Today we welcome a gust 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, much of working-class America still exists outside the current narratives of gay liberation. 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.
Previously, Balay blogged about the uneven expansion of of LGBT rights. In today’s post, she discusses the practical difficulties marriage inequality creates for LGBT steelworkers and their partners.
I recently received a “save the date” postcard announcing the marriage this coming summer of one of my narrators. In Iowa. By the time the wedding rolls around, marriage equality will exist in Illinois as well, though Indiana is going the other direction, with a campaign to amend the state constitution to explicitly forbid same sex marriage.
For my narrators—the forty transgender, lesbian, and gay steelworkers I interviewed—marriage is complicated. Insurance and survival benefits are not just theoretical issues for them. For example, Harriet’s partner has started attending college and wants to cut her work hours down to part time. Though they can manage the reduction of income, loss of benefits is too much risk, since both are women over 40, which puts them in many high-risk health categories. And Harriet’s job is dangerous and unpredictable. But if, God forbid, she suffers death or injury, her partner would not receive compensation.
At the time of this writing, the week has been dangerously cold in Gary,
with wind chills of -40 and worse. The mills don’t close or reduce workforce under these circumstances, though many jobs must be done outside near Lake Michigan, where blowing and drifting snow and ice are ubiquitous. Working near molten iron or near a furnace would seem to mitigate this, but then dramatic temperature contrasts cause breathing problems, treacherous footing, even dizziness. If you’re scheduled to work, not showing up is not an option if you hope to keep your job. Narrators describe days like today as “working on a volcano in Hell,” and one summarizes the past few days simply as “inhumane.”
Imagine being the partner of someone going out into this world, where frigid weather increases the risk of explosion, accident, and sheer, grinding misery. And imagine having no recognized, legal link to that partner. If they are injured, will you even be notified? Their co-workers may have met you, and may even tacitly acknowledge your role as long as it is not named, but will they think to call you?
If marriage is a structure which makes certain intimacies formal or visible or public, what impact does it have on Harriet and her partner Christina, who is sitting at home while Harriet works an 8-, or even a 16-hour turn at 40 degrees below zero? As long as marriage exists as an institution that legitimizes certain forms of partnership, it automatically excludes others. Harriet and her partner, then, become not married, and therefore somehow not real.
The narrator who is getting married presumably has hopes and dreams, and every right to fulfill them. But as any queer steelworker has cause to know, if a sense of belonging derives from excluding others—telling some people they can’t have access to the desired state or object—then everyone is affected. And damaged.
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 in April 2014 and is available for pre-order now.