Hard Work and Overalls

Out in the Union: A Labor History of Queer America
By Miriam Frank
Philadelphia, PA: Temple University Press, 2014, 221 pp., $29.95, paperback

Steel Closets: Voices of Gay, Lesbian, and Transgender Steelworkers
By Anne Balay
Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2014, 172 pp., $34.95, hardcover

Reviewed by Bettina Aptheker

In the avalanche of writings “queering” many fields of scholarship, very little has been written about working-class gays, lesbians, and transgender people, and even less about those in the labor movement. This is to say that these two books, the one by Miriam Frank and the other by Anne Balay, fill a critical gap in queer and labor history. Both engage oral histories as a primary methodology, and both tell stories of extraordinary courage and perseverance.

In 1990 Miriam Frank and Desma Holcomb published a handbook, Pride at Work: Organizing for Lesbian and Gay Rights. It was used all over the country and became a key tool for LGBT activists working in the labor movement. Over more than twenty years Miriam Frank went on to do interviews with more than 100 LGBT workers, many of whom she met as a result of the handbook’s circulation. Those interviews, and Frank’s vast knowledge of the US labor movement since World War II, provide the foundation for this book. Frank captures the driving courage of LGBT workers as they participate in the labor movement, come out, and help others to do so. She reveals the crucial role they played in organizing campaigns, especially of teachers and public service workers, and in independent, left-inspired initiatives, for example, for gender and racial equality.

Engaged by the insights of the late gay historian Allen Bérubé, in his (unfinished) work on the Marine Cooks and Stewards Union (an excerpt of which was published in his posthumous essay collection, My Desire for History [2011]), Frank considers Bérubé’s notion of “queer work” as she recounts unionization struggles among workers in occupations that are queer-dominated: that is, “restrictive but . . . where queers can feel they belong and which queers have shaped to meet their needs.” As Bérubé demonstrated in his study of the Cooks and Stewards Union, between the 1930s and 1960s, job categories traditionally classified as female were held by gay men aboard many luxury liners. The men called each other by female names—e.g. Miss so-and-so—sometimes referred to each other as queens, and creating an altogether queer culture “below deck,” so to speak. They were also among the most exploited workers aboard ship.

Frank found similar cultural formations in San Francisco and New York in the 1970s and ’80s, when gays and lesbians were concentrated in what she calls couture, as well as in the service industries and sections of retail sales. For example, she reports, “Barney’s [department store] in New York City, in the 1990s, was the gayest union workplace ever”; as one worker told her, “The whole store was out.” They were members of the Amalgamated Clothing Workers of America. Frank also describes the painful and challenging efforts to unionize the mostly gay and lesbian workers in community-based clinics in San Francisco in the 1980s at the height of the AIDS crisis. The boards of trustees of these nonprofits were mostly male, white, straight, and wealthy, with strong anti-union biases.

Another significant theme in Frank’s work is the connection among the women’s liberation movement, women’s struggles for employment in traditionally male-dominated fields, and a gay and lesbian presence. In the traditionally male-dominated fields, whether or not women identified themselves as lesbian, male co-workers assumed them to be—and of course, some of them were. The hazing and hostility these women faced were intense. Frank describes life-threatening abuse, for example, by men at Michigan Bell Telephone Company, that was truly terrifying. Yet in virtually all cases, whether or not the union intervened, the women persevered through their own stubborn grit.

Frank organizes her study thematically, using her interview material as commentary about the struggles as they unfold. She divides her study into three sections: “Coming Out,” “Coalition Politics,” and “Conflict and Transformation.” In “Coming Out,” Frank focuses on the struggles of queer workers in unionized construction jobs; the highly segregated craft industries, such as carpentry, plumbing, and electrical work, that have until recent years excluded both women and people of color; and the auto industry.

In “Coalition Politics,” she presents a terrific account of the role the LGBT community in San Francisco and elsewhere played in promoting and sustaining the boycott against Coors Beer, which began in 1974. The coalition the community built with the Teamsters Union was as unlikely as it was enduring. LGBT communities went on to forge alliances with the labor movement to defeat antigay ballot measures in California, Oregon, and Florida in the late 1970s. In California, the so-called Briggs Initiative, named for the conservative state legislator who introduced it, John Briggs—would have defined “public homosexual conduct” as “the advocating, soliciting, imposing, encouraging, or promoting . . . private or public homosexual activity directed at, or likely to come to the attention of schoolchildren and/or other employees,” and provided for the dismissal of employees engaging in such conduct. Ultimately defeating this initiative, with 58 percent of the vote, were “blue-collar unions—locals of the Construction Trades Council, the American Postal Workers Union, . . . the Teamsters, and the International Longshore and Warehouse Union… [which] joined public and service sector unions to constitute . . . a vigorous coalition of religious, political, neighborhood and civil libertarian groups,” writes Frank.

Frank considers the psychological and personal pressures LGBT workers experience when they must remain closeted, and reviews the extent to which various union contracts protect sexual minorities against discrimination. At the beginning of the book, she provides a helpful the chronology that identifies many of the individuals and struggles she will cover.

Frank had an enormous amount of material to synthesize and organize. In a way, she has two books here; for this reason the work sometimes feels unwieldy. One book—the one she wrote—is a narrative of union and coalition struggles, an account of what happened from the 1970s onward for LGBT workers. She uses the oral histories primarily to enhance this narrative. The number of unions and coalitions and abbreviations becomes confusing, despite Frank’s best efforts to remind us of their definitions. And, having read and/or heard some of her oral histories, I know how rich they are, and I’m hoping to see an additional book based on them some day soon.

Anne Balay’s Steel Closets is a brilliant, theoretically astute study packed with insight about the steel industry and emotionally staggering stories of the LGBT workers who persevere in it. The conditions for work for everyone are horrendous, arduous, and dangerous. For LGBT people, these are compounded by extreme homophobia and misogyny. And yet Balay succeeds in conveying the humanity of everyone within this hellish environment through her compassion for her subjects and her understanding of the difficult and dangerous labors they perform. Although Balay is now an academic teaching English, she once worked in a male-dominated industry as a skilled auto mechanic, and she understands hard work, overalls, and perpetually greased-stained hands. It is this background that encourages the straight steel workers to talk to her; while her own queerness encourages gays and lesbians, many of them terrified of coming out, to share their stories. She finds her queer subjects by frequenting gay and lesbian bars in the corner of Indiana in which the steel mills were operating. Balay does the best she can to change names and disguise identities yet to maintain the integrity of their stories.

Many of us have driven past steel mills and have seen the massive structures and smoke stacks rising into the sky, but most of us cannot imagine the intensity of the 4,000-degree heat required to extract iron ore, which is then bonded with carbon to make steel. The sheer mass and weight of the machinery; the particles in the air casting a gray dust over everything; the filth; and other details are mind-boggling to me. I had no idea how steel was made!

Modern technology in the steel mills has changed much of the day-to-day labor, even though the basic process of making steel remains the same as it’s always been. The shift in the conditions of production has drastically reduced the workforce, causing massive unemployment. Everyone who still has a job worries about losing it.

New technologies have changed the work day, too. “Working in a steel mill,” Balay explains, “typically involves rushing around frantically on deadline and then recording the work on a computer, followed by lots of waiting.” While the workers wait, they cluster together in break rooms, sharing personal stories to pass the time. Closeted LGBT workers, however, cannot share stories. They often either invent a family that doesn’t exist or remain silent—which others may read as hostile. In addition, Balay explains,

steelworkers often do their work in pairs or groups, depending on their co-workers for their success and their survival, a situation that creates a certain solidarity, reinforced by the exclusion of difference (of some or all of women, black, ethnics, or queers).

The filth generated by the production process requires workers to shower before leaving the plant in a collective space without privacy. Most will shower again when they get home to reduce the gray dust and grime that settles over their clothing, hands, hair—everything.

Paradoxically, despite the often-forced camaraderie, mill work is isolating. Most steelworkers work alternating shifts: one week, 7:00 AM to 3:00 PM; the next, 3:00 PM to 11:00 PM; and the next 11:00 PM to 7:00 AM. Shift work creates isolation, especially for anyone trying to sustain a family life.

The pay for mill work is high, and the union is strong. Balay appropriately lays out these material conditions in detail, because they produce a particular, desperate challenge for queer workers. The isolation, shift work, forced personal conversations hour after hour and day after day, the collective and dangerous labor, group showers, and pervasive misogynistic and homophobic cracks create a hellish environment for queer steel workers; women workers, straight or gay; and black workers, gay or straight. “My interviews reveal that an incredible level of violence toward and harassment of queers is part of the basic steel work environment,” writes Balay. Predators take advantage of the vast, dark caverns of the mills; one worker tells Balay of a brutal rape. Supposedly straight men sometimes have sex with closeted gay co-workers, but instead of considering themselves to be gay, they subject their erstwhile partners to homophobic invective. Balay does not describe this as forced sex or harassment, but simply as a matter of course in the factory. The union provides little or no protection from such hostility and attacks, so most victims don’t bother to report them.

Analyzing the steel workers’ culture, Balay describes it as one of “hypermasculinity,” in which pornography, objectification, and sexual violence are embedded. As a form of self-protection, many women, not all of them lesbian, exaggerate their masculine traits. For example, she quotes Olshana, a lesbian, who says she had “no prior mechanical or industrial experience, but took the job as part of a leftist commitment to working with unions and among workers.” Olshana says,

I was pretty awestruck by how these guys could fix anything with very few resources. Sometimes to fix something really old they’d have to make a part, or find a part, or scavenge or something. I think that influenced a lot of how I behaved in there because it was so cool that they were able to keep these things, these old things and these big gigantic things, running. I wanted to be a part of that.

As Olshana strives to become as competent and inventive as her male co-workers, she achieves a highly skilled position as a motor inspector. Balay concludes that, however butch Olshana may have been before starting in the mill, ultimately it’s the dynamic of her work experience that shapes her female masculinity—more than her gender or sexuality.

Anne Balay has produced an astonishing work of ethnography. As a testament to the sheer magnitude of suffering, resourcefulness, and perseverance of our queer sisters and brothers in steel, she has written a labor of love.

Bettina Aptheker is a professor of Feminist Studies at the University of California, Santa Cruz. Her most recent book is a memoir, Intimate Politics: How I Grew Up Red, Fought for Free Speech and Became A Feminist Rebel (2006). She is working on a new book, tentatively titled Queering the History of the US Communist Left.

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