Today we welcome a guest 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 today’s post, Balay discusses the exceptional difficulties and discrimination that transgender people face while they are transitioning in the workplace.
Transgender steelworkers are the most vulnerable people I interviewed. The option of invisibility isn’t available to those who transition at work. And every change that shows, every single solitary detail, becomes a focus of teasing, harassment, violence, and abuse.
One narrator has been beaten badly enough to require a hospital stay twice since I met her. If invisibility and hiding are the norm, what happens if it’s not possible, especially to those in the most stigmatized, abhorred populations? My transgender narrators all resisted transition for as long as they could, since they knew punishment would be swift and sure. But ultimately, the physical and mental cost of resisting transition outweighed the cost of doing it, so they chose to become visible.
When they are subsequently harassed, attacked, and raped, how do they respond, and do they fight back? CeCe McDonald, released from prison in January of 2014 (due at least in part to interventions by Leslie Feinberg and other trans rights activists), is an instructive example. She and some friends were harassed and attacked on the street, and she responded verbally and then physically, ultimately killing her opponent with a broken bottle. She plea-bargained her conviction down to manslaughter, and was sentenced to about four years.
Certainly, her case was not unique, nor even rare. Our prison industrial complex is full of racial and sexual minorities who violated some rule or other. Many are incarcerated for crimes of which they were arguably the victim.
CeCe is, at least in her considerable online presence, charming and funny. She is always positive, never whiny—which may help her generate sympathy with mainstream audiences who might normally not sympathize with someone who is trans, black, and breaks rules of gender by expressing anger and perpetrating violence. Her warm, winning smile is part of her appeal—she seems happy with the choices she made, even though she paid a high price for them.
And my trans narrators share this—they feel a sureness about what they did and who they are that can’t be derailed by an angry and vengeful world. Danielle believes that people bullied and raped her to try to dissuade her from finding her truth, but she stayed strong and triumphed. In fact, their persistence only reinforced her commitment. She feels that transition was a choice that she made, and something she can be personally proud of. Owning her identity in this way as a choice gives her agency and some measure of control, which for Danielle outweighs the experience of being reviled. From this perspective, enforced visibility can be liberating—harassment is a small price to pay for ending the hiding and embracing the authentic self. Like CeCe, Danielle exudes triumph—joyful certainty—in spite of—or maybe because of—the shaming they experience from mainstream culture.
Yet this story of a victim’s inverting the structure that tried to control her is mitigated by what happened to Elise, who was harassed, bullied, and raped into a profoundly disturbed paranoia. If she believes people are following her, know where she lives, and might try to hurt her, is she wrong? How many transgender people, my narrators among them, are followed home and then beaten? So maybe she is crazy, but it’s just as likely that they ARE out to get her.
Whether you are visible or invisible, gay, lesbian, or transgender, the steel mills of northwest Indiana are hard places to be. Just like the people who worked tirelessly to “Free CeCe,” our job is to witness—to see what’s happening, to name the unfairness, and to try to stop the violence.
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. Read her previous blog posts, “As GLBT freedoms expand, who benefits—and who doesn’t,” “The Consequences of Marriage Inequality,” and “Queer Steelworkers and Labor Unions.”