Anne Balay: Queer Steelworkers and Labor Unions

Steel ClosetsToday 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, 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.

In previous posts, Balay has written about the limited expansion of LGBT rights and the consequences of marriage inequality. In today’s post, she shares a conversation she had with union steelworkers that highlights some of the work yet to be done to ensure a safe and open work environment for gay, lesbian, and transgender steelworkers.

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Over dinner recently, I met with three straight male steelworkers to ask why they feel their union is so inhospitable to gay people. I had just given a radio interview about my forthcoming book, Steel Closets, during which I had remarked that the United Steelworkers is not a very progressive union. Organizers and staffers from the USW had heard this, and were pissed off. Several called me to inform me about cutting-edge worker advocacy efforts spearheaded by their union, both nationally and globally. I was glad to hear it, yet this doesn’t change the fact that the queer steelworkers whose stories my book relates are not adequately protected by their union. I had organized the dinner to give union rank and file a chance to respond to my book’s critique.

Paul Kaczocha has worked at the same mill (now owned by Mittal) for over 30 years, and he assured me repeatedly over dinner that his local was very accepting of gay people, and that discrimination or harassment claims from gay workers would be taken seriously. He believes that any mistreatment of gay people would simply not be tolerated at his mill. I asked him to recall all the people he has worked with—all his union brothers and sisters, down through the years—and count the gay ones. Almost surprised, he said there were none. Of course, he knew as well as I do that there have been many, but that they did not identify themselves as such. My task is then to convince him that their silence was not simply a choice, but rather that it was made in fear, and comes with crippling consequences.

Paul and his colleagues had to listen to me because I have the data. I have met with, and gotten to know, these silent co-workers. They have told me their stories, explained the reasons for their silence, and described the price that they pay for it. In cold, hard, about-to-be-published print, these facts could not be denied, and the union felt that it had to respond somehow.

Historically, Mike Olszanski points out, working-class white guys are kind of blind and bigoted, and need to be forced to make change. African Americans and women each in turn compelled the union to recognize and include them. What Mike emphasizes is respect. A union provides respect to its members by endowing their work with a priori value, rather than requiring ass-kissing or special pleading. A union is strong only if it endows ALL workers with this respect, and Mike wants to find a way to extend this to gay steelworkers. Yet some still insist that their union—any union—can’t advocate for people until they come forward.  Which would mean, in this case, that gay workers will simply never find protection, since they believe that identifying themselves would make them more obvious targets for harassment and violence than they already are. The unions will have to take first steps, such as putting protections in place that make gay folks feel safe, or changing the structure of benefits before gay people are willing to become visible and identifiable.

Thandabantu Iverson, a former member of the USW who now teaches at Indiana University Northwest, is a black man, and he draws on his experience of racism to understand the treatment of gay steelworkers as a human rights issue. During dinner, he relates how when he was a laborer, another male worker propositioned him, and he responded with horror and hostility. Years later, with more life and education under his belt, he says he would compliment the man’s taste, and politely decline.

Further, he goes on to observe that each and every worker needs to accept that there are gay steelworkers out there. If any worker is a target of harassment or violence, or afraid of being such a target, that worker can’t perform effectively—which compromises the safety of the entire work crew, and mill. That’s what the slogan “An injury to one is an injury to all” means, after all. Workers need to learn and re-learn that targeting someone hurts everyone. They have learned this before, regarding racial minorities and women, and they can learn it again, once they accept that gay steelworkers do exist, even though they don’t identify themselves publicly.

And that is the pivotal first step provided by Steel Closets, and the 40 steelworkers who contributed their stories to it. Both steelworkers and management must now acknowledge that some of the co-workers they know and love are gay—whether or not they self-identify—and gay workers will learn they’re not alone. True safety for all concerned can follow in the wake of this knowledge, and the trust that will follow it.

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 is now available.

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