Steel Closets: Voices of Gay, Lesbian, and Transgender Steelworkers

Steel Closets: Voices of Gay, Lesbian, and Transgender Steelworkers

Steel Closets: Voices of Gay, Lesbian, and Transgender Steelworkers

Steel Closets: Voices of Gay, Lesbian, and Transgender Steelworkers


Even as substantial legal and social victories are being celebrated within the gay rights movement, much of working-class America still exists outside the current narratives of gay liberation. In Steel Closets, Anne Balay draws on oral history interviews with forty gay, lesbian, and transgender steelworkers, mostly living in northwestern Indiana, to give voice to this previously silent and invisible population. She presents powerful stories of the intersections of work, class, gender, and sexual identity in the dangerous industrial setting of the steel mill. The voices and stories captured by Balay--by turns alarming, heroic, funny, and devastating--challenge contemporary understandings of what it means to be queer and shed light on the incredible homophobia and violence faced by many: nearly all of Balay's narrators remain closeted at work, and many have experienced harassment, violence, or rape.

Through the powerful voices of queer steelworkers themselves, Steel Closets provides rich insight into an understudied part of the LGBT population, contributing to a growing body of scholarship that aims to reveal and analyze a broader range of gay life in America.


In a 1997 episode of The Simpsons called “Homer’s Phobia,” Homer Simpson becomes convinced that his son, Bart, might be gay. In response, he takes him to a steel mill. He intends to show Bart what a “real” man is and does, but the joke is on Homer when the steelworkers break into a disco chorus line number on lunch break. They’re all gay.

This is one example not only of how powerful the metaphor linking steel production and masculinity is in our culture, but also of how gay men function as a pivot point in that definition. Much of the traditional folklore of the American nation involves steel and its production. John Henry was a steel-driving man, Superman is the Man of Steel, and steel is a crucial component of the Empire State Building, the transcontinental railroad, the Golden Gate Bridge, highways, automobiles, and other American icons. Steel is both a material and a metaphor for the construction of the nation; it is part of the idealized American spirit. In all of this larger-than-life mythology, masculinity and heterosexuality are assumed, yet, as “Homer’s Phobia” ironically reminds us, queerness can never be completely dismissed.

If steel is central to the mythology of America as a whole, it’s even more dominant in Northwest Indiana. Plenty of American towns have been shaped by the steel industry—Pittsburgh, Bethlehem, Birmingham, Youngstown, Buffalo, and Baltimore among them. Gary, Indiana, and its environs resemble these towns in many ways and take their rust-belt attributes to further extremes, offering a rich example of the connection between the myths of steelworkers and general heteronormative notions of labor.

Steel Closets asks where and how steelworkers—those archetypes of working-class masculinity—and gay folks overlap. Stereotypically, queer people (I use this term as shorthand to represent those whose sexual preference or gender presentation does not fit the norm) flee to urban centers to escape prejudice and find others like ourselves. Further, American culture tends to assume that queers are middle-class, white, and educated. Scholars are beginning to challenge these assumptions—people such as Jack Halberstam, Scott Herring, E. Patrick Johnson, and John Howard, for . . .

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed


An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.