Anne Balay is a visiting professor of Gender and Sexuality studies at Haverford College. Anne was born in a blue-collar family, and has taught English and Gender Studies at the University of Illinois at Chicago and Indiana University Northwest. After her college education, Anne worked as a car mechanic in Chicago.
With her experience, she deeply understands working-class LGBT people’s lives. However, when she tried to look for related records in the library, she found nothing. It seemed like most of the LGBT people recorded in literature are not working class. Anne later found that working-class LGBT people knew little about these historical archives, too.
Therefore, Anne started to work on her book Steel Closets (published in 2014), in which she draws on oral history interviews with 40 gay, lesbian, transgender and queer steelworkers and truckers working in Northwestern Indiana. This is a group of people who generally is stereotyped as made up of straight white men, but there is quite an LGBT population within it. In order to collect the most authentic data, Anne incorporated the concept of “Meta-consciousness” into her investigations to build connections with the workers she studied. She got a commercial driver’s license and has driven a car for long enough to remove the barriers and build more connections with the workers.
This interview focuses on the recent situation of working class LGBT people in this period of political change and also many LGBT right movements. Professor Anne Balay explores the reason behind the choice they made during the election, the change that will take place under the new government of Donald Trump, and the internal alienation and divergence within the LGBT population due to class.
In your new book Steel Closets, you mention how the concept of masculinity, which is often associated with gender, influences the sexual orientation of the steel workers. Before talking about the current situation of the working-class LGBT population, could you please talk more about how you view the relationship between the terms “gender” and “sexuality”?
Anne: Gender is a set of assumptions or perceptions that we use. Sexuality is more about presentation/behavior. Therefore, when we use terms like masculinity, we’re not talking about men. It is about masculine presentation or behavior. So men get to act masculine in our culture and they get rewarded for being masculine. Women get to act masculine and are rewarded for masculinity, too, but only at some times and in some places.
Class has a lot to do with this. Gender is a binary position between two imagined categories of men and women. Under this binary position, masculinity gets more status than femininity, so if you act more masculine whatever your sex is, you are considered to be adding to your status rather than taking away from your status. This means that anything feminine is devalued, a view that needs to be challenged all the time.
However, at the same time, the lesbians that I’d studied in the steel mill have acquired masculinity in the culture. But, also for entering the steel mill, they expose themselves to harassment. Any woman who enters a steel mill is going to be harassed because the men who considered themselves entitled to that work hold on to it by excluding women, non-white people, and immigrants. This is how the culture works, and in fact how any culture works. Just look at the election. However, these men who have decreasing status in our culture, for class reasons, will be holding tightly to that. Therefore, if you are a working class non-white lesbian, you will be used to being harassed. All of the women that I have interviewed are used to being harassed, and they usually respond with humor, fighting or even not caring. Almost all women I have interviewed have been raped at work. They take this as part of the culture. They expect it and do not report it since they know if they do, they will be fired. These masculine blue-collar working cultures exclude women by raping, punishment and firing, and they have no choice except accepting this culture.
Most of these steelworkers support Donald Trump. What reasons do you think lead them to this choice? How do you view the relationship between this support and Trump’s recent statement from the White House that Donald Trump will continue to protect the rights of LGBT people? How will this influence the future situation of the working-class LGBT population?
Anne: Trump says he won’t revoke protection for federal workers who are LGBT, but this does not affect truckers in any way. Also, at the same time he says he is going to allow religious protections that are anti-LGBT.
Neither truckers nor steel workers care about any of these at all. The advances that the LGBT movements have had in the last 20 years have not affected this community at all. These political advances only affected upper-middle class people. For instance, the right to marry does not help blue-collared people because in the US they can still be legally fired for being gay. Even though the public feels that the situation of LGBT people improved a lot in the last twenty years, for blue-collared people who are also gay, it didn’t improve at all.
Also, there is a fair amount of hostility that blue-collared and working class gay people have towards middle class ones for not saying what they should say, which is “unless everyone can benefit from this, we are not going to fight for it”. The standard statement for the working-class culture and labor movement is “an injury to one gay person is an injury to all”, but the gay rights movement has moved under the unstated statement that “if the middle-class white people with money benefit, then it is a good thing and we can’t worry about anyone else”. They [the blue-collar workers] haven’t gotten benefits from these movements. Therefore, that’s the reason they support Trump.
The other reason that they support Trump is that the US, since at least the 1970s, has done nothing to help working-class people. For example, with truckers in 1978, Carter, a progressive democrat, deregulated trucking. Also, Bill Clinton introduced tons of policies that moved the risk of any working person onto the individual and away from the government or companies or any larger structures. The truckers pay the price for these every day, so they believe that Trump will help instead. Although I believe this is wrong, saying their choice is racist or stupid is denying that the left, more specifically the democrat, has done harm for the working people in the past forty years. What I would like to have is that this election would result the Democratic Party to listen to laborers, workers, to understand what they need, and try to build a platform that benefits them.
From this election, we can see the divergence on the political views of LGBT population in different socioeconomic classes. How do you view this divergence between upper or middle class LGBT population and working class LGBT population? How do LGBT people in different socioeconomic classes view each other?
Anne: The upper or middle class LGBT population and working-class LGBT population have vastly different experience and political views. The middle-class or upper class queer people just don’t understand why truckers are having a hard time. They may question why they don’t just come out and then everything would be fine. However, I believe it is not like that. They [upper/middle class LGBT people] really need to listen to what their [the working-class counterparts’] actual experience is, and think about how to address what they need.
Working class LGBT people usually have a lot of disdain for middle/upper class LGBT people. They make fun of those extremely politically active gay people who go to pride parades and who have this belief that the way to handle the situation is to come out, to work for legislation that guarantees the right of everybody. They [working class LGBT people] don’t want to do these. They think that the pride parades just irritate the people they are trying to understand. For example, when there are certain political changes, such as when gay marriage became nationally available to everyone, people I know we’re happy, partying, feeling great, but I got lots of calls from people who work in the mills saying that they got raped, beaten up, fired.
As soon as the gay movement gets public support, there is backlash which is experienced by the most vulnerable population. They hate us for good reason. We should think about where we should focus our political attention on to make sure that it benefits everybody, and not move forward unless it benefits everybody. If it makes someone vulnerable, protect them. That’s why there should be less animosity. Especially for the trans-truckers that I know of, they hate trans-activists so much, because they feel like they make them more easily identified, make them get attacked and make them vulnerable. Gay people in the steel mill said that everything would be fine in the 70s. However, as soon as the gay right political movement arose, a gay represents someone who wants access to rights, which makes it impossible to openly be gay in the steel mill.
This research of Professor Balay on LGBT steelworkers and truckers is one of the very few pieces of research that study working-class queer people. The next research she plans to conduct will focus on the LGBT group in fracking industry.