Monday, March 17, 2014

Bridging the Divide

“Working in a steel mill typically involves rushing around frantically on deadline and then recording that work on a computer, followed by lots of waiting.  Anne Balay, “Steel Closets”

Anne Balay, on the first leg of a Spring Break book tour, wrote: On our way to NYC, our gay Southwest flight attendant was camping it up, so I told him about my book, and HE said that a passenger the previous day had been excitedly reading it on his flight and recommended it to him, so he had already ordered one. A TOTAL STRANGER READING MY BOOK, AND PROMOTING IT TO OTHER QUEERS!!!!!  After New York City next stop is Cornell University, where she deposited her “Steel Closets” tapes; she’ll be on a “Speaking of Sex” program.  She remains, despite all evidence to the contrary, upbeat about her tenure and promotion case.

I am halfway through “Steel Closets.”  Anne persuaded 40 gay, lesbian, and transgender steelworkers from the Calumet Region to sign consent forms and describe on tape their mill experiences.  The stories, told with great pride, were at times funny but mostly devastating in terms of the isolation and harassment, sometimes violent, if suspected of being “queer.”  One narrator (as Anne labeled her sources) found more acceptance as a New York City policeman than at the mill.  Another knew she’d never be accepted for the person she was so, in her words, “did her 8 and hit the gate.”  Because of the pattern of “hurry up and wait,” steelworkers have lots of idle time to talk about everything from family life and sports to politics and sexual fantasies, which fosters a culture of intimacy unless you are in the closet.  As one steelworker told Anne, “In the steel mill, guys get very explicit about what’s going on in their world, as long as you’re not gay.” Another told Anne that “people talk all day long” and get really mad if you don’t reciprocate.

Some narrators Anne found in gay bars and by talking with media representatives.  Disappointingly, there was no snowball effect; most interviewees thought they were alone and were surprised that Anne had located so many other LGBTs. Eschewing a rigid structure, Anne usually stared by asking what he person’s job was at the mill, and then the stories poured out, sometimes for hours.  “All of the narrators had plenty to say when I simply let them wander,” Anne wrote; “Often I got people to talk by sharing experiences I had had as a mechanic, and I encouraged them to continue by flirting, and by caring.  I liked most of the people immediately, and I let them see that.  And their stories moved me, shook me up, and redefined heroism for me.”

Millworkers feed on gossip and might brand a slightly effeminate co-worker as gay even if he isn’t.  When Anne asked Keith what it was like to be gay in the mill, he answered, “I really can’t offer an opinion on it because I’m not gay at the mills.  As far as they’re concerned, I’m straight.”  Fred has faced harassment and been ostracized for being candid about his sexual orientation.  He told Anne: “I look at my gay friends who are in the closet and I think they’re sniveling little cowards, and then they watch how I get treated, and I can’t blame them.”  Zach, outed by a girl he knew in high school, had his car vandalized, came upon crude drawings and hurtful words drawn on his locker, and for six years was made the object of ridicule.  He survived by developing a hard shall and a sense of humor: laughing at himself and dishing “shit” out to others.  As he said, “If you show that it’s bothering you, people’ll jump on it . . . and drill you into the ground.”

Transgender workers who couldn’t hide their identity change had it the hardest.  Those best able to survive are women, often assumed to be butch, who prove their mettle.  Work is dangerous and people depend on one another to stay safe – and alive.  Anne wrote: “A fortuitous fit between lesbian orientation and steelwork means that many lesbians seek out and thrive in mill jobs, whether they are open about their identity or not.”  As Kate put it, “Guys would rather work with me than some of the other guys, because I’m a workhorse.”  Anne wrote that for some gay women, “working in the steel mills provides an opportunity to give full expression to their masculinity, and get paid for it rather than punished.”  For example, assigned to remove large bolts from polishers, Gail worked with a sledgehammer.  She told Anne: “I had a ball with it.  You learn to do a lot of amazing things.  It was fun.  It was a job you actually woke up and enjoyed going to.”

To gain acceptance women need to adapt a veneer of toughness.  They take on macho mindsets in interacting with co-workers.  Nate told Anne: “Some of the ladies that we had there were rough and tumble.  They had to be.  And some of them were almost as inappropriate as some of the men, y’know, as far as sexualizing the environment.”  Harriet bragged that when a guy made an obscene gesture and said, “Suck my dick,” she pulled her pants down and replied, “Suck my clit.”  Olshana recalled elbowing a guy hard who touched her ass and replying in kind to “backwards guys” who abused her verbally. Fern speculated that since men have fantasize about two girls having sex, their homophobia is restricted to gay men.  One woman stole guys’ air fresheners that had pictures of naked women on them, bragging that she found them titillating.

Friday I ran into a student whose t-shirt said “DTF Girls.”  I naively asked her what the initials meant, and she said, “it’s dirty.”  “Than you don’t have to tell me,” I replied.  According to Wiki Answers, it’s urban slang popularized by the “Jersey Shore” reality series, and the first two words are “Down To.”  At Thursday’s Gender Studies conference she looked cute enough to take home to mother.  A day later she looked hot enough for a young man (or, more likely, a woman) to take to bed.

Ryan Shelton put my final InDesign version of Steel Shavings, volume 43, on a CD, and I took it to Home Mountain.  Val thought my choice of bright apple green for the cover excellent.  At 304 pages it will be my biggest volume yet.

“Through a Screen Darkly” author Martha Bayles’s previous book, “Hole in Our Soul: The Loss of Beauty and Meaning in American Popular Music,” would have been more fun to review.  If the title is any indication, we would have had strong disagreements.  In “Through a Screen Darkly” Bayles discussed two main strains of hip-hop, one hedonistic, the other political.  She wrote that “Gangsta rap” gained commercial success in the 1990s “with its lurid tales of gangbangers killing each other (and police) and living an outrageously hedonistic lifestyle” comparable to a Southern strip club.  She added: “This ‘party’ rap is also commercially successful . . . [but] less influential than the second tendency, that of hip-hop giving a voice to the politically marginalized.”
Grandson James spent the weekend with us while Becca (above with proud poppa Dave) competed in a statewide dance competition in Indianapolis.  With the help of GPS, I took him to Wilbur Wright Middle School in Munster for a music contest in connection with Discovery Charter School.  He played the drums and xylophone on three numbers, including John Philip Sousa’s “Manhattan Beach” and Robert W. Smith’s “The Tempest.”  For their efforts the band received the high mark of Gold.  James has been talking on the computer with an AI (artificial intelligence): so far, no sign that the conversation is anything more than G-rated, unlike the Spike Jonze movie “Her.”

For his sixtieth birthday I gave Roy Dominguez a copy of “City of the Century” with this inscription: “To my good friend and hermano Roy Dominguez, whose valor and commitment to social justice I deeply admire and try to emulate.  Peace, Professor “Jimbo” Lane.  An IUN student during the 1970s, the former Lake County sheriff always calls me Professor Lane, just like his chief of police, Gary Martin, did before his untimely death while on a motorcycle trip to raise money for families of officers killed in the line of duty.

The surprise party for Roy Dominguez was at the Hall of Justice Building in Crown Point.  Roy thought it was for a friend and evidently was totally surprised.  We sat with members of the Montemayor family who knew Roy all his life.  Years ago, Louisa Montemayor had written an article for me about her mother, Estella, now 94 years old, whom I met.  Louisa’s sister Mary and her husband were affable; she gave me delicious cookies made from her mother’s recipe.  The Mexican food was delicious, especially the tacos and guacamole.  While I was in line, Lake County recorder Mike Brown introduced himself, saying he had taken my Postwar and Sixties classes about ten years ago.  Mike worked as a juvenile court bailiff and as a Lake County officer while Roy was sheriff and once dated Roy’s daughter Veronica.  Pregnant with her second child, Veronica looked radiant.  She and sister Maria were pleased that they pulled off the surprise.  Roy and wife Betty gave Toni and me big hugs when they spotted us.

On the opening skit of Saturday Night Live Kate McKinnon as Justin Bieber claimed it was a Canadian tradition to throw eggs at a neighbor’s house.  Musical guest Drake as baseball Star Alex Rodriguez blamed everyone but himself for his steroids suspension.

Sunday the Flyers defeated the Pittsburgh Penguins for the second time in 24 hours, jumping to a 3-0 lead and holding on to win 4-3.  I called brother-in-law Sonny to rehash the highlights, but he had recorded it for later.  The Hagelbergs came over for bridge, and after Angie showed up with Becca (Dave stayed in Indy for a two-day AVID conference), we all went to Applebee’s.  Angie and I got 2-for-$20 meals and shared a free artichoke and spinach dip.  I brought half my 7-ounce steak home in a doggy bag.

No teams from Illinois or Indiana are in the NCAA tournament.  IU didn’t even receive an NIT bid.  I filled out my brackets, putting Florida, Michigan State, Creighton, and Wichita State in the Final Four and predicting the Gators over the Shockers in the championship game.
Jerry Davich posted on Facebook a photo he took in East Chicago. I've passed that way often on the way to EC Central.

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