Today we welcome a guest blog post from Anne Balay, author of Steel Closets: Voices of Gay, Lesbian, and Transgender Steelworkers. Even as substantial legal and social victories are being celebrated within the gay rights movement in the United States, much of working-class America still exists outside the current narratives of gay liberation. In Steel Closets, Balay draws on oral history interviews with forty gay, lesbian, and transgender steelworkers, mostly living in northwestern Indiana, to give voice to this previously silent and invisible population. She presents powerful stories of the intersections of work, class, gender, and sexual identity in the dangerous industrial setting of the steel mill.
In the following post, Balay explores how many (but certainly not all) in the U.S. GLBT community are experiencing new freedoms. As the lead-up to the Sochi Olympics has demonstrated, however, a corresponding restriction in rights is underway in Russia.
You have no choice about where you are born, and limited choice about where you live. Geographic and cultural mobility is predominantly a Western, middle-class concept. All of my narrators remained in the place they were born. Some live in the same house where they grew up, and others go as far as a neighboring town, but migration to urban centers, or to different job prospects, is just not part of their world. Though Northwest Indiana isn’t an easy place to be gay, most people figure out a way to live here anyway, rather than uproot themselves and go somewhere else, or somewhere easier.
In the rest of the country, significant progress has been made around issues of gay rights and legal protections. Steel Closets demonstrates that this progress has resulted in a backlash within the mills; with queers nationally gaining confidence and status, we become a recognizable, and therefore despised, identity in the mill, rather than a harmless, ineffectual anomaly. A similar pattern is going on with gay people globally as well. As the United States becomes (at least superficially) more and more embracing of gay people and practices, other countries institute antigay policies as a way to renounce Western attitudes.
Queer rights becomes the paradigmatic symbol of the west. In Russia, gay liberation had gained some momentum until Putin linked gay rights with Western values, which then led to the systematic, legal oppression of gays in Russia today. The government is literally going into homes of gay people and taking their children away. And these Russian gays can’t hide, because during the period of comparative freedom, they had come out, and thus now have public personas. There’s no such thing as going back into the closet—once you’re out, that’s that. Their little window of freedom now makes them a target for state-sponsored abuse as the freedom and progress queers experience in the USA is used to punish queers globally.
Isolation is, then, the defining fact of gay identity in the mills, and in countries as different as India and Russia, both of which have recently instituted homophobic legislation. GLBT people usually don’t grow up in queer families, so we need to figure out who and what we are by finding other people like us—through the media and literature, and at bars and other known gay hangouts. If, like many steelworkers, you cannot risk making these initial contacts for fear of dangerous self-disclosure, you have to figure it out on your own. One narrator reported intense feelings of relief when she finally told one carefully selected coworker, and finally felt the presence of an ally. It makes a huge difference, as anyone who has survived the seventh grade knows.
Queers in the mill are permanently on their own, even when they know there are others out there. As a gay steelworker, if you reach out to a coworker who you think might be gay, you are putting them (and yourself) in immediate danger. This makes the personal isolation caused by closeting harder to bear. There is no shared community of oppression, which is what makes pride and collectivity possible. And globally, the increased freedoms experienced by American queers puts non-American gay people in this position of fear and secrecy. Ironically, some Americans, including most blue-collar workers, never experienced the freedoms that led to this clampdown.
Anne Balay has taught English and gender studies at the University of Illinois at Chicago and Indiana University Northwest. Her book Steel Closets: Voices of Gay, Lesbian, and Transgender Steelworkers will be published April 2014.