Welcome Phil Tiemeyer (Philadelphia University) (KALW radio interview) and Host Janet M. Davis,  Associate Professor of American Studies, (University Texas, Austin) (NY Times)

Plane Queer: Labor, Sexuality, and AIDS in the History of Male Flight Attendants

On January 16, 1928, Pan American Airlines staged its first passenger flight from Key West, Florida to Havana, Cuba, an American tourist mecca. Wearing a sharp, fashionable black-and-white uniform, the nineteen-year-old flight attendant cheerfully welcomed passengers on board the Fokker F-7 aircraft, thus inaugurating what quickly would become a storied and iconic U.S. occupation. From the groovy, fluorescent miniskirt uniforms at Pacific Southwest Airlines in the 1960s and 1970s, to the smiling “Fly Me!” campaign at National Airlines in 1971, popular historical images of the U.S. flight attendant have been overwhelmingly female. Indeed, the very first U.S. flight attendant was supposedly a nurse named Ellen Church—launching a long historical association between flight, femininity, glamour, service, and sexual attractiveness.

Yet the earliest flight attendants in the United States were men. The Pan Am flight attendant who welcomed passengers aboard in January 1928 was a young Cuban American man named Amaury Sanchez. Men have worked as flight attendants throughout the history of modern aviation, but their indelible significance in shaping twentieth-century American labor, capitalism, sexual politics, and civil rights struggles has remained virtually invisible, until now. Beautifully researched and compulsively readable, Phil Tiemeyer’s Plane Queer analyzes the myriad ways that male flight attendants have made history from the 1930s to the present.

The labor of the male flight attendant was “queer” from the start (irrespective of the sexual preferences of the workers themselves) because white and light-skinned Latino men were hired to perform tasks that were traditionally relegated to women, or men of color: serving food and cleaning up. In line with broader cultural images of affluent white manhood during the Depression, male flight attendants were stylishly dressed in sleek, body hugging uniforms—a reflection of the upper-class customer base that airlines like Boeing Air Transport (now United Airlines) wanted to attract. At the same time, the flight attendant’s “queer” labor made him the subject of screwball homophobic pop cultural representations, such as “Barney Bullarney,” a bumbling comic strip character in Pan American Air Ways magazine during the late 1930s.

In the homophobic milieu of the Cold War a new cultural representation of the male flight attendant was born: the sexual predator. After William Simpson, a gay Eastern Airlines flight attendant, was murdered in 1954, he was transformed from victim to perpetrator once the hustlers who confessed to killing him claimed that they were defending themselves from his “advances.” Thereafter, Eastern stopped hiring male flight attendants altogether. Pan Am followed suit in 1958.

Tiemeyer reminds readers that economic considerations were always central to airline labor policy changes, including the decision to stop hiring male flight attendants. Unlike female flight attendants who were contractually bound to quit their jobs in their early thirties or upon marrying, male flight attendants accrued seniority and correspondingly higher salaries and benefits. Nonetheless, the economics of homophobic panic strongly influenced the decision to stop hiring male flight attendants in the 1950s. In later chapters, Tiemeyer shows that the homophobic image of the predatory gay flight attendant had enormous staying power. Media outlets had no interest in Randy Shilts’ exhaustive tome on the early history of the AIDS crisis until Shilts and his publisher cleverly recast the Air Canada flight attendant Gaëtan Dugas, an early victim of AIDS, into Patient Zero—a hypersexual gay menace who brought AIDS to North America. While this claim was quickly disproved (there had been several prior cases of AIDS in North America), the titillating image of the sexually liberated Dugas as Patient Zero made And the Band Played On an international bestseller.

The homophobic Cold War hiring ban ultimately catalyzed another important social transformation: male flight attendants became civil rights activists. After being denied a position at Pan Am because of his sex, Celio Diaz filed a federal discrimination lawsuit in 1968 against the carrier with the full weight of the “sex discrimination” clause of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 to support his case. Diaz v. Pan Am (1971) ended single-sex hiring policies—a momentous change for the entire U.S. workforce.

Male flight attendants were instrumental in other areas of civil rights activism, as well. While Gaëtan Dugas is infamous as the mythical Patient Zero, the story of the United Airline flight attendant and gay civil rights pioneer Gär Traynor has been virtually unknown until now. In 1983, Traynor was grounded from United because he had AIDS. Traynor filed suit with his union to preserve his job; in 1984, he became the first American with AIDS to win the right to keep working. Although Traynor’s case was settled through labor arbitration rather than in the courts, it set a de facto precedent for subsequent rulings that protected the rights of People With AIDS (PWA).

Traynor’s activism was part of an expanding LGBT civil rights movement. In the 1990s, airlines increasingly recognized the power of this growing market sector, as well as the potential public relations liability of resisting new LGBT civil rights laws in cities where carriers were based. Consequently, Tiemeyer contends that airline public relations and marketing departments—rather than unions and the courts—initiated LGBT-friendly changes to the workplace, such as nondiscrimination clauses, flight privileges for partners and friends, and health insurance for registered domestic partners. Yet airlines have simultaneously instituted neoliberal economic policies that keep ticket prices low and corporate profits high. In an age of deregulation, mergers, leveraged buyouts, and bankruptcies have given airlines the power to reorganize and rewrite their labor contracts—resulting in union paralysis, depressed wages, depleted pensions, and unaffordable health insurance.

This month, the U.S. Supreme Court will rule on gay marriage and Pedro Almodovar will release “I’m So Excited,” a zany comedy featuring male flight attendants. Plane Queer allows us to place these seemingly unrelated events into conversation with each other: to understand how an often trivialized and sometimes reviled occupation became a significant force in the modern civil rights movement.

 

[As a courtesy to our guests, please keep comments to the book and be respectful of dissenting opinions.  Please take other conversations to a previous thread. - bev]

65 Responses to “FDL Book Salon Welcomes Phil Tiemeyer, Plane Queer: Labor, Sexuality, and AIDS in the History of Male Flight Attendants”

BevW June 16th, 2013 at 1:48 pm

Phil, Janet, Welcome to the Lake.

Janet, Thank you for Hosting today’s Book Salon.

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Phil Tiemeyer June 16th, 2013 at 1:55 pm
In response to BevW @ 1

Thanks, Bev. And thanks so much to Janet for hosting!

Janet’s intro is a great synopsis of the book, highlighting the various ways that flight attendants have become entangled with struggles against homophobia throughout the 20th century. Thanks for this, Janet!

I’m looking forward to following up on questions and comments and starting a good conversation about Plane Queer.

dakine01 June 16th, 2013 at 2:00 pm

Good afternoon Phil and Janet and welcome to Firedoglake this afternoon.

Phil I have not had an opportunity to read your book so forgive me if you address this in there. Why do so many jobs begin as being for men only yet rapidly turn in to “pink collar” ghettos? Is it because, as the airlines discovered, they can under pay the women or could at one time force them out when they start to reach positions of seniority? Or is it the service aspect that would make them think that anyone “serving” has to be a bit ‘queer?’

Janet Davis June 16th, 2013 at 2:01 pm

Welcome to the Lake! Greetings to everyone from the state of Texas! It is my pleasure to welcome Phil Tiemeyer, author of Plane Queer: Labor, Sexuality, and AIDS in the History of Male Flight Attendants. This book is impressively researched, beautifully written, and it’s a page-turner. I was captivated throughout.

Phil, thank you so much for joining us today. I would like to start by asking you how you became interested in the history of male flight attendants. Was there an initial “aha!” moment in the archives, or was there some other moment of discovery that compelled you to explore this topic?

Janet Davis June 16th, 2013 at 2:07 pm

I would like to ask a similar follow-up question related to other kinds of work that historically has been treated as “queer.” You write about queer labor in other service occupations—ship stewards, bellhops, porters, and nurses. What (if anything) makes the flight attendant unique? Historically, did these other occupations possess the same pop cultural ubiquity as the flight attendant? How do sexual, racial, and class politics shape cultural representations of these other service occupations?

Phil Tiemeyer June 16th, 2013 at 2:09 pm
In response to Janet Davis @ 4

Hi, Janet. There was an “aha” moment that gave inspiration to this book. I was in the Pan American Airways archives housed at the University of Miami several years ago. I was really just hunting for interesting opportunities to forge a book topic out of what I found. And if it could link my interests in aviation, gender, and sexuality, all the better!

The most intriguing box of papers I found was devoted to “Stewardesses”. There were literally thousands of pages of documents in this box, but one folder sort of jumped out at me: it was labelled “Stewards.”

Looking through this “Stewards” material is where I found the information on Pan Am’s first steward from 1928 as well as material on the court case filed by Celio Diaz against Pan Am back in the late 1960s (the case that forced all US airlines to hire men as flight attendants). So, I thought this was GREAT material.

But I wondered why there was so little on men in this large box of documents…that there must be more info stored elsewhere in the collection. So, I asked the curator of the collection where I might find more documents on stewards. I told him about all the good stuff in this little folder. He was interested, but knew enough about the collection to know there was nothing else there… That’s why triggered the book!

BevW June 16th, 2013 at 2:10 pm

While Phil is finishing his response – Happy Father’s Day to all the dad’s out there

Phil Tiemeyer June 16th, 2013 at 2:12 pm
In response to dakine01 @ 3

Great question about “pink collar” ghettos! Sadly, this profession, like others dominated by women, exploited women to stay low-paying. The ability to fire women when they marry, to fire them at age 32, to expose them to weight checks, and the like, kept this a short-tenured career. And short tenures rendered lower wages. The average flight attendant in the 1960s worked only 18 months.

Janet Davis June 16th, 2013 at 2:14 pm
In response to Phil Tiemeyer @ 6

Thanks, Phil! I am intrigued by the fact that there was such a mammoth amount of material in the “Stewardesses” box, but so little in the “Stewards” folder–in part because your book is so impressively researched. How did this slim folder lead to so many other sources? What sources, in particular, were most invaluable in helping you tell your story?

mitch2k2 June 16th, 2013 at 2:16 pm

Phil,

There are literally dozens of stories in Plane Queer about the ongoing and progressive (no pun intended) struggle toward gender and sexual identity equality in the workplace. After so long, and with so much hard work having been done already, how do you think this long historical context figures in to the current debate on ENDA? And do you think there is something that can be gleaned from those past struggles to make this Nth attempt at passage pan out any differently this time around?

RevBev June 16th, 2013 at 2:17 pm
In response to Phil Tiemeyer @ 6

Please report what you know about the public reaction to the Diaz case. I seem to recall there was a bit of guffaw, if that’s the correct word, and a question of why men would want a fly me job. But that may be an all wrong impression.

Phil Tiemeyer June 16th, 2013 at 2:17 pm
In response to Janet Davis @ 5

There are a couple key unique features of this professions versus other “queer” professions. As you stated well, queer work involves a white man assuming work otherwise performed by women or men of color. So, jobs like bellhops or nursing are also great examples.

But the flight attendant, from day one, was in the public eye as an alluring public relations ambassador. This scrutiny in films, advertisements, etc., made this position unique…and vitally important for the future ways that stewards would contribute to queer civil rights by the 1960s and onwards.

I’ll say more on this in a minute!

Phil Tiemeyer June 16th, 2013 at 2:22 pm
In response to mitch2k2 @ 10

Great question on ENDA. I’m honestly not optimistic about passage of ENDA, now that the House is in Republican hands. I feel, sadly, that we lost our moment in 2010.

That said, airline employees have been given an impressive array of equality, even without ENDA. This is a result of the airlines courting the “gay dollar” by covering things like gender reassignment procedures, so that they can then boast about their loyalty to the LGBT community. Largely, this corporate largesse works well for flight attendants.

HOWEVER, corporate largesse can just as easily be rescinded. We really need ENDA to feel fully empowered as equal.

Janet Davis June 16th, 2013 at 2:22 pm
In response to Phil Tiemeyer @ 8

Back in my flight attendant days in the 1980s at Northwest Airlines, my senior female colleagues regaled me with stories about girdle checks, weight checks, etc., and how demeaning these regimens of control were. In your book, you talk about Diaz v. Pan Am (1971) as being instrumental in doing away with these discriminatory practices–an observation that I found really fascinating–i.e. that this ruling, which compelled airlines to do away with single-sex hiring policies, also improved working conditions for all flight attendants. What are some takeaways here?

mitch2k2 June 16th, 2013 at 2:24 pm
In response to Phil Tiemeyer @ 12

Phil said: “But the flight attendant, from day one, was in the public eye as an alluring public relations ambassador. This scrutiny in films, advertisements, etc., made this position unique…and vitally important for the future ways that stewards would contribute to queer civil rights by the 1960s and onwards.”

Hmmm. Very interesting. Was there much (if any) “under the table” marketing of male stewards as “alluring” ambassadors for (perhaps closeted) male patrons?

Phil Tiemeyer June 16th, 2013 at 2:26 pm
In response to RevBev @ 11

It’s certainly correct that the mainstream media…and even gay media like the Advocate…were dismissive of Diaz’s case. The idea of a man serving “Coffee, Tea, or Me?” (in the words of a best-selling book and TV movie from the late 1960s) struck many journalists as absurd.

But one group who know the importance of this case very well were the flight attendant labor unions. These unions had been working for decades to crack the sexist code that kept this job a pink collar ghetto. And the court’s ruling that being a female was not a justified prerequisite for this job was a huge benefit to ALL flight attendants, male and female. The unions now had stronger legal standing to fight injustices like marriage bans, weight restrictions on stewardesses, pregnancy bans, etc..

Phil Tiemeyer June 16th, 2013 at 2:30 pm
In response to Janet Davis @ 14

As I noted in response to #11, Diaz really was vital for larger discrimination cases that involved THOUSANDS of stewardesses (women fired for age, pregnancy, etc.). Diaz really was the first crack in the iron that put the airlines on notice that the courts would not treat this as a female-only job that could then be subjected to female-discriminatory policies.

In some oversimplified way, the arrival of the male flight attendant in 1971 meant the end of the pink collar ghetto. Wages increased immediately, and the sexist policies of the airlines ended just as quickly.

Janet Davis June 16th, 2013 at 2:32 pm
In response to Phil Tiemeyer @ 16

“But one group who know the importance of this case very well were the flight attendant labor unions.”

Your point about the importance of labor unions in advancing equality in the flight attendant workplace speaks to another bleak reality in today’s neoliberal world: that unions have lost much of their power. Given what you’ve learned from your research, how (if at all) might flight attendant unions recapture their former power?

RevBev June 16th, 2013 at 2:32 pm
In response to Phil Tiemeyer @ 17

Was there a reason or “message” for your choosing the “queer” word in the title?

Phil Tiemeyer June 16th, 2013 at 2:32 pm
In response to mitch2k2 @ 15

Great question about “under the table” marketing of male flight attendants as alluring!

In fact, back in the 1930s, two of the largest airlines–Pan Am and Eastern–DID INDEED market their stewards as invitingly beautiful. Pan Am even put lifesized cut-outs of “Rodney the Smiling Steward” in train stations to drum up business. And the airline noted that the posters made the women in the corporate office “swoon”.

Teddy Partridge June 16th, 2013 at 2:33 pm

Hello, Janet and Phil. Great intro!

This book fills a remarkable void in labor history, gay history, AIDS history, and feminist history. I was gobsmacked reading it. Truly amazing stories, with a very successful underlying narrative. Busting big-time myths along the way, too: the “first nurse” stewardess, Patient Zero, “fly me.”

In a larger sense, what I learned from “Plane Queer” is how easily corporate America can manipulate our recollection of history: no, we never had male flight attendants; sure, we’ve always had male flight attendants; what men would want to be flight attendants, anyway?; why are all these male flight attendants earning seniority while the ladies marry off or age out? So many stories, told so well here to a general audience for the first time, in complete contrast to what the airlines would have us believe: “Who, us? Discriminate? Surely you jest!”

Thanks for writing this book, Phil; I hope it gets a wide audience. The arena it covers is wide and diverse, and I hope labor writers, feminists, and gay historians all find it as useful, readable, and funny as I did.

Phil Tiemeyer June 16th, 2013 at 2:36 pm
In response to Janet Davis @ 9

Janet, writing this book really forced me to be flexible on the types of materials I used. The backbone of the research was interviews with former flight attendants, mostly men, who flew as early as 1949. Their memories really made this book a success!

And then there were court records (like the Diaz case), labor union archives, queer archives, interviews with doctors (about AIDS), and the like.

The same curator at U Miami who informed me there were no more papers also provided me my first contact of a former F/A who became a great interviewee!

Phil Tiemeyer June 16th, 2013 at 2:39 pm
In response to Janet Davis @ 18

This is an awfully bleak moment for unions, especially flight attendant unions. Deregulation (neoliberalism) has, sadly, taken so much away from their bargaining power.

Interestingly, what’s not great for customers might be the key for unions to reassert themselves: industry consolidation and increased regulation. Note the key role that unions played in forcing American Airlines to merge with US Airways. The unions involved know that their workers could well be better served with more industry consolidation and more profitable carriers.

Janet Davis June 16th, 2013 at 2:39 pm

Thanks so much, Teddy!! I agree–Phil’s book dismantles so many corporate mythologies while simultaneously resurrecting the historical significance of a group of workers who have played a central role in the making of modern American labor, sexuality, capitalism, and civil rights. This leads me to ask Phil to talk about the interviews with former flight attendants. Were there any overarching similarities in the stories that men told you about their working lives and/or lives as flight attendants while they were off duty?

Phil Tiemeyer June 16th, 2013 at 2:42 pm
In response to RevBev @ 19

“Queer” was a tough choice. Lots of people bristle at the word, and that made me a bit loathe to use it.

That said, the fact that these men were victims of discrimination not only because many of them are gay, but also because they opted to undertake “women’s work” really makes them “queer” in the academic sense of the term. They’re not only largely gay, but also “gender benders”, if you will. The term really works for this group of men.

RevBev June 16th, 2013 at 2:44 pm
In response to Phil Tiemeyer @ 25

Thanks…never know what one can learn. Thanks for the response.

Phil Tiemeyer June 16th, 2013 at 2:45 pm

Thanks for this comment, Teddy! You’re right that corporations can tell the narrative they choose, even if it obscures histories of discrimination. There’s more work to be done to get the full story of workplace treatment out in the open.

Janet Davis June 16th, 2013 at 2:47 pm
In response to Phil Tiemeyer @ 23

“Interestingly, what’s not great for customers might be the key for unions to reassert themselves: industry consolidation and increased regulation.”

Towards the end of Plane Queer, I was really taken by your spot-on comment regarding the ways in which Frank Lorenzo and Carl Icahn effectively transformed the flight attendants and the unions into the economic “problem,” a fiction that the media swallowed wholesale–this mythology of too-expensive employees persists to this day. Are flight attendants taking action in any notably creative ways?

BevW June 16th, 2013 at 2:50 pm

The pictures and drawings from the original ad campaigns were interesting, where did you find them?

Also the cartoon, in a Pan American publication, of a steward being abused / spanked by the crew is disturbing in today’s world. Have you had any comments about this cartoon?

Phil Tiemeyer June 16th, 2013 at 2:50 pm
In response to Janet Davis @ 24

The people I interviewed were a diverse group, but some common elements they share are:

1) a true fondness for their work before the 1980s, when deregulation made the workplace increasingly difficult. These men and women LOVED their jobs and credit their work with making them better-educated, more cosmopolitan, and more financially secure.

2) a real respect for how men and women worked together quite effectively starting in the 1970s. They talk about how the “stranglehold” of the pilot running crew dinners was broken, how stewardesses and gay stewards, especially, were now free to hang out without the threat of unwanted sexual advances from pilots. Several noted that the pilots were “old fuddy-duddies” in comparison to the flight attendants, who now often chose to socialize on their own.

Janet Davis June 16th, 2013 at 2:55 pm
In response to RevBev @ 19

Thanks for the question, Bev! This brings me to another question for Phil. Given the queer, gender-bending nature of male flight attendant labor, I wanted to know if you found examples of any straight-identified male flight attendants who responded in over-the-top heteronormative ways?

Phil Tiemeyer June 16th, 2013 at 2:55 pm
In response to Janet Davis @ 28

I don’t know if it’s quite innovative, but employees at United over the past 20 years have often resorted to an impromptu action they call “CHAOS”. The goal is not to strike in a way that confronts airline leadership in the same aggressive ways that Lorenzo and Ichan were confronted, but still to express displeasure with decreased wages and declining work rules.

Things like “slow-downs” or sick-ins, etc.. There are so few good options available to unions at this particular moment. And the narrative that employees are somehow overpaid was predominant…at least until 9/11 really led to a dramatic decline in wages. I expect that there is now more sympathy for flight attendants seeking better wages, given that their current wages have fallen to strikingly low levels.

Teddy Partridge June 16th, 2013 at 2:55 pm

Phil, can you tell us about the cover image on the book? Speaking of transgressive…

Phil Tiemeyer June 16th, 2013 at 3:00 pm
In response to BevW @ 29

I think the images from the 1930s are amazing! “Rodney the Smiling Steward” is so dapper, and Eastern’s images of their very colorful 1930s uniforms are amazing. And, yes, the Pan Am comic that turns a steward into a laughable cartoon character that gets beat up is truly disturbing. All of these images are available in collections of magazines published by the airlines themselves, stored in various archives across the country.

So far, no one has really asked much about the abusive images in the Pan Am cartoons. Interesting! I suppose it’s important to note that “screwball” comics were at their heyday when this comic was released in 1938/9. The likes of Elmer Fudd and Wiley Coyote were contemporaries, who also got beat up and abused every episode…only to come back for more.

Phil Tiemeyer June 16th, 2013 at 3:03 pm
In response to Janet Davis @ 31

Good question about how straight male flight attendants reacted! To this day, I think there’s a lot of pressure on these men. So many people simply assume they are gay, which is still an uncomfortable label in our society. So, yes, we find that historically, like today, many of them volunteer their sexual identity as straight, to fend off the stigma of being gay.

The very first media articles about male F/As in the 1970s always interviewed straight men…and some of them definitely compensated by noting how much attention they get from stewardesses or female customers. One even shared a story about passing along his copy of Playboy to a bored female passenger!

Phil Tiemeyer June 16th, 2013 at 3:07 pm

Sure, Teddy. This image is actually directly reprinted from the Miami Herald weekend magazine from 1968. It’s clearly a male model, dressed as a stewardess (purse, skirt, cute hat), standing on the tarmac of MIA airport. The image ran during the Celio Diaz courtcase against Pan Am, and it was accompanied by articles that belittled the idea of male flight attendants. The main headline actually was “IS THIS ANY WAY TO RUIN AN AIRLINE?” The image aptly embodies the vitriol that was directed at Diaz…and at any man who would willingly choose to occupy a “feminized” workplace position.

Janet Davis June 16th, 2013 at 3:09 pm
In response to Phil Tiemeyer @ 30

When I started working for Northwest in the mid-1980s, my colleagues who were hired prior to deregulation spoke of how much they LOVED their jobs in the 1970s. While they still loved their work in the 1980s, they also felt a sense of discombobulation and constant uncertainty. I worked at NWA for three years. I was hired right after the merger with Republic Airlines, and when I quit in 1989, the airline was in the midst of a leveraged buy-out (KLM and a group of investors bought the airline). Speaking of deregulation, how did the legacy carriers respond to the rise of upstart, no-frills, no-service carriers like People’s Express? How (if at all) did these new carriers affect the status of flight attendants at the legacy carriers?

Phil Tiemeyer June 16th, 2013 at 3:12 pm
In response to Janet Davis @ 5

I wanted to follow up on a second key way that flight attendants differ from other “queer” professions.

In addition to being very tied to public relations, these workers are also unionized. This fact has led to some of the most important contributions they have provided to queer civil rights through the years. For example, as workers were being fired for having AIDS in the 1980s, many hairdressers or department store clerks had no redress. But men like Gary Traynor at United Airlines was able to use his status as a member of a labor union to fight back. Traynor’s labor arbitration case ultimately forced the airline to hire him back (though Traynor resisted) AND provide him backpay for all the wages he lost while United refused to let him work.

Thus, it’s hard to see how these workers would have had such impact on queer civil rights without a union.

BevW June 16th, 2013 at 3:13 pm
In response to Phil Tiemeyer @ 30

They talk about how the “stranglehold” of the pilot running crew dinners was broken, how stewardesses and gay stewards, especially, were now free to hang out without the threat of unwanted sexual advances from pilots. Several noted that the pilots were “old fuddy-duddies” in comparison to the flight attendants, who now often chose to socialize on their own.

I’ve heard that female F/As had to accept invitations from male passengers to date them, go out with them. How much of the Pilot’s control of the crew included F/As having to go out with them too? Did this include the male F/As?

Janet Davis June 16th, 2013 at 3:17 pm

Teddy, I agree: the cover of the book is completely riveting! I am especially interested in the visual markers that suggest burlesque (thus attempting to discredit Diaz’s lawsuit to bring men back into the flight attendant ranks): the model’s hair sticks out sloppily; he’s positioned in a near-full on view (rarely flattering for anyone); his legs are slightly splayed; and he awkwardly clutches the large purse. In short, he looks nothing like the dashing “Rodney the Smiling Steward” from the 1930s!!

mitch2k2 June 16th, 2013 at 3:18 pm

I’m surprised more FDLers haven’t asked about the AIDS crisis portions of the book. I found these to be some of the most riveting.

First of all, I’d imagine that these were incredibly difficult interviews to conduct, no?

Secondly (particularly for those here who may not have read Plane Queer yet), can you speak a bit to what you uncovered in researching your book regarding Randy Shilts and his book, And the Band Played On? I’m referring both to how the book was publicized, and the ways in which Shilts structured key pieces of his narrative (a big part of which, for those who may not know, relied heavily on the person of a male flight attendant).

Phil Tiemeyer June 16th, 2013 at 3:19 pm
In response to Janet Davis @ 37

This is a really good question about how upstart airlines affected flight attendants. Your insights are a good jumping-off point, because they demonstrate how vulnerable the workplace became with deregulation.

The fact is that legacy carriers responded differently. Certain carriers like Pan Am and Eastern simply went under. They couldn’t compete, especially with the debt they were carrying from the 1970s (and earlier, in some cases). Others, like American and United, worked to defend their core routes against startups by competing intensely with them, sometimes even flying routes for below cost to drive the upstart out of business.

But the new airlines all shared one thing that the legacy carriers were envious of: a lower-wage workforce. This was true of Southwest, even though it was unionized. But it was especially true of JetBlue, a nonunionized airline. Only with 9/11 and the mass bankruptcies of legacy carriers since then have the legacy carriers been able to lower their wage scales to match those of the startups.

Interestingly, it is now Southwest that has the highest flight attendant pay rates in the country…talk about a change of fortunes for flight attendants!

RevBev June 16th, 2013 at 3:23 pm
In response to Phil Tiemeyer @ 42

Plus, all the other changes for women in roles and opportunities; FA used to be one of the really glam jobs for women.

Phil Tiemeyer June 16th, 2013 at 3:25 pm
In response to BevW @ 39

Good questions! I do know that stewardesses in the 1930s were obliged to say yes to any date offer that male customers made. This was not true (surprise, surprise) of male flight attendants.

Certainly, through the years, pilots exercised a lot of coercive power over stewardesses. Some, sadly, used this power for their own desires. Since so many pilots were married and stewardesses unable to marry and keep her job, this put the stewardess in a very vulnerable position. The threat of being fired when pregnant also led many stewardesses, even in the 1950s, to opt for abortions by flying to Havana.

Men were never subjected to such pressures from pilots. Instead of sexual pressure, the pressure was more aimed at belittling the steward. “Make me a coffee like the girls do” was heard from more than one steward.

Janet Davis June 16th, 2013 at 3:25 pm
In response to mitch2k2 @ 41

Mitch, great question! I agree–the AIDS crisis chapters were incredible. I really appreciate how Phil humanized Gaëtan Dugas.

Phil Tiemeyer June 16th, 2013 at 3:26 pm
In response to Janet Davis @ 40

Great analysis, Janet! I haven’t even noticed some of these aspects before.

Phil Tiemeyer June 16th, 2013 at 3:28 pm
In response to mitch2k2 @ 41

Thanks for asking about AIDS, Mitch.

First, yes, these interviews were awful to do. Lots of tears. Lots of requests to turn off the tape recorder. The pain that these men and women experienced in the 1980s and 1990s was so intense, and it still easily resurfaces. I really appreciate the willingness of so many of them to relive these years for the sake of my work.

I’ll say more about Shilts in a further post.

BevW June 16th, 2013 at 3:29 pm
In response to Janet Davis @ 45

Could you tell us about Gaëtan Dugas?

Janet Davis June 16th, 2013 at 3:31 pm
In response to Phil Tiemeyer @ 42

Wow! I did not know that Southwest now offers the highest pay for its flight attendants. I’m so glad that you mentioned Southwest for another reason, as well: flight attendant uniforms. Southwest’s corporate culture is one of “fun,” complete with “fun,” casual uniforms, which contrast the woolen eggplant power suit I wore in the 1980s!! Does a history of flight attendant uniforms tell its own history of sexual politics?

Phil Tiemeyer June 16th, 2013 at 3:36 pm
In response to mitch2k2 @ 41

So, first off, Randy Shilts’ book “And the Band Played On” is incredibly valuable. It was written in real-time (released in 1987) and covered the first 5 years of the AIDS crisis. As a historian, I’m so grateful to Randy for writing this book.

But, as I found out, this book almost didn’t make it to press. Shilts’ publisher, Michael Denneny (then of St. Martin’s Press) was concerned that his press wouldn’t publish it. The topic was too controversial for many on the editorial board. And, when they agreed to bring it press, their promotions department reported back that no major newspaper would review the book. This left Shilts and Denneny in a tough place.

So, Michael and Randy made what I deem to be a Faustian compact: they agreed to hype up the sensationaized material Shilts collected on Gaetan Dugas in order to publicize the book. Denneny himself confessed to me that this was “yellow journalism” at its worst. But they felt it was the only way to get the word out.

So, they hyped up the story that an Air Canada steward–beautiful, exotic, Quebecois–was perhaps America’s first AIDS carrier…and that his insatiable sexual appetite led him to spread the disease all across the continent. It was sheer scapegoating…but it worked.

Shilts’ interview with 60 Minutes is up on YouTube and well worth a look. It clearly exemplifies how Gaetan became the lead story and relegated the fight against AIDS to the rear of the interview: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EsUMFPvZ6w0

BevW June 16th, 2013 at 3:42 pm

Phil, Janet, with the pending Supreme Court decisions coming out this month, what are your thoughts as to what we should expect?

How will this impact the LGBT civil rights and Marriage Equality progress?

Phil Tiemeyer June 16th, 2013 at 3:44 pm
In response to Janet Davis @ 49

Great question, Janet. I actually think Southwest Airlines’ uniforms alone tell a history of sexual politics in this job.

When the airline started in the late 1960s, they flew only within Texas, and they basically seized Braniff’s publicity persona of sexy flight attendants. Because SW was based at Dallas’ Love Field, they christened themselves the “Love Airline” and made their female-only flight attendant corps wear short hotpants and white vinyl boots. Tragic, trashy, and sexist!

The airline was the only US carrier to refuse to abide by the Diaz decision in 1971 and kept a female-only flight attendant corps until the 1980s, still dressed in scanty outfits and marketed as sex objects. They lost their own court case in 1982 (Wilson v. Southwest) filed by a male applicant for the flight attendant job.

Thereafter, Southwest went casual. The polo shirts and khakis were definitely no longer sexist…or sexy. But, yes, maybe they were more appealing than your purple professional look at Northwest, Janet!!

Once again, the integration of men into the flight attendant corps forced an airline to stop exploiting its stewardesses. Sex was now jettisoned as a marketing tool and flight attendants were now appreciated for their professionalism…and then their great sense of humor at Southwest. A nice change!

Janet Davis June 16th, 2013 at 3:45 pm
In response to Phil Tiemeyer @ 47

I share the pain of your interviewees regarding the loss of so many wonderful colleagues to AIDS.

I was disturbed by the ways in which Shilts “sold” his book by demonizing Dugas into Patient Zero; yet at the same time, you provide such a compassionate analysis of just how stuck Shilts was as he tried to market a book that no media outlet would touch without the titillating pull of Patient Zero. You also forcefully demonstrate that Shilts’ transformation of Dugas into the menacing Patient Zero had terrible consequences for male flight attendants and for gay men everywhere. I wonder if there was an alternative way that Shilts could have presented some of his material that would have given it the attention it deserved without demonizing the very community that it was ostensibly trying to protect?

alan1tx June 16th, 2013 at 3:50 pm

The labor of the male flight attendant was “queer” from the start (irrespective of the sexual preferences of the workers themselves) because white and light-skinned Latino men were hired to perform tasks that were traditionally relegated to women, or men of color: serving food and cleaning up.

Isn’t it true that women gravatate to occupations that don’t require bulk or upper body strength, and men who also choose those jobs are considered “lesser”? Isn’t that part of it?

Phil Tiemeyer June 16th, 2013 at 3:51 pm
In response to BevW @ 51

I’m just as eager as everyone else to find out what the Supreme Court decides. My suspicion is that DOMA will be effectively repealed, allowing the federal government to extend more equal rights to married couples in same-sex relationships. I also suspect, however, that the Court will NOT extend the right to marriage to citizens of every state. So, a split decision, of sorts, will probably result.

How do flight attendants play into this? Well, already back in 1978, Pan Am’s flight attendants became one of the very first set of employees to enjoy some sort of same-sex spousal benefits. The union that year won employees “buddy passes”, which were akin to the free flights enjoyed by legally married spouses of employees. “Buddy passes” allowed gay men and lesbians to designate their spouse as their “buddy” and enjoy reduced-cost travel. Ever since, airline employees have fought for more spousal benefits.

Remember this history when the likes of Justice Alito suggest that same-sex marriage is no older than the cell phone or the internet. The fact is that Americans have been fighting for same-sex spousal rights for over 100 years, and that some workplaces have obliged this need since the 1970s.

BevW June 16th, 2013 at 3:53 pm

As we come to the few minutes of this great Book Salon discussion,

Phil, Thank you for stopping by the Lake and spending the afternoon with us discussing your new book, male flight attendants, and their contribution to civil rights.

Janet, Thank you very much for Hosting this great Book Salon.

Everyone, if you would like more information:

Phil’s website and book

Janet’s website

Thanks all, Have a great week.

There will not be any Book Salons next week. See you on June 29th.

If you would like to contact the FDL Book Salon: FiredoglakeBookSalon@gmail.com

Janet Davis June 16th, 2013 at 3:54 pm
In response to Phil Tiemeyer @ 52

“Once again, the integration of men into the flight attendant corps forced an airline to stop exploiting its stewardesses. Sex was now jettisoned as a marketing tool and flight attendants were now appreciated for their professionalism…and then their great sense of humor at Southwest. A nice change!”

Oh my goodness, your short history of Southwest Airlines is absolutely terrific! Thank you–I had no idea! Once again, as your point above suggests, gender integration into formerly single-sex jobs improves working conditions for everyone. Do you think that there are any occupations today that are non-compliant with Diaz v. Pan Am? If so, how might working conditions at these occupations be improved with integration?

Phil Tiemeyer June 16th, 2013 at 3:58 pm
In response to alan1tx @ 54

Thanks for this question, Alan. There does seem to be some self-selection of job categories based very loosely on biology. But there’s also the great example of Lorena Weeks, who won the right to repair telephone lines at the same time Celio Diaz won the right for men to become flight attendants.

Southern Bell wasn’t going to hire Weeks because the job required lifting 50-pound bags. Weeks was quite capable of doing so. And, as Diaz’s female lawyer quipped to me, “Any mom has had to carry a toddler and a couple bags of groceries at the same time”.

It seems that biological differences between men and women have more often been exploited to create arbitrary restrictions on labor choices. To this extent, they often get used by reactionary forces to justify labor choices that are actually more tied to privileging male labor and diminishing the value of female labor.

dakine01 June 16th, 2013 at 3:59 pm
In response to alan1tx @ 54

Or it could be that a lot of men prefer to not have to do a lot of manual labor requiring bulk or upper body strength.

But nice play to stereotypes there

Phil Tiemeyer June 16th, 2013 at 3:59 pm
In response to Janet Davis @ 57

Provocative last thought: Keep your eye on Hooters! They may well be in violation of the same clause of the Civil Rights Act as the airlines.

Phil Tiemeyer June 16th, 2013 at 4:00 pm

Thanks to all for a wonderful chat! And thanks especially to Janet for making this typing so enjoyable and on-point.

Happy Fathers Day to all Dads out there!

Phil

Janet Davis June 16th, 2013 at 4:02 pm
In response to Phil Tiemeyer @ 55

I agree with Phil–I think that DOMA will be repealed, but that the Court will avoid allowing citizens to marry in every state. Thank you so much, Phil, for reminding us that people have been fighting for same-sex marriage for a very long, long time. Your book could not be more timely in reminding us how ordinary people have made history as civil rights pioneers.

Thanks so much, Bev, for a great Salon!!

Janet Davis June 16th, 2013 at 4:04 pm

Thanks so much to everyone for such a great conversation!!! Happy Fathers Day!

Teddy Partridge June 16th, 2013 at 6:53 pm
In response to Phil Tiemeyer @ 60

Oh, that WILL be fun. Thanks for that parting shot!

Phoenix Woman June 23rd, 2013 at 8:28 am

Sorry I missed this Book Salon. It’s nice to know that male flight attendants won’t just be known from “Patient Zero”.

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