by Zeph Fishlyn
I’m a 44-year-old white genderqueer-sorta-female person born and raised in Montreal and raised again as an adult queerdo in the Mission District in San Francisco. I came from an owning-class Canadian WASP family (yeah, white anglo saxon protestant which is an ethnicity to itself!). I can thank them for good teeth and education and vacation opportunities and also for legacies of silence, repression and anger. In 1987 I landed in San Francisco desperate for connection and found it among all the small-town escapees, droves of young punkdykes, older leatherdykes, queers from every quarter who had managed to walk-crawl-run to a city where they could find others like themselves.
I came for a visit and stayed. I dropped out of college. I got my real education. I didn’t have a green card, and queers hooked me up with under-the-table work doing housepainting, phone sex, bookstore work, leather goods manufacturing, commercial kitchen work, you name it. The community in San Francisco was the first place I had felt relatively safe and sane despite my ongoing and typical queerdo struggles with depression, loneliness and anxiety. I told people the INS would have to march me to the border with a gun to my head to make me leave. I learned about street economies and I absorbed a lot of politics and went to a lot of protests. I listened especially closely to the stories and perspectives of kickass and outspoken queers of color and money-poor folks. For my own survival I needed to understand how to fight against a world that is trying to erase you, so I sought the words of the experts.
When I turned 25 I found out that I had inherited stocks from my paternal grandfather that at this point were worth somewhere around a quarter million dollars. They were controlled by my Dad, who worked at a firm that invested wealthy peoples’ money for them. (And yes, they all play golf together on weekends.) I ignored this information for years because I had a terrible relationship with my Dad and didn’t want to ask him for anything EVER, particularly money. But I also felt guilty and conflicted, knowing I could have access to this resource and seeing so much struggle around me while I had this huge insurance policy.
In general, I did all that stupid stuff that rich punk kids do out of self-hatred, guilt, and (in my case) utter terror of alienating folks in the only support network I had. I never talked about my family (it was too confusing/vulnerable to try to describe both the emotional shittiness and the material comfort in one breath). I “talked poor” and didn’t know how to be generous with myself or anybody else. I was super judgmental of (and threatened by) other folks who took advantage of their resources and privileges, even when they did cool things with them.
When my Dad finally retired, a family friend in the good ol’ boys’ club took over management of those stocks and I was finally able to put aside my family baggage enough to step up to the task of redistribution. I did a ton of research, found Resource Generation, went to a couple of Making Money Make Change (MMMC) conferences, “came out” (with mixed results) to friends in my life, and in the end distributed about 75% of my inheritance, mostly to community-based foundations and some directly to organizations doing work I admired. I chose foundations with strong leadership by women, queers and folks of color, hoping they would be better gatekeepers than I could be on my own. Resource Generation and MMMC were super useful as a starting point, but I didn’t stay involved because it felt limited for rich folks to talk in closed spaces only with other rich folks about social justice. It inherently excludes the wisdom of those who know economic injustice from the inside out.
I didn’t redistribute 100% of my inheritance because I figured I was on my own from there on—my family was both threatened and hurt when I gave away this money and I assumed I wouldn’t inherit again. I didn’t want to find myself in a bad situation because of medical bills or some other crisis and have my friends and family say, “well, you had money but you gave it all away–why should we help you now?”
Since then I’ve given myself permission to do some things that privilege makes easier. So I scraped together all my transferable credits and went back to school for a BFA. And in the last few years I’ve been volunteering and traveling a lot on the anarchist circuit, putting a lot of energy into work that has no value under capitalism (mostly with the Beehive Design Collective). Not surprisingly, on that circuit I’ve met a lot of other privileged lefties—way more than I ever met while making a living in a kitchen, or in a tattoo shop.
And I’ve come to another fork in the road, unexpectedly. Just this last year my Dad unexpectedly transferred a bunch of his own assets to me (he has cancer and I assume it’s some tax avoidance strategy to do this while he’s still alive.) As a raised-poor, formerly homeless friend said to me, “Wow, when you’re born with money the world just keeps giving it you, huh?” My Dad called me on the phone and asked me to agree I wouldn’t spend it on anything that wasn’t an investment in my future security. I thought for a minute silently about how my individual security is closely wrapped up with the security of communities I depend on, and I agreed.
So now I’m trying to figure out what to do. I want to both honor my Dad’s concern (that I’m gonna die broke and alone) and also take a lesson from an ex-lover who I was dating while I was divesting my previous inheritance. At the time, she was struggling to get into nursing school, cause she was coming up on 40 and she was tired of being poor. At the time she expressed a lot of frustration that I wasn’t putting those resources to work in a way that more directly supported the community we were both part of. It’s true, why was I funneling cash to the nonprofit industrial complex when folks we both knew were struggling with basics like health care, housing and work? Her own upbringing taught her that if you have a dime, you share it with your family and friends. I told her I felt overwhelmed by the potential minefield of being a gatekeeper in my own community, and I also wanted to support movements and organizations that were working on root causes and with communities outside of the mostly-white queerpunk circles I knew personally.
It’s half a decade later, and this time around I want to synthesize these contradictory threads. I’m thinking about how to “invest” (as the white anglo saxon protestants say) in long-term resources for me and for communities I care about, that nurture the creativity and organizing we need to thrive. I’m thinking about access to land, to workspaces, to tools, to kitchens.
I’m thinking about how organizing is built on personal relationships, and about the concentric rings of my existing networks and connections—the closest rings being mostly white queer artists and activists and survivors of various kinds, and then the wider rings those folks connect me to, larger activist and artist communities, wider communities of class and race affiliation. I’m thinking about how hard it is to work across difference, and how important it is for us to get better at it, to challenge and support each other face-to-face.
In some ways I need to learn what some of my working class friends have told me they take for granted: the habit of sharing as a daily act, without heroics or fancy labels like “philanthropy.” And I also know it’s not that simple. I’m thinking about all the ways that people work together and share resources and decisionmaking, from family/tribal models to collectives to nonprofits, and how they all have ups and downs and potential minefields. And I’m thinking how each of us is just doing one little piece, and it’s never gonna be perfect, and to not “freeze up” for fear of fucking up or running into conflict. How sometimes lefties are better at saying “no” and tearing shit down than building stuff up, and I’ve been really good at “no”, and now I want to join the builders. And I’m trying to just open up my mouth more and speak my truth and ask these questions, and hope that something good grows out of it. I’m looking for input, for inspiration, for allies and role models. Whatcha got?