When I was in college, I worked for one of the university offices as a work-study. It was a Catholic university, and the office in which I worked was a particularly socially conservative space, with traditional Catholics running the show. For an openly gay college student, it was not a very liberating workplace, needless to say. I was careful to keep my sexual orientation—not to mention my liberal opinions—out of the office for fear of being subjected to proselytization or even termination. It was difficult, uncomfortable, and exceedingly awkward terrain to traverse, to be sure.
But one administrator in the office was different than the others. I guessed from my first day that she was a lesbian, but in such an environment, it was not something I could ever find out. Until I did. One night, at one of the city's two gay bars, we saw each other. From that point forward, we forged a kind of two-person queer community in that office. We spoke in code and vague terms to each other, which may have made the other office workers raise their eyebrows, but was impossible for them to decipher. We checked up on each other and talked in secret about our queer lives when we could. In a workplace in which we could be fired or otherwise ostracized for being who we were, it was liberating indeed to have that queer connection.
My point in telling that story is rather plain and obvious: Understanding queer interaction, community-building, and resistance in the workplace is central to understanding the LGBTQ struggle in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. Anybody who is LGBTQ intuitively knows this. Navigating the complicated minefield that is the workplace and waging those daily, seemingly mundane battles for acceptance—or just mere existence—are fundamental components of just about any LGBTQ person's life. When you stop to think about it, it seems like common sense. And yet, when I think about the major works that have been done in the small, but rapidly growing, field of LGBTQ history, I am hard-pressed to think of any that directly deal with LGBTQ labor. David K. Johnson's The Lavender Scare: The Cold War Persecution of Gays and Lesbians in the Federal Government (2006), of course, looks at the massive anti-gay witch hunts that took place within the federal workforce during the Cold War, but much of the literature looks at urban bar life and organized political struggles. And these are indeed important factors in LGBTQ history, but community-building is not limited to these arenas. Sometimes, it happens right in the workplace among LGBTQ people who are not necessarily political (in the traditional sense, anyway), but are just trying to get by as queer in a hostile, decidedly gender-conformist work environment. Of course, some workplaces are queerer and more ripe for LGBTQ community-building (and anti-LGBTQ oppression) than others. In Johnson's work, for example, he shows us how the expanding federal bureaucracy in the 1930s and 1940s led to a rise in the need for clerical workers in Washington, which in turn led to an influx of gay men in the federal workforce, leading to a (not completely incorrect) perception of the State Department and other government offices as heavily queer environments. In Plane Queer: Labor, Sexuality, and AIDS in the History of Male Flight Attendants (2013), Phil Tiemeyer explores another previously overlooked queer workplace: the aviation industry, and in particular, male flight attending. The thought that initially ran through my head upon hearing about this book might be running through yours right now—what a narrow demographic! But as you'll see, it works, and Plane Queer is a stunning success and an enormously important contribution to not only LGBTQ history, but also to the labor, feminist, legal, aviation, and AIDS historiographic literatures.
Upon finishing Plane Queer, I jokingly remarked to an interested friend who is now borrowing my book that when she is done, she is going to be convinced that male flight attendants are the most important people in the twentieth-century United States. That's an intentionally absurd exaggeration on my part, of course, and Tiemeyer makes no such claim. What he does do, however, is skillfully demonstrate the tremendous importance of this seemingly narrow demographic to civil rights and gay rights (Tiemeyer sees the two struggles as completely intertwined), in addition to the struggle for the rights of people with AIDS (PWAs) and the broader disability rights movement. Indeed, he argues that
male flight attendants have held a broader significance beyond aviation history. The fact that these men have been treated as gender misfits and suspected homosexuals since their debut makes them an important case study of gender discrimination and homophobia in an American workplace. Plane Queer thereby offers nearly a century of civil rights history that typically has been overlooked, especially examining the various successes and setbacks flight attendants experienced in striving for queer equality in the United States. [...] Indeed, their status as men that society perceived as queer—a good many of whom also self-identified as gay—who were also unionized, working-class employees in a relatively high-profile, public relations-oriented profession makes them particularly important historical actors in a larger struggle to combat sexism and homophobia in the American workplace.
That's quite the intervention in the civil and gay rights histories that we thought we knew so well. Tiemeyer goes on to prove these lofty claims in superb detail, placing (often gay) male flight attendants in a political context many of them probably had no idea they were occupying.
Sounds great. But let's be honest—almost none of us who have not read the book know anything about male flight attendants. And whatever you think you know, throw it out the window upon picking up this book, because Tiemeyer will probably surprise you with a hidden history that no previous scholar has thought to be important. He starts out in Chapter 1 by examining the very early history of this occupation, from the late 1920s through the beginning of World War II. Believe it or not, stewards--not stewardesses--were the norm in the early years of aviation history. Starting in the 1930s, however, the sands began to shift. While airlines such as Pan Am and Eastern were able to play into the "gay" (and by this, Tiemeyer does not necessarily mean homosexual) Prohibition-era nightlife by promoting their stewards as "dapper and sexually desirable," sexist and homophobic public responses toward the "unmanly" occupation began to manifest. These phobic responses only increased leading up to World War II.
But there's more to the story of the demise of stewards than that. Tiemeyer notes that, after World War II, the Cold War's military-industrial complex poured decommissioned military planes into the civilian aviation industry, fundamentally changing airlines' financial strategies and requiring them to make cost-cutting decisions. It suddenly became much more cost-efficient to hire a stewardess than to keep a higher-paid steward with years of experience under his belt. As stewardesses began to flood the industry, flight attending became more and more associated with women's work. This, in turn, led to a solidified association between stewards and unmanliness--and even homosexuality. Indeed, in the 1950s, when the Lavender Scare was really getting underway, any kind of gender subversion--and male flight attending was indeed extremely gender-subversive--was enough to raise eyebrows. Tiemeyer also recounts the 1954 murder of a gay Eastern steward by two male hustlers in Miami. The high-profile case further condemned the occupation in the eyes of the public as a queer place for men to be. Eventually, public pressure led the major airlines to stop hiring stewards altogether. By the 1960s, only a very small percentage of flight attendants were male.
Tiemeyer also deals with the issue of race, noting that in addition to becoming a women's profession, flight attending also became a white profession due to the airlines' overtly racist hiring policies. This particular queer career, in addition to others, arose directly out of America's Jim Crow past. That leads us to Diaz v. Pan Am in 1971. Celio Diaz, a man who wanted to be a flight attendant but could not because of official airline policy, successfully sued Pan Am under the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which of course barred discrimination in employment on the basis of sex. Here, Tiemeyer does something interesting:
Diaz's legacy, though virtually unknown today, attests to queer Americans' deep investment in the civil rights moment of the 1960s, even though they were often seen as unwelcome in this movement. While many citizens were increasingly ready in the 1960s to extend legal equality to African Americans, they were far more reluctant to extend the same guarantees to women. Meanwhile, the idea of extending equality to homosexuals or gender nonconformists like male flight attendants was typically greeted with alarm. [...]
In this light, I treat the Diaz case as a vitally important precursor to future queer equality victories. Even though Diaz himself wasn't gay, his victory in the courts helped establish limits on social conservatives' use of homophobia to block gender-based civil rights and prevent the inclusion of gays and lesbians into mainstream civil society. Of course, Diaz's victor also opened the doors for countless numbers of gay men to enter a relatively high-paying, unionized, and public relations-oriented career. The flight attendant cops would become a new sort of workplace by the 1970s, increasingly responsive not only to women's rights but also to queer rights.
Not only does Tiemeyer rightfully place the Diaz case as central in LGBT and civil rights history, but he also provides a necessary revision to our understanding of the Civil Rights Act itself. He shows that its 1964 passage, in addition to being a monumental success for the African American Civil Rights Movement, was also a "seminal moment" for gender nonconformists and openly gay people, as it allowed cases like Diaz to open up largely female workplaces to gender-nonconforming people. He even demonstrates that lawmakers had queer people in the backs (and sometimes fronts) of their minds when debating Title VII on the House floor. This is just one way in which Tiemeyer re-situates LGBT history within civil rights history, and vice-versa.
After Diaz and leading up to the 1980s, men—including many gay men—flooded the airlines. In a workplace now comprised mainly of women and gay men, Tiemeyer analyzes it as a microcosm of the larger collision of women's and gay liberation. He shows the distinct struggles within the airlines--of women to end pregnancy bans and mandatory retirement ages in the post-Diaz years and of gay men to demand equal treatment from the airlines and from the unions--and how those struggles at times overlapped. He also demonstrates how the culture wars taking place within the airlines spilled over and fueled the development of the New Right.
And then came AIDS. Tiemeyer does some important things in this area. For one, he rightly takes Randy Shilts to task for baselessly slandering male flight attendant Gaetan Dugas as "Patient Zero" in the 1987 And the Band Played On. He also shows the very tangible effects of this myth--that is, male flight attendants in the collective sense were treated, to some extent, as scapegoats for the disease. Add to this the intense physical and emotional toll AIDS took on them, as it did on the rest of the gay community, and we have a very bleak picture for stewards in the 1980s. However, Tiemeyer also details the work of flight attendant Gar Traynor, who was diagnosed with AIDS in the early 1980s. When he was grounded in 1983, Traynor--with the help of his union--fought the decision. What resulted was a 1984 legal victory in which Traynor won the right to return to work, an important precedent for PWAs in future court decisions and in the 1990 Americans with Disabilities Act. Indeed, male flight attendants played a crucial role in the struggle for fair treatment of PWAs.
Tiemeyer ends the book by discussing the relatively gay-friendly atmosphere in the aviation industry since the 1990s. Airlines eventually disregarded right-wing hysteria and stopped discriminating against gay and HIV-positive flight attendants. In some airlines, stewards won flight privileges and health benefits for their same-sex partners, in addition to other important gains. These developments, of course, came about not because of political or legal successes (hell, we're still fighting for ENDA), but largely because of inside and outside pressure, changing societal attitudes, and corporations bending to the changing social tide. Tiemeyer does not, however, see this as a completely rosy conclusion:
While such developments seem to make the 1990s the ideal conclusion to the topsy-turvy history of male flight attendants and their encounters with homophobia, they are not as one-dimensionally optimistic. Indeed...expanding gay civil rights via the private sector is fraught with danger. Just as gay flight attendants have attained parity with their straight peers, all of them have endured unprecedented pay cuts and the loss of collective bargaining power...male flight attendants, even if they are no longer discriminated for being gay or HIV positive, nonetheless experience their work as undignified and underpaid in the cutthroat economic age of deregulation, airline bankruptcies, and court-monitored reorganizations.
Tiemeyer has other problems with "queer equality in the age of neoliberalism":
...this collusion of corporate profit seeking and queer rights allows wealthier gays to dictate the queer political agenda. If corporations value LGBT customers mainly for their wealth, then the public voices of the queer community will reflect mainly its white, male, gender-conforming members who already enjoy greater access to economic means...In turn, ignoring these marginalized constituencies [women, people of color, poor people, sick people, very young people, and very old people] within LGBT circles creates a vision of queer equality that stresses only civil liberties (like access to domestic partner benefits, marriage, or the right to serve in the military), while ignoring the deeper need "for political alliance, for a multi-use, multiconstituency coalition focused on economic justice."
I suspect that these latter arguments will be the most controversial, as they—while certainly making a valid point—inspired a knee-jerk reaction in me to defend the struggles for marriage equality and open military service. And, while Tiemeyer's concerns are valid, whether one completely agrees with him or not, I don't feel as though he gives enough credit to the importance of inclusive corporate policy. I see such policy shifts not simply as corporations cynically seeking profit (although that's certainly what corporations do), but also as the result of internal and public pressure and changing social winds in favor of LGBTQ equality.
But no matter how you feel about the criticisms Tiemeyer makes toward the end of the book, Plane Queer is essential reading for anybody interested in LGBTQ history. Its seamless melding of LGBTQ and labor history is also a model for future historians, as we need much, much more work done in the area of LGBTQ labor. Going back to the story I told about my college work-study experience, we know that the workplace has been a central part of LGBTQ lives throughout this century and the last. Tiemeyer's research challenges us to explore the workplace more deeply. We might be surprised at what we find, just as Plane Queer is surprising its readers. Pick the book up. Read it. You won't be disappointed, I promise.
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