Balay, Anne (2014). Steel Closets: Voices of Gay, Lesbian, and Transgender Steelworkers. Chapel Hill: University of North Caroline Press.
Steel Closets presents the stories of 40 gay, lesbian, and transgender steelworkers in Indiana. A mix of fascinating interviews, rigorous academic and technical research, and the personal experiences of the researcher as a working-class lesbian form an impressive and important text. Too often, the more privileged members of the queer community—the white, middle- and upper-class, educated gay men—are the public face of respectable queer pride, while the most marginalized are invisible, either because they are dismissed or because they are not out.
In this scholarly but very readable book, working-class queers talk about the dangers and pleasures of working in steel mills; what it’s like to be out or closeted; and how mainstream pride does not speak for them and indeed makes their lives worse. Their stories are important and little-known; this is in fact the very first published work exploring LGBTQ steelworkers.
The book begins with a good background on the history of the region, steel mill work, steelworker culture, and how the queer liberation movement changed the work environment for both out and closeted queers. Chapters 3, 4, and 5 discuss harassment, violence, and rape experienced by queer steelworkers; then analyze gendered experiences of fitting in, workplace culture, and sex at work. Chapter 6 focuses on the physical work-related dangers of steel work, and the trade-off between good salary and long-term health issues. Chapter 7 investigates workers’ experiences and opinions of the union.
Balay is a passionate and interesting writer. She is transparent about her methodology and her own background. As a former mechanic, her working-class history helped her both in terms of building rapport with steelworkers but also in terms of her interest in the topic and comfort in the environment. I appreciated her respectful descriptions of interviewees and the ways she presented their stories, in their own words. This research is crucial and this text is remarkable.
I would recommend Steel Closets for anthropology, sociology, and queer studies courses, as well as anyone doing research with working-class queers who wants to see an exemplar approach.