Though the steel mills in and around Gary, n Northwest Indiana, employ fewer people than they did in the recent past, they are still active and important contributors to U.S. manufacturing. Obviously, some of the people who work there must be queer, yet they remain largely invisible both within ordinary people's assumptions, and within published research about the mills and their culture.
I am a professor at Indiana University Northwest, in Gary, and I have been meeting withand interviewinggay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender steelworkers. I am seeking more volunteers for the project, to document these important contributions to LGBT history.
So what is it like to be gay in the mills? More than a year ago, I realized that the only way to answer this question was to ask queer steelworkers themselves, collect as many stories as possible, and then compile them into a book. As of now, I have interviewed 32 LGBT steelworkers, and I hope for eight to 12 more.
I do not use real names, places of work, or circumstances that might identify my volunteers. I listen, ask questions, and they tell their stories.
One steelworker I spoke to several months ago feels ready to come out at work. He is relatively young, and still has many years left to work in the mill. He looks very discouraged as he imagines hearing "fag this and gay that" for the rest of his work life, and he wants to be able to say, "Shut up, you have no idea what you're talking about." He says he's not worried about his physical safety, since he's a big guy who can take care of himself. He is, though, worried about "Standing there alone." Like anyone, he wants to feel that he has friends and supporters. He says that when he comes out, I can call him Dr. Martin Luther Queen.
Another steelworker exuberantly announces that when she retires, in just 12 years, she is "going to come out. All the way. And just not worry about who hears." Until then, she claims that, for her, as soon as she "drives over those tracks, I'm in a different world. I'm not even me. I'm just doing my job, earning my paycheck, and keeping to myself." This is a woman who works almost constant back-to-back twelves (12-hour shifts), meaning that for more than half of her life, she voluntarily extinguishes herself.
Other steelworkers I've talked to are already out at work. Some are comfortable and confident, while others are harassed to the point of having high blood pressure and heart attacks. Their lives contain struggle and danger, but also pride, triumph, and laughter. Often, they have a wicked sense of humor. They tend not to complain, but instead to find solutions, tell stories, and crack jokes. One notes that he goes to Kansas City to escape the closeting and fear of Northwest Indiana, but he says "it's worth it, because men there wear big shiny belt buckles, so I can check how I look … fix my hair."
If you are someone who works (or was laid off from, or retired in) one of the big production steel mills in this area, please contact me. You only need to reveal as much of your story as you're comfortable with, and your identity will never be disclosed. Thanks in advance for your help.
Contact Anne Balay at firstname.lastname@example.org and 219-980-6575.