A Question of Class
by Dorothy Allison
The first time I heard, "They're different than us, don't value
human life the way we do," I was in high school in Central Florida.
The man speaking was an army recruiter talking to a bunch of boys,
telling them what the army was really like, what they could expect
overseas. A cold angry feeling swept over me. I had heard the word
they pronounced in that same callous tone before.
, those people
over there, those people who are not us, they die so easily, kill each
other so casually. They are different.
, I thought.
When I was six or eight back in Greenville, South Carolina, I had
heard that same matter-of-fact tone of dismissal applied to me. "Don't
you play with her. I don't want you talking to them." Me and my
family, we had always been
. 'Who am I? I wondered, listening to
that recruiter. 'Who are my people? We die so easily, disappear so
completely—we/they, the poor and the queer. I pressed my bony white
trash fists to my stubborn lesbian mouth. The rage was a good feeling,
stronger and purer than the shame that followed it, the fear and the
sudden urge to run and hide, to deny, to pretend I did not know who I
was and what the world would do to me.
My people were not remarkable. We were ordinary, but even so
we were mythical. We were the
everyone talks about—the un-
grateful poor. I grew up trying to run away from the fate that destroyed
so many of the people I loved, and having learned the habit of hiding, I
found I had also learned to hide from myself. I did not know who I
was, only that I did not want to be
, the ones who are destroyed or
dismissed to make the "real" people, the important people, feel safer.
By the time I understood that I was queer, that habit of hiding was
deeply set in me, so deeply that it was not a choice but an instinct.
Hide, hide to survive, I thought, knowing that if I told the truth about
my life, my family, my sexual desire, my history, I would move over
into that unknown territory, the land of they, would never have the
chance to name my own life, to understand it or claim it.
Why are you so afraid? my lovers and friends have asked me the
many times I have suddenly seemed a stranger, someone who would
not speak to them, would not do the things they believed I should do,
simple things like applying for a job, or a grant, or some award they
were sure I could acquire easily. Entitlement, I have told them, is a
matter of feeling like we rather than they. You think you have a right
to things, a place in the world, and it is so intrinsically a part of you
that you cannot imagine people like me, people who seem to live in
your world, who don't have it. I have explained what I know over and
over, in every way I can, but I have never been able to make clear the
degree of my fear, the extent to which I feel myself denied: not only
that I am queer in a world that hates queers, but that I was born poor
into a world that despises the poor. The need to make my world