Working Class Lesbian Life: Classed Outsiders
Palgrave Macmillan Ltd, Basingstoke
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In recent years, there has been a resurgence of sociological work, much of it from sociologists concerned with gender, on the significance of class in relation to subjectivities, embodiment, consumption, lifestyle and taste and morality. Working Class Lesbian Life: Classed Outsiders is a welcome addition to a growing body of work on contemporary classed cultures. This is an extensive study of the complex intersections of classed and sexual identities and the material, embodied and subjective consequences of occupying both of these subjectivities at once. The book highlights the importance of thinking about the intersections of class and sexuality. This is at a time when a glance at the popular media would have us believe that we are living in a society where the category 'working class' is loosing its relevance, while the visibility of lesbians are seemingly an indicator of a cosmopolitan inclusive society. The book critiques an assumed heterosexuality when analysing the classed dimensions of social life. There is also a telling critique of the classed assumption of previous work on lesbians' life course, specifically the relationship between sexuality, education, employment, family, parenthood, home and neighbourhood.
The book is based on extensive qualitative interviews with 53 women aged between 16 and 64 who identified as working class and lesbian, from Scotland and the North and North-West of England. It is organised in a way which traces the chronology and spatiality of many of the informants' life course. The preliminary chapter sets the theoretical scene for the study, offering a review of the relevant literature and arguing the case for the importance of this study. This is followed by five empirical chapters. The first of these chapters 'Class and How to Get It' sets out the enduring significance of class for Yvette Taylor's interviewees, exploring the 'multiple, emotional explicit and obvious' ways that women spoke of their classed experience. Chapter three examines the experience of growing up in working class communities especially experiences of schooling. This demonstrates how, even as children and young people, these women were aware of the material consequences of being working class and the ways in which it is subtly signified. Here the interviewees speak about their disappointments about the divisions of gender, ethnicity and sexuality in working-class communities. The subsequent chapter is concerned with post-school life, and the transition into low paid and often female-dominated work or unemployment. Here, Taylor links economic inequalities with the complex, intersubjective, felt experience of inclusion and exclusion, discrimination and misrecognition on the basis of their identities as both lesbian and working class. Chapters five and six examine in detail working-class lesbian women's spatiality, and specifically the informants' sense of those places which are deeply class-based (such as the home, the estate) alongside sexualised spaces (the lesbian-and-gay-commercial-scene spaces such as cafes, bars and clubs), showing how class-based space is sexualised and sexual spaces such as the lesbian and gay 'scene' are classed. Chapter seven is a critique of those arguments regarding the transformation of intimacy, focussing on the classed dimensions of lesbians' intimate relationships. Interviewees discuss their difficulties, isolation and feelings of resentment or vulnerability when attempting to meet other lesbian women, navigating the classed and sexual 'closet'.
Writing about working-class lives is always risky: without caution such work can slide into sentimentality, emphasising the everyday heroics of the long-suffering, poor, cozy, cohesive communities and close-knit traditional families. I am thinking here of Michael Collin's (2004) The Likes of Us. This approach does not do justice to the frustrations, traps and limitations of class inequalities and the damage this can do (Back 2007: 83). However, an approach to working class life which only focuses on the struggles, hardships and injustices of working class existence can erase some of the positive aspects of working class life such as a spirit of resourcefulness, resilience and a sense of humour. Taylor navigates this difficult path avoiding some of these traps. The chapter titles and subheadings use working-class vernacular phrases to frame the subsequent academic arguments offering an interesting interplay of expression, encapsulating a great deal of street wisdom and working class humour, pointing towards the participants critical understandings.
Taylor employs a particular writing style, predominant in much sociological writing, which, in places does not do justice to her rich data set. Transcribed quotations are inserted into the text to do the evidential and empirical work, but at times the wider context is passed over too quickly in order to move to the next point in the argument. This is at the expense of thick description and nuanced portrayals of the lives of the women she has researched.
The book clearly shows how the production of classed meanings have material consequences for lesbian women speaking to the intersections of classed and sexual identities, however race is un-interrogated here. In the text women speak of the refusal of middle-class values, the perceived pretentiousness of middle class cultures which, of course, works to reify working class 'realness'. I was left wondering how this 'realness' is constituted and crucially, how it intersects with racial meanings. Clearly there are realities to poverty and location etc but working class identities, like sexualities do not exist a priori to the discourses which produce them. I also was surprised that the text did not interrogate in detail how the interviewees occupied the category 'lesbian' with any degree ambivalence.
These criticisms aside Working Class Lesbian Life: Classed Outsiders is a timely reminder of what can be lost in assuming that lesbian and gay identity expressions are merely matters of a generally acceptable 'lifestyle' which is available to all that desire it. It is a sobering reminder that class continues to have salience as a form of lived experience across a range of fields of opportunity and constraint.
BACK, L. (2007) The Art of Listening. London, Berg.
COLLIN, M. (2004) The Likes of Us. London, Granta.