Anne Balay, AB'86, AM'88, PhD'94

Alumna Professor in English tells stories of LGBT steelworkers in newly-released book

Anne Balay, AB'86 AM'88 PhD'94, always knew she wanted to write.  The child of a Yale librarian, she left New Haven in 1982 to enroll at the University of Chicago as an English major.  She loved it so much that she spent a year working at the Regenstein Library after graduating from the College, and then returned to start her PhD in English the next year. Her favorite professor, and ultimately dissertation adviser, was Bill Veeder, whose "energy, attitude, and rigorous analytical style" Balay strives to channel in her own teaching.

After completing her PhD in 1994, Balay moved to western Illinois to teach - but returned to Hyde Park, which increasingly felt like home, the following year. With two young daughters to raise (now 20 and 22), she decided to look for opportunities outside of academia.  That led her to the Foreign Car Hospital (5424 S. Kimbark), a small mechanic shop specializing in imported cars.  With no automotive experience, she made a novel pitch to the owner: "Since I had a PhD in English, I was clearly willing to stick with a project even if it was self-evidently futile."  He took her on as an apprentice, and she worked there for six years as a mechanic - during which time she serviced the cars of many of her favorite professors, most notably David Bevington, who "cared about [her] career no matter down what odd path it led."

Foreign Car Hospital - by Riva Lehrer

The tangible work of fixing cars was satisfying and obviously meaningful, but it didn't pay well.  There was also the constant strain of being a lesbian in a very masculine, blue-collar, heterosexual environment - though this kindled an interest in the ways that sexuality and class shape each other.  The urge to teach returned, and Balay spent the next six years at the University of Illinois at Chicago (while still living in Hyde Park, and doing most of her research at the Regenstein Library).

Then, in 2006, she was offered a tenure-track position at Indiana University Northwest.  Her daily commute took her past the enormous steel mills of the Calumet region, which she found "beautiful and mysterious."  While teaching literature to her students, Balay began to wonder what went on inside the mills, and what it was like to work there - particularly for LGBT people.  Naturally, she turned first to the library, but was unable to find any work on LGBT steelworkers.  A research project was born.

The Steel Mills of Gary

This was no typical academic undertaking.  Balay's time at the Foreign Car Hospital became her point of entry.  "Steelworkers won't talk to English Professors.  No way.  But mechanics are another matter."  By visiting local bars, discussing the project with people she met there, and leaving flyers in the bathrooms, she was able to interview 40 steelworkers.  Their narratives were so compelling - "scary, funny, unexpected, and gripping" - that they lent themselves to a book of oral histories, in which the steelworkers tell their own stories.

And what harrowing stories they told!  Life in the mills was nothing like depicted in "Homer's Phobia", a famous 1997 episode of The Simpsons in which a steel mill becomes a gay dance club after hours (low quality video clip here).  The exhausting, isolating, dangerous work (25 interviewees have cancer; another fell into a vat of acid), and the constantly changing swing shift schedule (alternating day and night) leaves very little time or energy for family or other pursuits.  But the jobs are among the better-paying available to those without a higher education in America today - and they are one of few options for butch lesbians (though only 2% of millworkers are women).

In this hostile and intense environment, close relationships form among co-workers.  These relationships frequently involve sex - including between people of the same gender, though they do not necessarily identify as lesbian, gay, or bisexual.  This is particularly hazardous for men, since they must identify as straight to conform with the hyper-masculine culture.  Were a man to be "outed," the other men in his circle might also find their sexuality called into question, with harassment and abuse the result.

In one regard, women have it easier.  As a woman, "if you work in a steel mill, you look like a dyke."  There is little particular harm if this happens to be true.  But generally, in such a hyper-masculine environment, women, as well as trans people (4 were interviewed), face especially high risks of sexual harassment and rape.

In doing this research, Balay sought comment from the corporate and union leadership of the mills.  She found a complete denial of the existence of LGBT steelworkers.  Chillingly, even the people she interviewed questioned the existence of other LGBT steelworkers; none knew any, and all believed themselves alone in their struggles.

Miller Beach - Chicago skyline photo

While preparing the book, Balay saw her younger daughter off to college - and with her departure, she no longer had any reason to keep commuting from Chicago (where the public schools are at least somewhat better than in Gary).  Three years ago, she visited houses for sale in the beachfront Miller neighborhood of Gary - and made an offer the same day.  Miller has a thriving LGBT and arts community, and Balay enjoys having a 3 bedroom house with a garden, dozens of oak trees, and even a sand dune, just a stone's throw from Lake Michigan.  She splits her time between Miller and the Edgewater condo of her partner, the portrait artist Riva Lehrer.

In spring of 2014, Steel Closets: Voices of Gay, Lesbian, and Transgender Steelworkers was released by the University of North Carolina Press.  (The book is available on Amazon) As a direct result of the book, mill management can no longer deny the existence of LGBT steelworkers.  The union is now considering seeking contractual protections for LGBT members.  Though Balay doesn't identify herself as an activist, she is pleased that her work has led to change.

Anne with her book

Ironically, just as the unions are considering protections for LGBT steelworkers, Balay might have been denied a promotion because of her sexual orientation.  Despite the unanimously favorable recommendation of outside reviewers and two  tenure committees, she was denied tenure by Indiana University Northwest in 2013.  Though Indiana law does not offer any protections against anti-LGBT discrimination in the workplace, federal regulations do, and she has filed complaints with the US Department of Education. (For more details, see this Huffington Post article.)

Uncertain exactly where the future will lead, Balay plans to continue her academic research.  She is currently analyzing the depiction of queer characters in Young Adult fantasy fiction (where they tend to hew to very conservative ideals).  She is also fascinated with depictions of sex with monsters and bugs in literature and movies, and might start writing about that as well.  She looks forward to future UChicago LGBT Alumni Network social events - "it's fun to meet new people with whom I have something in common, and hear about their lives."

Article and photos by Eric Allix Rogers, AB'05 AM'07.