By JOSEPH S. PETE
GARY, Ind. (AP) — Two women who worked at a local steel mill hid a secret from their co-workers—they lived together and were romantically involved.
But one sunk deeper into depression until her partner returned home one night to find her with a gun in her mouth.
She pulled the trigger.
The steelworker frantically tried to resuscitate her partner, but it was too late.
Though grief-stricken, she still had to show up for her shift the next day because no one at the mill knew they were a couple or even that they were lesbians, and she feared being exposed. She could not let on that anything was wrong.
That was one of the stories Indiana University Northwest English professor Anne Balay gathered while interviewing 40 gay steelworkers for her book, “Steel Closets: Voices of Gay, Lesbian and Transgender Steelworkers,” which was recently published by the University of North Carolina Press.
The first-of-its-kind book was written for a wide readership, and has won praise. Author E. Patrick Johnson, who wrote “Sweet Tea: Black Gay Men of the South,” called it “a fascinating and insightful look into the lives of queer steel mill workers.”
Balay, who lives in Gary’s Miller Beach neighborhood, had been a car mechanic before she became an English professor and knew what it was like being gay in a blue-collar and traditionally male workplace. When she started to teach in Gary eight years ago, she became fascinated by the steel mills—by how they hulked majestically like prehistoric dinosaurs and yet were mysterious. She wondered what it was like for gay and lesbian steelworkers who toiled inside.
She could not find any academic literature on the subject. She scoured local libraries and a Pittsburgh library with an extensive collection of research on the steel industry, but to no avail.
Since Balay could not find any book on the subject, she decided to write one herself.
Balay wanted to let people know that gay steelworkers exist and suffer harassment, ostracism and isolation despite progress made with gay rights. She also wanted to let gay steelworkers know they are not alone.
“We have a picture of what it’s like to be gay in America and often perceive gay people as affluent, as white architects who live in Boystown,” she told The Times. “But there’s a growing body of scholarship that shows what it is like to be gay wherever you are, in rural areas or elsewhere. Not everybody moves to the city. They might be attached to the area or their family might all live there. It’s hard not to go to a city where it’s easier for gay people to live, but they should be able to figure out who they are wherever they are.”
Clad in her auto mechanic jacket, Balay sought out subjects to interview in steelworker bars and gay bars throughout northwestern Indiana. The university required they sign consent forms even though she protected them with aliases and by avoiding any identifying details, such as race or which mill they worked at.
“It was hard. It’s not like they have rainbow stickers on their cars,” she said. “They were trying to be invisible. I was looking for people who were trying not to be found.”
The steelworkers were used to hiding their sexuality but wanted to be heard after years of silence, Balay said.
“I showed up to one steelworker’s home and he just hemmed and hawed, and asked me to tell him what he was supposed to say,” she said. “I asked him just to talk about what the job is like, and he talked about his life for eight hours. The thing about the steelworkers is that they’re storytellers. They live exciting and dangerous lives. It isn’t boring – there’s always something happening, always danger and excitement. Being gay isn’t boring. There’s love, excitement and fun.”
Steelworkers opened up about how they were alienated at work, and about how they had to be careful about what they said and watch what pronouns they used if they were asked about their weekends. They talked about how they were harassed, beaten up and sexually assaulted. They recounted how they would find their tires slashed or their lug nuts loosened.
The steelworkers told Balay about how they fended off abuse, such as a woman who swung around and knocked off her harasser’s hat with a pipe, telling him next time it would be his head. Another got up on a catwalk, lowered a noose around a man’s neck, pulled him up on his tiptoes and told him she would pull tighter if he ever bothered her again. He didn’t.
They talked about the stress of being guarded all the time at work and how hard it was on their partners.
“It’s a dangerous, stressful job,” she said. “The partner knows the risk, but wouldn’t get notified if anything happened because they’re not legally recognized. What would that feel like, if your partner just didn’t come home and no one called to tell you what happened?”