Race, Class, and Closets: A View From The Summit

by Chris Kreussling

As I write this, it's the last week of July 2000, and I just returned from the Gay Men's Health Summit in Boulder, Colorado. I registered with SpeakOUT! as my organizational affiliation, so I thought that I would attend mostly sessions from the Substance Use / Party Culture track. I didn't expect that attending the Health Summit would become a healing experience for me.

I used to say jokingly of myself that, if I had not been gay, I would be a straight white male with no redeeming social value. As harsh as this judgment sounds to me now, it reflects the identities I held for myself: male, white, middle-class, mainstream. I used to think that my queerness alone informed my compassion, my empathy, and my sense of justice. This belief denied and masked the complexity and richness of my ethnic and class backgrounds.

My parents were born and raised in Brooklyn and Queens. My father's father was German Protestant, his mother Irish Catholic. My mother's parents were born and raised in Cuba. My mother never spoke Spanish around me, except when her mother or sister visited, or when we traveled to Miami to visit with my Cuban relatives. I studied German rather than Spanish in junior high and high schools. I was raised in my father's house.

Owning identity

Thursday evening I attended "Gay Men of Color: Owning Your Ethnicity and Sexual Identity" which was facilitated by Vic Hernandez and Enrique Andino. Attending this workshop was a risk for me. I'm fair-skinned, as is my mother, as was my grandmother. Most people "read" me as white, not latino. During this workshop I disclosed that I was half-Cuban. Later in the workshop one of the other men thanked me for mentioning this, because he would otherwise have felt "Who is this white guy?!" intruding into even this space, this time.

My grandfather's complexion was dark. When my grandmother died, found among her possessions was my grandfather's Cuban passport from the 1920s or 1930s. In the area for race, it read triqueño. I've never learned exactly what this means in the context of early 20th Century Cuban racial politics (If you have any information, please let me know!). My mother's response to this discovery was, "We can't tell Terry," her sister. In all the ways that those who emerge from dysfunction know such things, I implicitly understood layers of meaning in her statement. She was taking notice that the passport did not read blanco. Her father was not "white." She is not, nor am I, completely "white." When she projected concern about racial identity onto her sister, it really meant that this disturbed her.

When I took my parents to their first _ and only _ PFLAG meeting about ten years ago, my mother said "I don't have a problem with Chris being gay. Gerry (my father) has a problem with it, but I don't have a problem with it." But she does have a big problem with "it." In the two-and-a-half decades since I came out to them, she's said far more hateful things to me than my father about my being gay. Among the more memorable occurred two or three months after I came out to them. In a half-hour phone conversation during which she harangued me for being gay, she said, "I don't understand. The hot blood of the Spanish is in you, too."

Class is out

Saturday afternoon I attended "Out of the Class Closet" which was facilitated by Nick Rubashkin and Kevin Takakuwa. Before this workshop, I've always said I grew up simply middle class. I'd never asked myself how messages about class have affected me.

My father's income comfortably supported us. We owned our home, we went away on vacations. On the other hand, we moved twice to follow my father's work, and lost our home on the second move. For six years of my childhood my father worked 60-80 hours a week. My parents' class backgrounds are more complex: my father was raised poor and often went hungry while, in Cuba, my mother's parents had been owning class, merchants and landowners.

In my life, this mix hasn't settled. I went to college, but dropped out. I could afford a home, but I rent. When I called my parents to tell them of my last promotion, I told them how much I was "making" now. My father joked, "You want your kids to do better than you, but that's ridiculous."

Why does it matter?

A foundation of SpeakOUT's vision and mission is recognizing oppression and its human costs. To engage in this work, I must be willing to be transformed by it. If I do it with honesty in my heart, I can be. My experiences with SpeakOUT, and at the Summit, renew my faith and hope that I will be.

Webmaster: Chris Kreussling
Email: speakout@xris.com
SpeakOUT! Project Supervisor: Carmen Vazquez
Tel: (212)620-7310
Email: speakout@gaycenter.org

SpeakOUT! is a project of the New York City Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Community Center.
SpeakOUT! is funded 2001-2004 by a Recovery Community Support Project (RCSP) grant from the Center for Substance Abuse Treatment (CSAT), Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), U.S. Department of Heath and Human Services. Contents are solely the responsibility of the authors and do not necessarily represent the official views of the agency.