Anne Balay has become an advocate for LGBT steelworkers, which is interesting since she's never worked in a steel mill.
Balay did however work in Gary, Indiana, previously as an instructor at Indiana University Northwest. She said the proximity to the steel mills as well as a background in blue-collar work led to her searching out LGBT steelworkers to find out what their day-to-day life is like in the mills.
"I used to be a car mechanic so I knew what it was like to be a gay woman in a predominantly male, dirty industrial occupation," Balay said. "I wondered 'what is it like out in the mills, is it similar, how?' I was curious."
She said her initial research on the subject turned up nothing, which made her even more determined to pursue the topic.
What Balay found as she spoke to LGBT steelworkers was a strong anti-gay sentiment predominating the mills and a fear of speaking up about anti-gay harassment.
She detailed the accounts of the steelworkers she spoke with in her 2014 book, Steel Closets: Voices of Gay, Lesbian and Transgender Steelworkers.
"I think they [the United Steelworkers] were kind of embarrassed by what the book said," Balay explained. "But instead of trying to defend themselves and entrench their position, which is what I expected … they contacted me and said we realize we have a problem, can you help us? That was a move that completely surprised me."
As a result, in August during the United Steelworkers Constitutional Convention the organization made two important changes aimed at bettering the work environment for LGBT workers.
Through an amendment to the international constitution, gender identity was added to the categories of protected people, which had already included sexual orientation.
"That matters because trans people experience the most egregious discrimination and physical danger at work," Balay said.
Additionally, a civil-rights resolution was passed to include conversations about LGBT protections as part of local contract negotiation requirements.
There was one more improvement taken up at the Constitutional Convention that didn't pass.
"The third thing was getting somebody trained in each district who will confidentially take complaints or questions from people who have run into something at work and they want to know whether it's protected or how," Balay explained. "That part didn't get passed. It got raised as something they are going to try and figure out."
Balay said having a contact person for LGBT individuals to go to and whom they feel safe confiding in is still important to creating a safe environment for LGBT workers and a step that needs to be taken.
Overall, though, she thinks the amendment and resolution were good steps and are already having positive implications for some steel mill workers.
"In my opinion, it makes a difference instantly that the union president publicly and visibly identified this as a problem," she said.
"Ever since then people contact me constantly and say my work place is different, I feel less invisible, I want to run for office, I want to build on this. So there is a change in culture in the various workplaces that the USW organizes."
Still, Balay noted there is a long way to go before all steelworkers really feel safe being themselves at work.
She noted a presentation she gave at the College of William and Mary recently that was attended by several USW members who work at a nearby shipyard who still advised colleagues not to come out.
"To hear them just report that is still going on and that it creates an intense climate of fear and therefore an intense climate of hiding, that is still happening."
That exchange made it clear to Balay there is still a conflicting sense of safety, and improvements must continue as well as enforcement.
"There is space now to come out and protection, but to what extent does that affect the work culture?" she asked. "It's going to take time."
She said education would be a key element in changing the work culture so anti-gay comments are no longer considered acceptable.
"What we would need to think about is how to get people educated about how that feels and how that creates a climate of fear for everybody," she said. "In the case of the steel mills, the climate of fear is a bad place to work because it's such a dangerous location. What all steelworkers need to learn is that they would be safer if everybody wasn't scared."
She said an interesting comparison would be to look at the military and its repeal of "Don't Ask, Don't Tell ( DADT )."
"Has anybody studied how the climate has changed in the military since DADT collapsed?" she asked. "If we did that then we would know when you change the policy from above how long does it take? What happens? Does somebody need to be paying attention to and monitoring what goes on?"
Balay was careful to note it is not just blue-collar or masculine-dominated professions where anti-gay discrimination and work environments prevail.
"You are right to point out this is a hyper-masculine workplace that may permit more of that, it may permit more of it overtly, but it's not something that in any way has been addressed in workplace cultures," she said. "I didn't get tenure at my university and … it had everything to do with me being an out queer person on campus, and that is a university. It's way more common than you think."
Balay is currently promoting her book. She has also started research on the world of queer truck driving for her next project. She's spent time working as an over-the-road driver to get an understanding of the profession and will return to that line of work following the holidays.