize the existence of a wage gap between straights and queers, despite the insistence of the right-wing media that lesbians are structurally at an advantage to straight women in the workplace.

Globally, the majority of trans women are in sex work. Recent research suggests that transgender women experience higher rates of unemployment and are at greater risk of becoming homeless than their cisgendered counterparts resulting, in the sex industry being the world’s biggest employer of trans women. As Toni Mac elaborates, though sex work itself is nominally decriminalised in Britain, street solicitation and working in groups for safety remains illegal which creates unsafe working conditions and a higher risk of abuse from clients, managers and police as well as the threat of being reported to police by clients. Denied proper rights to unionisation of work, queer sex workers lack the benefits of collective bargaining and are therefore forced to accept wage rates dictated by the market.

Here, then, we begin to understand queerness not only as something to pair with precarity, but queerness as precarity. To be queer is not only to adopt an identity through which one is oppressed through violence and hatred, but is also materially implicated in class relations in a particular way. Even previously instantiated class privilege can be disrupted through forcible ejection from the bourgeois household. Herein we may finally abandon the vulgar Marxist notion of queerness as a bourgeois frivolity, bracketed under the hurriedly dismissed category of “identity politics” to which working class people have no access, and instead understand that queerness constitutes a particular economic marginalisation, that must be integrated into even the most economic reductionist analyses of capitalism.  

Queer (in)access to welfare.

Considering our fraught relationship to paid work, it comes as no surprise that many queer people are forced into a “reliance upon state support (or, perhaps more aptly, state control) in order to survive. Welfare cuts not only constitute deprivation, but also serve a disciplinary function: to individualise the welfare needs of the queer community into discrete cases, and exclude the possibility of collective organising and solidarity. Since the proletarian queer must individually justify their reliance upon welfare services, this intensifies the precarity of their access to welfare and forecloses the possibility of genuine ‘support’.

Not to mention that the welfare system itself is hostile to the needs of queer people, demanding that we develop fictions about ourselves in order to jump through various bureaucratic hoops so that we might gain access to the services we need. The streamlining of services solidifies the border between those who are considered “deserving” and those who are not. In material terms this leads to a policing of identity. For example, non-binary trans people almost universally must feign a different gender identity to their own in order to access trans healthcare services such as hormone therapy and surgeries. Think also about those queer orphans expelled from the family unit. As long as their parents can be shown to have assets, housing benefit remains unavailable to the child unless they endure a long and emotionally harrowing process of documenting that they are genuinely estranged from their parents.

Furthermore, homophobia and transphobia is not always recognised by the Home Office as a legitimate case for asylum in the UK, leading to the refusal of asylum status, refusal of visa renewal and deportation for many queer migrants. In extreme cases where queer asylum seekers are due to be deported to their deaths, the Home Office demands ludicrous and invasive levels of “evidence” of the individual’s queerness, as in the case of Zimbabwean lesbian woman Skhumbuzo Khumalo. She was told she had to provide sexual photographs as proof of her sexuality. The rigours we must put ourselves through in order to access the basic means of our survival are so crushing and so humiliating that it is no wonder so many queer people end up in destitution.

This destitution is a result of a campaign of state violence upon our communities. When LGBT youth comprise 24% of the youth homeless population, depriving queer folk of ways out of such situations is just as violent as the abuse and harassment that homeless queers experience on the street. As housing benefits are cut and access to social housing is gradually dismantled, the possibility of the reproduction of queer life is made less and less tenable.  

Additionally, members of the LGBT community are disproportionately reliant on sexual and mental health services, which face brutal government cuts as part of an austerity project which claims to restore the country to “living within its means.” Evidently the very real needs of LGBT people are considered external to necessity in a vision that ironically claims “we’re all in it together.” Queer people are statistically more likely to suffer from chronic mental illness – often as a result of long-term precarity and abuse – and yet in the last year, specialist organisations such as PACE have one by one had to close their doors due to cuts to local authority budgets.  In a similar vein, though 1 in 4 LGB and 4 out of 5 trans people are estimated to have experienced domestic violence, the UK’s only LGBT specific domestic violence support service, Broken Rainbow also faces closure due to a lack of government funding. Cuts should not be understood as a pragmatic necessity, a burden that we must share evenly as a nation so that we might prosper in the long run, but as evidence of the logic that queer lives are expendable. The cutting of welfare services has devastating material implications for the lives of those who are already marginalised and immiserated. Every cut to specialised mental health and domestic violence support groups is felt sharply by the communities that depend on them. In the words of feminist direct action group Sisters Uncut: when “they cut, we bleed.”

Queer families and queer households.

The picture we have painted above is undoubtedly a bleak one. What we can gather from these horrifying statistics and stories is that to be queer under austerity is to live in a state of immiseration. And yet, queer life is not impossible. In many ways queerness can be considered co-extensive with precarity, demonstrating on one hand the difficulties we face in simply living our lives, but also the potential for solidarities to be formed and alternative centres of reproduction to be built. In the words of Joshua Clover, “the class of the immiserated will unite a whole load of motherfuckers.”

For the most part, we have no choice but to make and re-make ourselves outside of the comforts of the heterosexual household and with little to no genuine support from the state. So how are we still here? Well, many of us aren’t. But it is the formation of what we want to term “queer families” that make it possible for queer life to continue, and even (sometimes?) thrive.

And so we plan our escapes from the scourges of the family and the state; we make endless cups of tea for one another; we share our Valium and our estrogen prescriptions; we clean each others’ rooms when our siblings are too immobilised by depression to do it themselves; we check that everyone is fed, that everyone has a roof over their heads; we share warm beds  and warmer cuddles; we sit in doctors’ waiting rooms and the foyers of police stations, holding hands in a shared, understanding silence; we pool resources, sub each others’ rents and congratulate each other every day that we manage to get out of bed; we make Facebook groups for selfie-sharing just so that we can tell each other we are beautiful and important; we organise club-nights where we can enjoy ourselves in relative safety; we accompany each other to public toilets when there is no de-gendered option available; we “sit in the warm darkness that collects in the back of pubs”; we comfort, we care, we fight off our street harrassers; at home we build a wall around our sanctuaries and on the streets we chip away at the walls that divide us, shattering the windows of the monuments to our misery, splaying graffiti on the walls of detention centres.

But on a less poetic note, our project is to build queer households, to meaningfully “seize the means of reproduction” so that we may reproduce subjectivities and bodies that can withstand the violence of capitalism and even confront it. The queer household is where the class of immiserated queers is sustained. It is where we labour together, within our best capacities, to keep ourselves alive and as well as possible. Academic Marxism has yet to fully understand this process, and yet it is something we theorise in our everyday lives. If all of this sounds familiar to you, we want you to know that we are here, we share in your precarity and we send all the love and solidarity we can muster your way.

Endnote from Joni.

The tray of charcoaled oven chips you see above is, in the last instance, the result of capitalism. A few months ago, I came home from a party at 6am after drinking away transphobically-produced social anxiety, and put some chips in the oven. Unfortunately, I fell asleep soon after; I, shall we say, lacked the executive function to remove them before they turned black and filled the house with smoke. This article, and indeed this photo, is a testament to the constant attacks on our wellbeing and functioning that we endure as queers under capitalism.

We’re up against huge power and influence. Our supporters keep us entirely free to access. We don’t have any ad partnerships or sponsored content.

Donate one hour’s wage per month—or whatever you can afford—today.

We’re up against huge power and influence. Our supporters keep us entirely free to access. We don’t have any ad partnerships or sponsored content.

Donate one hour’s wage per month—or whatever you can afford—today.