Steel Closets: Setting The Scene

The following is an excerpt from Anne Balay’s 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. In Steel Closets, Anne 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. The voices and stories captured by Balay–by turns alarming, heroic, funny, and devastating–challenge contemporary understandings of what it means to be queer and shed light on the incredible homophobia and violence faced by many: nearly all of Balay’s narrators remain closeted at work, and many have experienced harassment, violence, or rape. 

Through the powerful voices of queer steelworkers themselves, Steel Closets provides rich insight into an understudied part of the LGBT population, contributing to a growing body of scholarship that aims to reveal and analyze a broader range of gay life in America.

Balay’s Steel Closets: Voices of Gay, Lesbian, and Transgender Steelworkers was featured recently on our Universal Human Rights Month reading list.

During the twenty-first century, tolerance for and even acceptance of gay and lesbian people has increased. President Barack Obama’s public support for gay marriage preceding his reelection in 2012 and the Supreme Court’s DOMA ruling in 2013 are prominent markers of this shift. Yet this change is not consistent or universal. Anti-trans violence is still common, and queer teens are bullied to death regularly. And most of the GLBT steelworkers I interviewed do not feel safe enough to come out at work, fearing rejection, violence, and dismissal, among other consequences. Their stories back up these fears. This chapter explores what it is about steel mills—the work, the location, the people, the history—that makes them so inhospitable to queers, even as the culture in which they are set becomes more accepting. Our sense of what it means to be queer remains incomplete until we understand and include these people and their experiences.

The mills are huge, physically remote structures, covering many acres. They are frightening, mysterious, beautiful anachronisms. A powerful, almost prehistoric magic adheres to them, like a fine gray dust. And it adheres to steelworkers as well.

A Century of Steel

The first mills to come to Northwest Indiana were Inland Steel in East Chicago (1901) and United States Steel (USX) in Gary (1906). Both plants were built on largely unsettled land, situated near Lake Michigan and thus convenient to barge and rail transport of raw materials from the Mesabi Iron Range in Minnesota and from Canada, and both towns were built for the workers who arrived to construct and then work in the mills. Youngstown Sheet and Tube was founded in 1923, right across from Inland. The Bethlehem Plant in Burns Harbor (1964) and National Steel in Portage (1960) were the last basic steel mills built in the area. All these mills are now owned by ArcelorMittal (an international conglomerate) except Gary Works, which is still owned by U.S. Steel.

Excavation for open hearth, U.S. Steel, Gary, 1906. Courtesy of the Calumet Regional Archives.

What a basic steel mill does is both simple and hugely complicated, largely due to issues of scale. Steel has two main ingredients: iron ore and carbon, which often comes in the form of a by-product of coal called coke. The goal is to heat the iron ore enough to get impurities out of it and to make possible its chemical bond with carbon. This then becomes iron. Next, the resulting molten metal must be combined with other agents (lime, for example) and poured into billets or else continuously cast into finished product. Early on (since the late 1800s) this heating was done through the Bessemer process. The large, curling black smokestacks visible in most steel mills persist from this time, though they are no longer in use. Open-hearth furnaces, blast furnaces, and the Bessemer process were how steel was made in the basic steel mills in and around Gary until late in the twentieth century. Gradually, after that, each plant switched over to the currently used basic oxygen furnaces (BOFs). While the Bessemer process blows air through iron to purify it, which takes about twelve hours per (large) batch, BOFs blow just oxygen through the iron, which takes a fraction of the time (as little as forty minutes). Additionally, BOFs require much less labor, so as they became standard, each mill’s worker pool could become correspondingly smaller without reducing output.

The steelworkers I interviewed believe that the mills in Northwest Indiana waited too long to make this modernizing switch, thus lessening their competitiveness with foreign-made steel. Indeed, open-hearth furnaces were still being built in the region long after they were no longer state-of-the-art. Further, continuous casting was slow to catch on in area mills, though it is now standard. In continuous casting, steel is produced, refined, and poured as part of one, uninterrupted process, rather than being cast into billets and then remelted to be rolled or pressed later.

What remains constant in the basic steel process is this: iron ore is delivered, heated to very high temperatures, then combined with carbon and other chemicals as needed; slag (impurities resulting from this process) is poured off, and the steel is poured, rolled, cut, coated, and otherwise prepared for market; it is then labeled and stored until it gets shipped, either by rail or truck. The slag must be disposed of somehow, often in slag heaps on mill property.

Anne Balay is winner of the Lambda Literary Emerging Writers Award. She is an Independent Scholar living in Saint Louis and is the author of Semi Queer