Review — ‘Steel Closets: Voices of Gay, Lesbian, and Transgender Steelworkers’

From the September-October 2014 issue of News & Letters

The process of steel production, in contrast to assembly line work, imposes a rhythm of all-out team labor, then waiting for the next task. Workers shower at the job—like a military unit or a sports team. Homophobes have predicted a breakdown in morals if Gays were allowed in a barracks or locker room. It turned out that Gays and Lesbians were already there.

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Steel Closets: Voices of Gay, Lesbian, and Transgender Steelworkers, by Anne Balay, proves that LGBT steelworkers were in the mills. Balay based her book on the experiences of 40 long-time steelworkers, 20 men and 20 women. Homophobic and transphobic workplaces and threats of violence forced almost all workers to hide their sexual orientation and gender identity, and large chunks of their lives, at work. The current United Steelworkers (USW) contract with steel companies omits sexual orientation protections. One worker who was outed by his ex-wife was fired the next day. 

An official at USW headquarters in Pittsburgh noted that there were no official complaints of LGBT discrimination filed through the union. The risks of filing a complaint might outweigh the costs of further harassment. Many of the workers in the book mistrusted union stewards who discouraged LGBT workers from filing grievances, or did not pursue grievances that, in their minds, affected just a single worker or two.

The testimony from the 20 Lesbian workers begins in 1974 when steel companies hired women for the first time—women had not even been hired in steel as war workers in World War II—in a consent decree that also mandated increased hiring of African Americans. Balay concludes from their stories that Gay men had it rougher in the mills than Lesbians, partly because simply being women was threatening in itself to some bosses and co-workers. Yet they had to stay closeted: two former co-workers only knew each was a Lesbian when the book’s contributors met at a book launch.

 By providing proof that LGBT steelworkers exist, this book has become a weapon in the class struggle. A Gary, Ind., local worked with Balay on a resolution mandating inclusion of gender identity and gender expression under members’ protections, and saw it ratified at the 2014 USW Convention in August.

—Bob McGuire 

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