Book Review: Steel Closets

Anne Balay, in her book Steel Closets: Voices of Gay, Lesbian, and Transgender Steelworkers, challenges prevailing notions of queerness, particularly that queer means male, wealthy, educated, and most likely monogamous. While in recent years, the United States has seen a newfound acceptance for gays, such acceptance is limited to those who fit this stereotype. Steel Closets is one of the few academic works to engage with working-class queers, specifically steelworkers. Balay investigates how the environment of their workspace influences not only how LGBT people interact with others, but also themselves with regards to sexuality—that is, if they come out or stay closeted and why, as well as conceptions of their own sexuality. Such a discussion quickly becomes complex, as it must take into account the mills as physical places, gender stereotypes, class differences, and many other things. Anne Balay does all of this through the voices of steelworkers themselves, since this work is built off of forty interviews, which ultimately makes this piece genuine, powerful, and meaningful.

As a queer woman with experience in blue-collar work herself, this book hit a particularly personal note. Many of her own experiences seep into the narrative—but only to benefit the overall work. With a background as an English professor at both the University of Illinois and Indiana University Northwest, she decided to investigate, from an academic vantage point, a world to which she could relate. First and foremost, her personal experiences shaped the initial questions she set out to answer. In her introduction, she says “I was immediately intrigued…I’m a lesbian, and I had previously worked as a car mechanic, so I had the experience as a woman in a traditionally male occupation—one that offers more dirt and danger than respect—which increased my interest in what interviews with steelworkers might revel” (20-21). But her personal experiences also shaped process. In fact, being a lesbian with experience in blue-collar work gave her a certain level of access, which enabled her to gather the information she needed. She admits, “often I got people to talk by sharing experiences I had had as a mechanic, and I encouraged them to continue by flirting, and by caring” (19). In essence, the type of access she had determined her ultimate method.

Since little scholarly work about working-class queers existed at the time she was writing, Balay had to go retrieve information herself. Steel Closets is built on forty interviews, and thus personal stories. In describing her methodology, she explains that her background in English in many ways shaped her approach. She explains, “I’m a listener, but also a reader” (19). After conducting these interviews, she went back and “sought out patterns, recurring themes, and significant words, phases, or images…I combed through the transcripts like a literary scholar searching for meaning” (19). Usually, she let the steelworkers take the initiative since she “didn’t want to sensationalize their experiences or shut down some stories by fishing for others” (19). She describes the steelworkers as “consummate storytellers who use narrative to construct and understand their lives…they are narratives that provide the tellers with agency, voice, and opportunity to understand themselves in the context of their worlds” (19). So, in some ways, her subjects made the collection of information easier. But finding gay steelworkers was in itself difficult. Balay says that initially she imagined “a snowball sampling,” where one queer steelworker would lead her to another (22). However, queer steelworkers were too closeted for even that. This led her on quite the escapade to find gays—frequenting bars, reaching out to gay and regional media, using newspaper columns, among other things.

The crux of her book focuses on the pattern of abuse of LGBT workers. Steelworkers “blame this hostility to gay people on two factors: the physical isolation of the mills and the hazardous and communal nature of the work” (15). In essence, these two factors shape how gay steelworkers interact with other workers and shape their opinions of their own sexuality. Hence, the first chapter sets the scene, illustrating the steel mill as “isolated, slow to change, stable” (41). She explores “what it is about the steel mills—the work, location, the people, the history—that makes them so inhospitable to queers” (34). The next chapter analyzes the separation, or lack of separation, of work and home life. Balay claims, “issues of personal and home life saturate the steel mill’s work culture, and how its presence affects the work, and the workers” (64). This openness has a particular impact on non-straight workers, since “being openly gay is discouraged, but taking steps to hide it is punished as well” (71). This in turn just further isolates many gay workers. Next, Balay more closely investigates why so many steelworkers are closeted and the consequences of remaining closeted. In the subsequent sections, she discusses male and female masculinity. In what is often called “a man’s world,” the expression of masculinity plays a huge role determining the overall experience of a particular worker. This very fact speaks to why the experiences of gay men and gay women are not necessarily parallel. Balay then goes on to further describe the dangers of the mills—very much a reality for all the individuals she interviewed. And in her final chapter, Balay discusses Unions and labor movements and some of the problems that exist—another vital part of these individuals’ experience as workers. As specific and small as this topic might seem, this book clearly has a broad scope.

 Steel Closets is a powerful and meaningful piece concerning a topic often left out, even in academia. Anne Balay is careful in her analysis—trying not to make broad assumptions, being specific, and giving her informants agency in explaining their own experiences. But the greatest strength of this piece is how genuine it is. By giving her interviewees agency and letting the reader hear their voices as they “share their lives and stories” (13). Steel Closets becomes a candid account of a group of people who are too often left out of the narrative.

While Steel Closets has so many strengths, it is important to mention some of its weaknesses. Its greatest point of weakness is the small number of interviewees. Such a small pool begs the question of accuracy. Anne Balay does a great job of noting the experience of these forty individuals, but can one be confident in the consistency of this narrative across mills in the United States? The pool of interviewees also lacks diversity—particularly racial diversity. While she is upfront about this fact, the lack of different voices certainly hinders the work as a whole.

Overall, in her book Steel Closets, Anne Balay artfully provides us with an honest, accessible account of a voice historically ignored and passed over. This work is vitally important—even beyond the world of academia. While it is a piece of scholarly literature concerning a topic rarely investigated, it challenges our conceptions of queerness, specifically what it means to be queer. And it reminds us to always take into account the intersectionality of experience based on race, gender, class, and sexuality.

Works Cited

Balay, Anne. Steel Closets: Voices of Gay, Lesbian, and Transgender Steelworkers. Chapel Hill:

University of North Carolina Press, 2014. Print.