Anne Balay: A Trucker’s “Me Too”

Semi Queer by Anne BalayToday we welcome a guest post from Anne Balay, author of Semi Queer:  Inside the World of Gay, Trans, and Black Truck Drivers, just published by UNC Press.

Long-haul trucking is linked to almost every industry in America, yet somehow the working-class drivers behind big rigs remain largely hidden from public view. Gritty, inspiring, and often devastating oral histories of gay, transsexual, and minority truck drivers allow award-winning author Anne Balay to shed new light on the harsh realities of truckers’ lives behind the wheel. A licensed commercial truck driver herself, Balay discovers that, for people routinely subjected to prejudice, hatred, and violence in their hometowns and in the job market, trucking can provide an opportunity for safety, welcome isolation, and a chance to be themselves–even as the low-wage work is fraught with tightening regulations, constant surveillance, danger, and exploitation. The narratives of minority and queer truckers underscore the working-class struggle to earn a living while preserving one’s safety, dignity, and selfhood.

Semi Queer is available now in both print and ebook editions.

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A Trucker’s “Me Too”

There is enormous variety in how truckers respond to sexual violence and sexual harassment at work. Some fight back through legal and other formal channels. Using fierce dedication and self-advocacy, they compile enough complaints that they cannot be ignored, hoping that the culture of trucking starts to change. Such work by woman truckers has led to recent cases against megacarriers like Prime.

Others fight back in person, on the ground, and just keep rolling.

While collecting the oral histories that I used to build Semi Queer, I heard hard stories, and strove to follow the guidelines established by Tarana Burke’s “me too” movement. I cried. I asked: “What do you need now?” I strove to avoid “trauma porn,” instead listening as people narrated their experience, and described how they moved forward, and made change.

And I have to say that through it all, what I remember – what they left me with – is their joy. They really love to drive truck.

That sounds flip, but it is very real nonetheless.

Sexual violence deprives its victims of their full humanity. It’s scarring, it’s real, and the loss is unrecoverable. Every trucker knows that. But they know other things, too. Things of which the non-trucking public may be less aware.

That driving a truck is fun and feels good. The thrum of the road under the tires. The excitement of not knowing what comes next. You have to push yourself, you have to think. You’re in control, and it’s all very thrilling. There is boundless physical pleasure derived from using your body and your mind harmoniously to accomplish a difficult task. When truckers describe it, their words fall short. “I have the best office window ever,” they’ll say. But their eyes light up, and it’s like they are suddenly somewhere else . . . in motion, and loving it.

What’s controversial, but still true, is that within workplaces, sexual harassment is part of the culture. Not responding to it defensively and even participating in it can feel like the price of admission.

Add to that that my narrators are lesbians, transwomen, African-Americans, immigrants . . . people subject to daily harassment and microaggressions in any work setting. The truck lets them just walk away. Sure they still get propositioned (and worse) constantly, but as one says: “you can harass me, you can demean me, but say hello to my truck.” Not only is this woman walking away from her oppressors and seizing control, but she is doing so in an enormous machine whose power and promise she shares. Revenge like that is very sweet.

Further, there is a very particular delight that comes from participation in a male-dominated workplace. My first book describes this pleasure for butch lesbians. But any woman can feel it. Male ways of being and doing are valued in our culture. Gaining access to them feels good . . . feels validating. I in no way wish to denigrate the feminine, and I respect and teach Julia Serrano and strive to internalize her (and other feminists) work. But I also know that working in a car shop, a steel mill, a truck offers camaraderie, pleasure, and humor.

What’s more controversial, but still true, is that within these workplaces, sexual harassment is part of the culture. Not responding to it defensively and even participating in it can feel like the price of admission.

Finally, doing important work with tangible results feels good. Even before Marx, humans noticed that our work is increasingly fragmented and detached from any form of direct care. Not true for truckers, who really DO stuff. When I drove truck I saw factories and brought them the products they needed to do the things. I saw the places where the goods we buy came from. I saw humans pick fruit. I participated. When I then went to a store to buy things, I experienced the entire world differently: it was mine in some meaningful, ineffable way. I liked that.

A work culture – any culture – is complicated. And people can love the culture in which they participate and challenge that culture at the same time. Most women who drive a truck have been the victim of sexual violence at work, and I believe all women fear it. Some are fighting to name and punish perpetrators, thereby protecting themselves and other women out there. But all find the trucking lifestyle not only a source of sexual trauma but also a road to joy, pleasure, and empowerment for women. If we hear their stories and remember only the pain, we are missing the point, and recapitulating the trauma.

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Anne Balay is winner of the Lambda Literary Emerging Writers Award. She teaches in gender and sexuality studies at Haverford College and is the author of Steel Closets.  For more information, you can visit her website, or follow her on Twitter at @anxiousannieb.  You can also read her previous UNC Press Blog posts here.