Book review: 'Steel Closets: Voices of Gay, Lesbian, and Transgender Steelworkers'

2014-04-08T00:00:00Z 2014-08-30T23:12:09Z Book review: 'Steel Closets: Voices of Gay, Lesbian, and Transgender Steelworkers'James B. Lane Professor Emeritus of History, IU Northwest

To outsiders, steel mills are mysterious places. Anne Balay’s path-breaking book “Steel Closets: Voices of Gay, Lesbian, and Transgender Steelworkers,” recently published by University of North Carolina Press, aims to lift the veil of secrecy as to what goes on in that daunting environment.

Balay persuaded 40 gay, lesbian and transgender steelworkers from the Calumet Region to share their mill experiences. Their stories were sometimes funny but mostly devastating in terms of their isolation and harassment. She had hoped for a snowball effect -- that interviewees would lead her to others -- but most thought they were alone and were surprised that Balay had located so many others.

How did Balay gain the trust of gay mill workers who, for the most part, have kept their sexual orientation a secret during their hours at work? To demonstrate her blue-collar credentials and de-emphasize her academic pedigree, Balay often wore a jacket from her days as an auto mechanic.

Of her method Balay wrote: “Often I got people to talk by sharing experiences I had had a mechanic, and I encouraged them to continue by flirting, and by caring. I liked most of the people immediately, and I let them see that. And their stories moved me, shook me up, and redefined heroism for me.”

Interviews were not rigidly structured. Balay usually started by asking what he person’s job was at the mill, and then the stories poured out, sometimes for hours. “All of the narrators had plenty to say when I simply let them wander.”

Balay gave her 40 narrators pseudonyms but in an appendix briefly described them. “Danielle,” for instance, a big woman who dressed casually but wore lots of makeup, told Balay: “Things are a little bad, rumors and stuff, get there before you arrive. But I do my job as best I can and usually there’s no problem.”

One narrator knew she’d never be accepted for the person she was so, in her words, “did her 8 and hit the gate.” A friend of another found more acceptance as a New York City policeman than at the mill.

“Working in a steel mill," Balay wrote, "typically involves rushing around frantically on deadline and then recording that work on a computer, followed by lots of waiting.” Because of this pattern of “hurry up and wait,” steelworkers talk about everything from family life and sports to politics and sexual fantasies, which fosters a culture of intimacy unless you are in the closet.

As one steelworker told Balay, “In the steel mill, guys get very explicit about what’s going on in their world, as long as you’re not gay.” Another told Anne that “people talk all day long” and get really mad if you don’t reciprocate.

Millworkers feed on gossip and might brand a slightly effeminate co-worker as gay even if he isn’t. When Anne asked Keith what it was like to be gay in the mill, he answered, “I really can’t offer an opinion on it because I’m not gay at the mills. As far as they’re concerned, I’m straight.”Transgender workers who couldn’t hide their identity change had it the hardest.

Fred has faced harassment and been ostracized for being candid about his sexual orientation. He told Balay: “I look at my gay friends who are in the closet and I think they’re sniveling little cowards, and then they watch how I get treated, and I can’t blame them.”

Zach, outed by a girl he knew in high school, had his car vandalized, came upon crude drawings and hurtful words drawn on his locker, and for six years was made the object of ridicule. He survived by developing a hard shell, laughing at himself and dishing it out to others. As he said, “If you show that it’s bothering you, people’ll jump on it ... and drill you into the ground.”

To gain acceptance, women need to prove their competence and, in addition, adapt a veneer of toughness. They take on macho mindsets in interacting with co-workers. Nate told Balay: “Some of the ladies that we had there were rough and tumble. They had to be. And some of them were almost as inappropriate as some of the men.” 

Balay wrote: “A fortuitous fit between lesbian orientation and steelwork means that many lesbians seek out and thrive in mill jobs, whether they are open about their identity or not.” As Kate put it, “Guys would rather work with me than some of the other guys, because I’m a workhorse.”

Balay wrote that for some gay women, “working in the steel mills provides an opportunity to give full expression to their masculinity, and get paid for it rather than punished.” For example, assigned to remove large bolts from polishers, Gail worked with a sledgehammer. She told Balay: “I had a ball with it. You learn to do a lot of amazing things. It was fun. It was a job you actually woke up and enjoyed going to.”

In a chapter entitled “Male Masculinity in the Steel Mill” Balay quotes one description of the mill atmosphere as “a green haze of testosterone.”

Jay told her, “Everyone expects you to be macho. You’re supposed to be like a rough biker. You’re not supposed to show your emotions, you’re not supposed to cry.” Guys wouldn’t want to wear protective clothes or respirators and embraced risks to prove their toughness.

Nate, whom Anne described as tall, physically imposing and incredibly friendly, stated that the mill was “a place where I had to be one of the boys,” enduring “tons and tons of horseplay,” especially in the showers.

To demonstrate the powerful link between steel production and masculinity, Balay began by citing a 1997 episode of “The Simpsons,” where Homer, fearing that Bart might be gay, takes him to a steel mill only to discover, much to his chagrin, that the workers are all gay. What makes the satire funny is how incongruous it appears to be yet cannot be completely dismissed. Balay found that, ironically, the increasing visibility and legal protection for gay people in our culture creates a backlash in the mill, making variations from traditional gender roles or sexual identifications less welcome, and more threatening to the mills’ macho subculture.

All steelworkers experience stress, but this is particularly true of LGBTs, as indicated by the higher percentage of smoking, alcoholism, high blood pressure, and cancer. Few live long enough to enjoy their retirement pensions for very long. Inhaling dust that contained carcinogens has left many with breathing problems and various lung diseases, including asthma and lymphoma.

More than half Balay interviewed were molested as children and suffer from guilt, shame, and confusion about those experiences. Most suffer from sleep disorders resulting from years of shift work, which also interferes with social interaction with a supportive community. Balay concludes: “Though many people I interviewed do think of their co-workers as family, they often want to carve out time to be with other gay people, making the swing shift schedule another of the extra challenges faced by GLBT steelworkers.”

A staunch union supporter, Balay discovered that many LGBTs felt alienated from the United Steelworkers of America because it has not protected them from harassment. In those rare cases where one of them filed a grievance, the union allegedly did little or nothing to help them. Furthermore, several felt that filing a complaint, in Balay’s words, was “tantamount to painting a target on themselves.”

Why is this the case? On the defensive for 30 years, the USW has chosen its battles carefully and avoided potentially divisive issues. As Balay concluded, “When the economy is bad and jobs are scarce, the union wants economic issues to trump all others.”

After significant numbers ofwomen hired in following a 1974 Consent Decree, a Women’s Caucus fought hard to end the climate of sexual harassment, arguing that such a state of affairs caused friction among workers. Restructuring and downsizing of the labor force, however, drastically reduced the number of women because, due to seniority regulations, the last hired became the first to be laid off. No LGBT caucus has emerged to challenge the status quo.

Why don’t LGBT steelworkers organize? When African Americans and women faced opposition they, unlike LGBTs, could visually identify allies. Furthermore, so long as steelworkers stay closeted, they are part, in Balay's words, of “a community that feels rewarding – almost like a family”– albeit one that might ostracize a member who challenges its tenets. Why alienate people you depend upon to stay safe on a dangerous job?"

Anne Balay wrote that her shabby treatment at IU Northwest “made the steelworkers’ hostile work environment uncomfortably personal.”

Although the two workplaces share little in common, both are hostile spaces for un-closeted LGBTs, with newcomers better off hiding their “queerness” and concentrating on fitting in. At a university that would mean not making waves, keeping one’s nose to the grindstone, being deferential to superiors, and accumulating published articles that few people ever read. In the mill fitting in meant doing your job well and learning to work as a team, but also adopting a tough persona, a rough sense of humor, and never showing weakness or vulnerability.

Balay concluded: “Women who work in the mill are generally perceived as masculine by themselves and others.” In contrast to the “butch” image tolerated in Calumet Region steel mills, being outspokenly queer is not a recommended path to acceptance, at least not at IU Northwest.

Copyright 2014 All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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