In Conversation with Anne Balay, Author of “Steel Closets” – Andrea Zeffiro

On October 22, 2015, Anne Balay gave a talk at Illinois Institute of Technology (IIT) called “Tradition and the Individual Steelworker: Stories of technological and social change.” In this talk, Balay draws on the oral histories of steelworkers in Northwest Indiana and South Chicago. These stories form the backbone of her book, Steel Closets, which explores how change, and the widespread resistance to it, has affected sexuality, risk, health, and everyday life.

The audio file below is a recording of this talk, hosted by the Humanities Department at IIT.

Anne Balay is a Visiting Assistant Professor at Haverford College. Her book Steel Closets: Voices of Gay, Lesbian, and Transgender Steelworkers won the 2014 NWSA book award and the Lambda Literary Emerging Writer Award. Balay is working on a book about over-the-road truck drivers.

 

 

Andrea Zeffiro: In the introduction to Steel Closets, you detail the events that sparked the research in the fall of 2009. Can you share a bit of this backstory with NMP?

Anne Balay: Since I had worked as a car mechanic, and I’m visibly queer, I had an interesting set of experiences there, and when I started working near the mills, passing by them often, I was curious what it was like to work there for queer or gender nonconforming folks. So much media and scholarship assume that queers are white, male, urban, financially comfortable, educated… I wanted to know more about those queers who are not that – those who work dirty jobs and have an experience that doesn’t get much attention.

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AZ: In a previous conversation we had, you mentioned that one of the challenges of the project was seeking out narrators. Can you talk a little bit about this process? Did the search inform the project?

AB: Shit yeah. Because gay steelworkers are hiding, attempting to evade harassment and getting fired, they were not easy to find. And that became part of the research project – I couldn’t use snowball sampling because almost no one I interviewed knew other gay steelworkers – they were invisible even to each other. So I started hanging out in local bars, and basically launched an anthropological fieldwork practice to understand enough of the region and its inhabitants that they were willing to talk to me. They are not identifiable in the book, and they needed guarantees that no one they mentioned could be identified either. This all made the research process difficult, but compelling. As soon as I found these people, their stories were so different from other narratives of queer life, and their strategies so intense – they instantly became my heroes, and that motivated me to continue and take it all the way to publication.

AZ: The appendix, appropriately titled ‘The Narrators,’ is quite compelling. In it, you equip your readers with a brief description of each of the forty narrators whose stories informed Steel Closets. Each entry provides a name (pseudonym), date of the interview, and a rich description of the narrator. Can you talk a little about this section, perhaps about why you included it as such, and the aims and challenges of representing the narrators in this capacity?

AB: My publisher and readers made me do that. I resisted for a long time. Why? I was nervous about making the narrators visible. I had learned so much about how vulnerable they were at work that I was very anxious not to add to their struggles. But they don’t lack courage, certainly, and they agreed with the publisher that readers would want some outline of a body and life to tie the stories to, so I settled on the approach you describe. Even the aliases are chosen to conceal identity (for example, narrators with “black” names are white, etc.), and specific mills or job sites within mills are sometimes changed. I had a hard time guessing their age, also, since the mill affects your body.

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AZ: You describe the interviews as self-contained stories, having literary value as singular narratives that when united, “form a chain of stories with historical significance that make possible a revised understanding of queer identity.” Can you share your view on storytelling, perhaps as a methodology, but also as a politicized technique for community building?

AB: People make sense of our lives through stories – it’s how we construct our identities. And because queer people grow up without community (unlike other minoritized populations, we’re not raised by other members of the minority, in its culture), we have extra pressure to craft the identity through story.

Also, archives notoriously contain the words and papers of people who think they’re worthy of that treatment – donors, names, movers and shakers. If you’re a nobody, or see yourself that way, you don’t think of leaving your papers in an archive. Yet archives are where historians turn when they are trying to write popular history, so that’s a gap that oral history attempts to fill. Imagine who is not in the archive, and go collect their stories. This process can then shape history because the people who write it now will have this access.

Finally, you can’t have community if you don’t know who your tribe is. Before I wrote the book, most LGBT steelworkers believed they were the only one out there. If there were others, they couldn’t identify them, so they felt very alone and very afraid. The sense that others are standing with you is beyond helpful. And the people I wrote about also have seen the union support them because of the book, and the reading public embrace and enjoy their stories, and they feel visible and validated by that.

AZ: A few weeks ago I was describing Steel Closets to a colleague who looked at me abashed and said, “I can’t help but think of The Simpsons episode with John Waters”, as though the two ought to be detached. My colleague, of course, was unaware of the fact that the opening sentence of the book reads: “In a 1997 episode of The Simpsons called ‘Homer’s Phobia’…”. You build on The Simpsons episode as a means of revealing, as you say, “not only of how powerful the metaphor linking steel production and masculinity is in our culture, but also how gay men function as a pivot point in that definition.” Can you elaborate on how The Simpsons example serves as a touchstone in an excavation of the working-class queers who exist outside the metropole?

AB: I found it by Googling. At the start of my research, I Googled gay steelworker, and that episode came up first. Now, I gotta say, when you Google gay steelworker, my book comes up first.

But seriously, no book means anything unless people read it. The thing about mass culture, like The Simpsons, is that people see it. LOTS of people. I don’t want to create distance between myself and mass culture – if and when I can, I want to build bridges to it, as a way of reaching wider audiences. So The Simpsons is a way to draw in, and on, that wide audience, and be relatable.

Also, if The Simpsons is riffing on how gay steelworkers are both impossible and prevalent, then that’s something worthy of scholarly investigation, because believe me, scholarship wasn’t picking up on that.

AZ: The popular assumption about scholarly publications is that they’re inaccessible to the general public. Steel Closets, however, defies these assumptions. In fact, your role has mutated from author to mediator and community organizer. Tell us more about what happened after the publication of the book, both in terms of the responses you received and what happened in labour unions.

AB: Well, lots of readers, many of whom are steelworkers, other blue-collar workers, and union members, have contacted me thanking me for the book, and saying they feel less alone, and thus braver. They give it to their partners, parents, bosses. Some gave it to their union (the USW) and that led to a dramatic change in contract protections for LGBT USW members. I was there at the constitutional convention, and saw that change happen, and felt like I had contributed to real, lived change.

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But yes, the academy has no respect for activism, though they give it lip service. I was denied tenure, and haven’t found permanent academic work. Most academic departments have their hearts in the right place, but when they go to hire, they think more about the existing classes they need to cover then they think about what needs to be added, or even changed in their course roster. Most departments don’t find themselves asking who will teach their courses on blue-collar queers, or their courses that will send students out to the community to meet local folks, hear their stories, and encourage them to change their worlds.

AZ: You’ve recently embarked on a new research project. Much like Steel Closets, this new project is invested in drawing attention to the lived realities of blue-collar queers, and in turn, complicates some of the prevalent assumptions about contemporary queer lives. Along these lines, both projects create fissures in the mainstream framing of LGBTQ rights. Can you tell us about it?

AB: I am starting research for a book about over-the-road truckers, many of whom are queer or trans.

Anne Balay graduated with a PhD from the University of Chicago, after which she promptly became a car mechanic. Though in subsequent years she returned to academia as a professor both at the University of Illinois and Indiana University Northwest, she never lost her interest in blue collar work environments. Dr. Balay moved to Gary, Indiana to teach, and was immediately interested in the steel industry of the region. Her coworker and mentor, Jimbo Lane, suggested that she would be perfectly suited to meeting with and writing about the LGBT workers within the mill community, and Steel Closets was born. She has two daughters, who are shining beacons of awesome.

Andrea Zeffiro is a co-curator for NMP. For more see: www.andreazeffiro.com