Monday, March 11, 2013

Charity vs. Solidarity: Out of the Bathhouses, Into the Streets

This was originally a paper for an anthropology class. Please excuse any potential hoity-toityness.

While I have often received both criticism and approbation, both from the right and the left, for engaging in discourse on topics related to social justice, the core of the work that I do is driven by reasons not immediately apparent to many. 

It is often self-evident to outsiders why I engage in the work I do. Few but the most deluded can ignore the systemic and institutionalized injustices in our society. Racism, economic disparity, sexism, homophobia... it’s all too clear that efforts need to be made in order to correct these ills. Capitalism, empire, and the state all work to oppress the working class and the policing of social movements warrants resistance.

One factor, however, to which little attention gets paid, is my personal motivation and inspiration for engaging in this sort of work. Far beyond the most obvious and superficial reasons-- I have been fired from the Armed Services for being queer, I have been homeless-- is a deeper connection to concepts that drive movements like the ones I have taken part in.

Social movements often stand in stark contrast to the narrative established by the ruling class, which states that social change and the betterment of our fellow humans is one that must come descended from a hierarchy of privilege. The wealthy and powerful would have us believe that justice must come from above; either charity from the rich or magnanimity from the state would grant us the resources or rights we desire and deserve. With recent studies indicating the wealthy donate little to charity and historical trends indicating the state is primarily being used to advance the agenda of the already-powerful, this is a narrative and idea that simply won’t do to correct the societal injustices of our nation and planet. What instead is needed is solidarity: where the oppressed, underprivileged, and poor stand together to demand change and the betterment of the social order in resistance to the goals and exploitation of the ruling class.

This concept first truly crystallized for me amidst a personal crisis of an extreme degree that I faced in my own personal exploits. While the example I outline below is but a microcosm of the concepts that I espouse previous, it illustrated to me quite neatly that charity, asking for help from those better off than I, is neither desirable nor effective.

In February, 2009, I moved from Eugene, OR a newly-diagnosed HIV-positive, unemployed 20-something with little in the way of goals or plans for the future. After spending close to a year working in a porn store, I secured a job at a local bathhouse located on Capitol Hill. I was making an hourly wage that wasn’t half bad, had a partner that I thought I was in love with, was accessing HIV treatment, and had a lovely apartment with a great view. Life was good.

The bathhouse proved to be my downfall, however. Much like many gay male-identified people, I had dabbled with hard drugs over the years. A brush with addiction to cocaine had been overcome some time previous, and an occasional brush with methamphetamine was not uncommon every few months or so.

This changed in the bathhouse. The Seattle gay sex club scene is rife with crystal meth use. This particular bathhouse even had someone living in one of the rooms full-time who made brisk trade selling meth to patrons. I, slowly, gradually, and finally explosively, became a full-time meth user. 

This was undoubtedly the darkest time of my life. I stopped reliably taking my medications, to include both HIV and psychiatric medications. I have a small frame, and what little weight I had started to melt away. I stopped caring for my personal appearance, and my friendships with non-users started to suffer. My relationship became troubled, with my partner confused and baffled; a previously happy healthy Ian instead became angry, brooding, prone to explosive outbursts. I sometimes didn’t sleep for a week at a time. My job performance became erratic and spotty at best; I always showed up to work (where I could get the drug upon which I had come to depend), but the quality of my work suffered.

My life finally fell apart and I had no recourse but to admit I had a problem. My partner, finding out that I was using, left me. I lost my apartment. The only thing left I had was a job that enabled me to find and use the drug that was slowly killing me. When I became homeless, I too started living at the bathhouse, just up the stairs from the dealer that gave me the substance that was destroying my life. I took a step that was one of the harder things to do: I admitted I had a problem, publicly and openly, and sought treatment.

In the weeks between my admission and my registration at an inpatient addiction treatment facility, living at the bathhouse was clearly untenable with my goals of getting better. I had to seek out another place to stay; someplace where I would not use. I turned to my non-using friends to try and find housing; none of my calls, messages, emails were returned. Those best equipped to help me would not. I was left without any recourse.

Except, of course, from my fellow addicts. Many of them were years-long addicts, and while they still used and would not necessarily admit that they had problems, they recognized the deep and disturbing problems in their lives. They saw that I had made a choice to try and change, a choice that many of them desperately wanted for themselves in their own lives. In the end, the ones who took care of me and encouraged me most were those who were themselves in the thrall of addiction. 

I lived, in those weeks, on an addict’s couch. One addict, as the weather was getting colder, made sure I had warm clothes. Several shared their groceries with me and made sure I ate. While they were not able to encourage me to quit my use immediately, they at least assisted me in my other material needs and sent me off to treatment with well-wishes and the hope that I would accomplish my goal, that of being meth-free.

This illustrated to me something crucial to gay meth culture in Seattle. While it was a seedy scene driven by sex, drugs, and the immediate gratification of baser instincts and wants, it was a cohesive, if dysfunctional, community. While infighting occurred, mostly squabbles over money and drugs, there was a sense of solidarity. We were all sick. We were all living in fear of getting caught by police. We were all in fear of overdose and death. So we helped each other to survive.

The juxtaposition of the reaction garnered from my non-using friends and those who shared my addiction is stark. I asked for charity from those best able to give it and it was denied; asking for help from those more materially privileged had been useless. However, when leaning on my fellow addicts, my needs were met and I was able to save my life.

This gave me an essential understanding of the concepts of charity and solidarity and has shaped a great deal of how I view the struggles of the working class and underprivileged. We can beg for scraps from a richer table and ask for charity, either in the form of resources or rights. This will likely lead to the failure of the working class and the continued oppression of the many peoples who find themselves the victim of white, capitalist, patriarchal exploitation.

It is instead in the solidarity and shared struggle of our fellows that we get by, and we must harness that in order to seize the needs for which the ruling class would have us petition, request, and beg. It won’t be until we break this paradigm of trickle-down justice that we more truly empower the disempowered in our own destiny.

I don’t pretend to say that my experience as an addict is a universal one, but it is indeed a small subsection of experience that informs a valuable praxis of political activity. I wonder what other stories are out there, other cultural experiences that fuel concepts such as mutualism and solidarity. As we enter into a new age of radical resurgence and political unrest, however, we would do well to remember: begging will get us nothing. We must provide for ourselves, and the only way we can do that is together.


  1. It's true. In my experience, those with the least to offer have been the most generous.

  2. Ian. When you and I were living with your sister we went on a long walk during which I spoke of a lot of the points you touched on here (the self destruction vibe of urban gay youth, the bathhouse harm effect, the need to out grow things like cruisey parks, the drugs problem, the need to take to the streets, the need as a culture to grow up in order to realize equal rights). You balked at me and called me self loathing. I see that you came around. Sorry the road has hurt you so much. We should really reconnect. I live on Oahu in Hawaii now. hit me up. Hugs.