Jeff Manes: Woman’s book explores gay steel mill workers
August 13, 2013 1:18PM
Updated: September 15, 2013 6:06AM
“...And I saw workmen wearing leather shoes scruffed with fire and cinders, and pitted with little holes from running molten steel,
And some had bunches of specialized muscles around their shoulder blades hard as pig iron, muscles of their forearms were sheet steel and they looked to me like men who had been somewhere.”
— Carl Sandburg, 1915
Anne Balay (pronounced Bailey), 49, lives in the Miller neighborhood of Gary and has written a book about steel workers. You know, those rough-and-tumble, beer-swilling epitomes of machismo with nicknames like Big Stosh, Dago Jack, Iron Mike or Moose.
Balay’s book is entitled “Steel Closets: Voices of Gay, Lesbian and Trans-gender Steel Workers.”
“I was born in Connecticut,” Balay began. “I moved to Chicago to go to college — the University of Chicago. My dad was a librarian at Yale University.”
My father owned several Winchester Model 12 shotguns. New Haven, Conn., is where you could send the barrels of the guns to get them re-blued.
“Winchester Repeating Arms was the big factory in New Haven. It shut down in the late ‘70s.”
What part of Chicago were you from?
“Hyde Park. The last place I lived was about three blocks from President Obama’s house.”
You’re an English professor at Indiana University Northwest.
“I’ve taught American literature, children’s literature and writing at IUN for seven years. They didn’t retain me, so I have to leave at the end of the year — no tenure.”
“I run three miles or five miles every morning in Miller woods or along the lake or by the national park on Grant Street. This is a great city for a runner. There’s a little lagoon very close to my house that we visit every evening. It has snapping turtles, beavers, fish, deer. ... It’s like a nature preserve right in the middle of the city.”
“Nope. I’ve been married twice; it didn’t work out. I have two adult daughters from my first marriage. I was married to a woman the second time. I have a girlfriend — I’m gay.”
Do you mind if I mention that in my column?
“No. Everybody knows. I couldn’t have written my book if I wasn’t.”
Tell me about the book.
“I interviewed 40 people. I talked to a million people, but only 40 signed a consent form. Letting me tape them was a big trust issue.”
Did you use the real names of your interviewees?
“No. I gave them aliases.”
Did you explain that in the book?
How many of the 40 were males?
“There were 20 males and 20 females. I didn’t set out to do 20 and 20; it just came out that way. Four of them are trans-gender. They transitioned while working at the mill.”
I worked in the mill for like 27 years. It can be survival of the fittest. Did some of them get harassed?
“Oh, yeah. They’ve had their tires slashed or the lug nuts taken off in the mill parking lots. They’ve been called names. Some people refuse to work with them. The trans-genders were the people who experienced the most explicit violence. Some of them were raped and beaten.
“In Indiana, there are no legal protections for the people I interviewed. Indiana law doesn’t protect based on sexual orientation, just race, religion and gender. So, even if they file complaints about the abuse at work they can’t get any action.”
I can only imagine.
“Mostly, they don’t say to anyone they work with that they are gay because they’re scared. It’s mostly about hiding.
“The thing about the mills, as you probably know, is you talk a lot. Right? You work in teams or pairs. If gay steel workers can’t reveal anything about their private lives or preferences, they just get really excluded from that. So, they lie or just avoid certain topics. They experience isolation. They see and hear a lot of negative attention about queer people. That’s why they don’t come out.”
A nightmare for 30-plus years.
“It’s easier for the women. The women can be fairly open at work. If you’re a lesbian, people get less freaked out about you being a mill worker. Before I taught college, I was a car mechanic with a PhD for seven years. Everybody figured I was a lesbian because I was a car mechanic.”
Anne, bear with this heterosexual. There are things I’m not sure about. You were married to a man the first time around. Was there a bolt from the blue and one day you became a lesbian? Were you always a lesbian?
“I don’t know. But I totally respect people like you who will ask. I guess I wouldn’t say that I’ve always been gay. I was fine being married to a man. We broke up not because I was a lesbian. It just wasn’t working out. A few year later, I thought I’d try women. With that said, I think there are probably people who are born totally gay or totally straight.”
I appreciate your candidness. Can you let my readers — and myself — in on one of your favorite excerpts from “Steel Closets”?
“I interviewed a woman who was originally hired in a coal mine outside of Philadelphia. It was owned by Bethlehem Steel and she was eventually transferred here. This was in the ‘70s when she was working in the mine. They didn’t like women in those kinds of jobs. They hazed her like you would not believe.
“She told me they had to ride on the top of an elevator down the mineshaft to repair some timbers. One of her workmates told her to grab a chain jack and get up on the timber.”
“She did what she was told. Then they dropped the elevator. She was dangling in midair from the timber. It was pitch black. After quite a while the elevator comes back up with one of the men who did this to her and the supervisor who came along to check on how the job was progressing.”
“The boss was about to fire those guys. He asked her what she was doing up there. She told the supervisor: ‘The guys went on coffee break; I don’t drink coffee.’”
She covered for them.
“And she finally was accepted.”
“Steel Closets: Voices of Gay, Lesbian and Trans-gender Steel Workers” is due to come out in February of 2014. The publisher of the book is the University of North Carolina.
The work environment can be a hostile place. It shouldn’t be. Maybe Balay’s book will get a few folks to realize how it must feel to walk in the steel-toed boots of someone who happens to be gay.