19 February 2016
What do Anderson Cooper, Tim Cook, and Neil Patrick Harris have in common? Beyond mere fame, they share wealth, white skin, and urban lives; in other words, each involuntarily matches stereotypical public perceptions of LGBTQ+ (hereafter “queer”) existence. In fact, Out.com’s recent “Power 50” list of “the most influential voices in LGBT America” includes only sixteen women and twelve non-whites, with significant overlap between categories (“Out”). If Out’s list is indicative of Americans’ perceptions regarding queer demographics, then the public may believe white gay males actually comprise fifty-two percent of the entire queer community. Such parochial assumptions are troubling for numerous reasons worthy of confrontation. In Dr. Anne Balay’s 2014 work Steel Closets: Voices of Gay, Lesbian, and Transgender Steelworkers, she challenges popular public stereotypes of queers as invariably educated, middle-class, gay Caucasians. Balay accomplishes this through an enormous five-year research monograph including forty personal testimonies related by queer steelworkers, whose lives operate in the dangerous intersection of archaic labor, ossified masculinity, and public blindness. Already, Steel Closets has won the Lambda Literary Emerging Writer Award and the Sarah A. Whaley Book Award for its compelling narrative organization (Author).
Balay didn’t set out intending to complete such laborious research. But no such data or stories had ever before been collected and published. Even in encompassing Ivy League libraries, research on blue-collar queer existence was woefully lacking, forcing Balay to pursue field work in steel mills, gay bars, even remote trailer parks. Dressing in a car mechanic’s jacket from prior work, Balay shed her professorial image to emerge approachable and relatable, thereby maximizing her ability to connect with potential interviewees. While transcribing forty queer steelworkers’ personal testimonies and distilling them into a coherent call-to-arms, she discovers the incredible courage of a vulnerable population. As Balay relates, “there is no safe way to be gay in the mills” (Balay p. 59). And yet, queer steelworkers “would always keep [their] heads up and try and carry on [their lives] the way [they] wanted to,” demonstrating a remarkably persistent flame of humanity flickering on Lake Michigan’s windswept shores (p.156).
But public perceptions of queer existence remain grounded in a singular, stereotypical narrative: gay, male, white-collar, educated, urban, monogamous. This is problematic for many reasons, ranging from the fact that “gay” represents only a speck along the greater spectrum of sexuality, male isn’t even half of the population because the binary is falsely dichotomous, white-collar ignores both blue-collar workers and non labor –force individuals, few Americans ever receive college diplomas, many queers reside outside major metropolises, and sexual liberation applies not only to heterosexuals. By examining queer existence in perhaps the most repressive, masculine, industrial environment still operating, Balay increases visibility of all queers outside popular imagination and thereby redirects the ears of policymakers towards an audience never before considered. Already, her channeling of marginalized working-class queer personal testimonies has produced reform momentum.
Balay is uniquely qualified to investigate and translate queer steelworker life. Having both a PhD in English from the University of Chicago, and experience working in an auto shop as a gay women, Balay possesses the ability to contextualize and empathize with her subjects in profound ways.
Balay grew up in New Haven, Connecticut, the daughter of a Yale University librarian (AB’86). After earning a Doctorate in English from the University of Chicago, she “promptly” became a car mechanic, a fact she now relates with a wry chuckle (SPEECH AT DAVIDSON). She spent several years navigating this physical, blue-collar job– a heterosexual, masculine, men’s club offering “more danger and dirt than respect—“ as a lesbian woman, later recalling bonding with coworkers by sexualizing women and procuring bulk sales of “girlfriend parts” (p. 8, 16). Never did she challenge underlying assumptions of attraction to women present in her hypersexualized work space. Quite contrarily, she played up her “shared interest in women” to “gain respect and fit in” with coworkers (p. 13). This background, bringing calloused hands, forward self-presentation, a mechanic’s jacket, and blunt humor, would prove invaluable during subsequent career stages.
Balay eventually abandoned auto repair work and returned to academia to teach at the University of Illinois and at Indiana University Northwest. Throughout her teaching career, however, even amidst university pomp and polish, she always retained strong interest in blue collar environments. In Gary, Indiana, her curiosity manifested itself in her compulsion to unearth queer steelworker stories. However, no germane research existed, so she changed “costumes” from professor to mechanic, and began a relentless five-year hunt for knowledge, balancing her previous and current images to optimize research. Because Balay is a white, well-off, educated, monogamous, committed lesbian, great irony exists in that the stereotype incarnate is fights its own propagation. In a sense, she isn’t particularly distanced from the singular narrative whose perceived ubiquity she seeks to disprove.
Though Steel Closets is divided into seven chapters, Balay’s ethnographic work can be segmented into three rhetorical sections: structural chapters about mill history and operation, human chapters about queer invisibility and gender-specific experience, and policy chapters about vulnerability and union involvement.
Age is etched into daily working in steel mills. It’s inescapable; steel and associated metaphors frame American lore. Sheer factory enormity intimidates workers and represents an era gone by. Balay is blunt: “Resistance to change… characterizes the physical space of the mills and rubs off on the people whose lives are shaped by them” (p. 22). Moreover, what little change has occurred is concentrated in technological advancement, leading to reductions in the work force and thereby reducing mill visibility in steel regions. This isolation, according to Balay, constitutes a “closed community” in which inherited patterns are reinforced (p. 23). Thus, separate and apart from evolution just outside mill boundaries, within the complexes, everything stereotypical hyper-masculinity entails has been preserved and propagated. Steelworkers take substantial down time to bond over shared “palpable bitterness and insecurity,” often being extremely explicit (p.35). This creates tremendous anxiety among queer workers, because in detailed conversations meandering through family and romantic relationships, they must toe the line between friendliness and self-preservation. Workers have been yelled at for not socializing enough, for not sharing enough— of necessity, queer “steelworkers perfect the art of talking without saying anything” (42). Such conditions preclude community development and are both demoralizing and dehumanizing.
Human conditions are as impersonal as the physical and hierarchical structures maintaining them. Even when harassment isn’t explicit, there is a prevailing “atmosphere of constant antagonism” (p. 65). Public presuppositions about queerness and blue-collar labor create mutually-sustaining social attitudes toward both. Inhospitality is so cutting, and protective laws so nonexistent, that queer populations suffer significantly heightened rates of alcoholism (around Gary, Indiana, some queer millworkers refer to Alcoholics Anonymous as “Gay A” (p. 69)). Queer men and women run different gauntlets each day at the mill. Steel’s masculine history effectively erases femininity from contemporary mills. Women, typically lesbian, must exhibit masculinity and sexually objectify women to “fit in” at work—sometimes even as a “price of admission” (p. 87). Women are also subjected to intimidation up to and including rape. Despite attempts to change gende Female mill workers can be sexist; Fern, a worker, believes few women can take a “true ass-chewing” without tears (p. 81). Men, by contrast, exhibit masculinity not to fit in, per se, but as a defense mechanism implying heterosexuality. Risk-seeking behavior in particular helps men assert masculinity, with gay men often taking chances especially desperately (p. 110). Interestingly, owing to the working-class homoerotic continuum, masculinity is determined not by sexual partners but by gender presentation (p. 115). But perhaps most tragic is the inescapable sense of entrapment many queers feel knowing that coming out and remaining closeted both “foster self-loathing and self-blame” (p. 67).
Policy structures accomplish similar end results by pandering to popular support in a cowardly method failing to uphold any normative judgments. Unions do woefully little to safeguard members’ rights, preferring to stick to the “straighter path” to maximize popular support (p. 152). This effectively means ignoring queer suffering entirely, even as queers express concern at being killed by purposeful coworker negligence and at becoming mere statistics (p. 123). Generally speaking, unions are helpful in processing external claims against firms, but tend to turn a blind eye toward internal harassment of queers. In such alienating environments, is it any wonder “most [queer] folks… believed they were the only gay person working in basic steel” (p. 9)?
Balay exceeds expectations in her unique ability to bridge the socioeconomic divide between privileged target audience and silenced sample population. She distills, rather than dilutes, the heart-wrenching narratives of abuse and trauma suffered by queer steelworkers. She thus delivers a concentrated jolt to readers’ hearts and minds alike, engendering perspectival broadening and painful realizations of the duality privilege and subjugation constitute in modern America. Who could argue? Working class bodies are devalued and queer bodies even more so. Of the forty people interviewed, twenty-five currently have cancer. Many more are, presumably, currently developing serious career-related health complications. Steelworkers interviewed by Balay agree: “it’s a man’s world… a good meal ticket at the price of ten years off your life” (p. 30). Furthermore, Balay exhibits a unique emphasis on empowering women’s voices; (AB’86) only two percent of millworkers identify as women (four transgender people were interviewed) but women receive half of Steel Closets’ interview slots. Though some might regard such over-representation of women as underrepresentation of men, given Balay’s explicit aspiration to provide invisible and silenced peoples with opportunities to be heard, relative overrepresentation of women reinforces functionality of form.
Systemic underrepresentation is also present, however. The glaring flaw in Steel Closets is lack of racial diversity. In Balay’s sample group of men, nineteen of twenty are white. Women’s diversity is hardly better, with fourteen of twenty being white. When considering systemic subjugation and silencing of sexual and racial minorities, providing representative anecdotal data is crucial. Especially considering de facto segregation, in which the “hot side” of steel mills “houses the hardest, hottest, and most dangerous work… [and] the lowest-paid jobs… and the most minority workers,” hearing these voices is necessary for Balay’s undertaking to achieve well-roundedness (p.33). A truly phenomenal iteration of Balay’s project would seek to tease minority queer steelworkers from their work “against the brutal scale of the mill and its machinery” (p. 5). However, given the difficulty in connecting with white queer workers, it is unsurprising that so few even less privileged minority queer workers responded. Compounding queerness with racial minority status and the innumerable burdens thereby imposed by society creates a perfect storm of vulnerability, so Balay cannot personally be held accountable for such little minority representation when lacking participation is borne of a need for survival.
Balay’s Steel Closets has not only disproven conventional stereotypes about queer existence, but has helped redefine what it means to be queer across socioeconomic spectrums. LGBTQ+ existence can so conveniently be imagined in terms of educated, white, well-off gays, but that ignores the vast majority of queer populations. And even though social acceptance of non-heterosexuality is increasing, “working-class and poor gay people don’t benefit from this change as much as urban, middle-class queers do” (p. 6). It is only through forceful distillation of raw personal testimonies that ideological, social, and policy change can be catalyzed- other mediums lack the brutal pathos Steel Closets so deftly. After all, as Balay states, “stories are power” (p. 6).
“Anne Balay, AB’86, AM’88, PhD’94.” University of Chicago LGBT Alumni Network. Web. 19
Anne Balay at Davidson College. By Anne Balay. Hance Auditorium, Davidson, NC. 4 Feb. 2016. Performance.
“Anne Balay — Author, Professor, Activist, Mother.” Anne Balay. Web. 19 Feb. 2016.
Balay, Anne. Steel Closets: Voices of Gay, Lesbian, and Transgender Steelworkers. Chapel Hill,
NC: UNC, 2014. Print.
“Power 50 Famous Gay People.” Out. Web. 21 Feb. 2016.