Phil Tiemeyer on Plane Queer

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Phil Tiemeyer is an Associate Professor of History at Philadelphia University. His first book, Plane Queer: Labor, Sexuality, and AIDS in the History of Male Flight Attendants (University of California Press, 2015), won the 2015 John Boswell Prize from the AHA’s Committee on LGBT History. He is currently serving as the Alfred Verville Fellow at the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum, where he is conducting research for a second book, Aerial Ambassadors: National Air Carriers and U.S. Power in the Jet Age.

What was the most difficult part of turning your dissertation into a monograph? Do you have advice for this?

The hardest part for me was synching the writing process, which I knew would take several years, with the time demands placed by the press and by the tenure clock. When I took a tenure-track job directly out of grad school, I knew that the book had to be in print in 5 years. So, I felt the need to quickly find an editor who would support my book within the press and guide me through the peer review process by Year 3, which seemed to be a comfortable deadline for assuring my book would be out in time for my tenure review. Of course, amidst teaching and everything else at the new job, I still had to find the time to do the heavy lifting to finish the book: overhaul the good parts of my dissertation and research and write an additional few chapters.

The most stressful moment occurred when the peer reviews came back negatively. While my editor still believed in the book (thankfully), he knew he couldn’t take the book to his editorial board with the manuscript as it was. Suddenly, I went from being “on schedule” to needing to do major revisions. The book was delayed by a full year, while I feverishly revised the manuscript and my editor lined up new reviewers, with my tenure review clock getting perilously close to expiring. If I didn’t have the unflinching support of my editor, I don’t know that the book would have been finished in time for my tenure dossier. As it was, I barely made it.

What initially drew you to your topic?

I wanted to combine my interests in gender, sexuality, and globalization in my dissertation topic. And I kept thinking: where are there LGBT roles in the global economy? There was already good work coming out of queer theory on issues like gay transnational adoption and gay tourism, so I opted to stay away from those fields. Instead, I focused on airplanes—the mode of transport that most quickly binds the globe’s disparate nodes of economic activity—and I began thinking of all the gay men who work as flight attendants, literally working in the aisles and galleys of these planes that are linking the world together. It seemed to me that these men could serve as an important lens for examining the ways that gender and sexuality are intertwined with work in today’s economy.

What are the drawbacks or limitations to your source base? Have you encountered any limitations or difficulties in centering your study on the intersection between labor and sexuality/LGBT politics?

The most enticing thing for me about my topic is that it seemed so fresh. No one before me had chosen to focus on men working as flight attendants—not the historians and other academics who have published on the flight attendant workplace, nor even the airlines who hire these men, in their PR materials. It was a wide open topic. Plus, it seemed a valuable contribution to compose a feminist history of workplace discrimination focusing on men entering female-identified careers, instead of the other way around.

But the same dynamics leading these men to be overlooked also meant they were under-documented in the archives as well. I started my research in the Pan American Airways Archives at the University of Miami, one of the very best troves of materials on civil aviation. The collection, as I recall, even has an entire box of materials on stewardesses, detailing their uniforms, their work rules, and their gradual efforts to attain better pay and less sexist work rules. But within that big box, only one small folder covered the men in the career. The materials in that modest folder were actually pretty impressive: mention that all Pan Am flight attendants before World War II were men, that they then were replaced exclusively by women in the 1950s, and that the airline was sued in the late 1960s by an aspirant male flight attendant whose court case ultimately forced all U.S. airlines to hire men. These were all things I had never heard before, and each fact seemed vitally important to understanding how sexism and homophobia impacted this workplace. Surely these men deserved more attention, both from the Pan Am papers and from historians.

While much of the outline of my book was effectively held in this little folder of materials, piecing this narrative together would be a constant challenge due to the dearth of archival sources. I had come face to face with the same problem that women’s historians and LGBT historians ahead of me encountered: the consequence of historians’ valorization of the written record was that narratives that elucidate sexism and homophobia are much harder to write, as we often encounter absences in the written record.

What was the strangest or most interesting thing you found while doing research?

A constant challenge for me was to find any written mention by the airlines that they knew some of their male flight attendants were gay. Since my project examines the undulations between homophobia and acceptance of gay identity in a workplace over 85 years of civil aviation, noting how the airlines discussed homosexuality was vitally important, even if finding written records of such discussion was exceedingly rare. That makes a 1966 letter from a Delta Airlines executive to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) stand out as particularly interesting, as it illustrates how homophobia was assuredly a part of the company’s discipline strategy for its workforce, while also being a topic they were loathe to address publicly. As the letter notes, Delta hired 19 stewards from 1946 to 1948, but then stopped doing so. They were then asked by the EEOC two decades later to explain what happened. With quite a bit of belabored effort to conform to a pre-Stonewall sense of propriety, the Delta executive informed the EEOC that they stopped hiring men, in part, because they were gay. After noting that using male flight attendants, overall, “proved completely unsatisfactory,” the executive proceeded to mention that a series of problems with the men arose “involving sex as such. While the matter must be delicately stated, it was a fact that the least trace of effeminacy on the part of the purser resulted in the individual being tagged as a sex deviate (in most cases without fault on his part)… While Delta was never exposed to public embarrassment or real or threatened litigation as a result of these problems, they did in fact exist and were recognized as such both by the Company and by the stewards themselves.”

For a historian of sexuality seeking to lay bare the workings of homophobia, this softly-spoken, but heavily-laden admission of homosexuality is the sort of smoking gun that corporate archives too rarely provide.

What do you see as the future of LGBT history? Of labor history? Have you encountered any push back from more traditional labor historians?

I haven’t encountered negative reactions from labor historians. I think that’s because my work really is an additional step in the larger feminist project to uncover how labor regimes have always coincided with deeply entrenched sexism in our society. Thus, it was the feminist labor historians who preceded me who paved the way for my work and cleared some of the opposition that might otherwise arise to projects like mine.

For LGBT history, I am constantly encouraged by how much new work is happening that utilizes—as I do—different sets of archives. For years, LGBT historians seemed to utilize only the archives that covered queers directly: vice squads cracking down on urban nightlife, sexologists and psychologists pathologizing homosexuality, or nascent LGBT activist groups fighting for equality. But in the past decade, scholars have investigated new archives and created great new work that examines queer home life, queer religious experience, and queer work, to name a few novelties. Plane Queer, then, a part of a growing trend that examines queer people in their fullness, not just as activists, criminals, and/or denizens of nightlife.

What are your thoughts on the strengths/weaknesses of the discipline’s reliance on monographs? Given the changing nature of the academy (the so-called crisis of the humanities and the drop in tenure track jobs) and changing technologies (particularly the growing availability of e-books), what are your thoughts on the future of tenure and publishing?

I greatly value the monograph and think it may even warrant increased value in the current moment. We have more media options available to tell the public our insights as historians, but almost all of them cater to the decreased attention span of today’s life. Monographs force us historians to fully develop a complex thesis and prove it with compelling evidence that endures for around 100,000 words. Until there’s an alternative forum that demands this degree of rigor, the monograph deserves its place among historians as the gold standard.

That said, I wish there were more opportunities to spin off multimedia products from work on our monograph-length research projects. After about a decade of work on this book that offers real insight into the ways queer identity and homophobia has operated in the American workplace, it is unfortunate that my readership is so limited.

What surprised you while writing this book?

For all of its annoyances, air travel still has the power to mesmerize, at least for some people. And thank goodness for that! I couldn’t have filled in the holes in the written archives regarding male flight attendants without a lot of amazingly insightful oral histories. Much to my delight, flight attendants and former flight attendants typically love to talk about their work. A large number of them see something wondrous in air travel and are proud of their role in it. They also have networks of friendships that last through the ages, and they were largely willing to connect me with these friends as well. By starting with just a couple of names of former flight attendants, I was ultimately able to do oral histories with a network about 20 men and women who held this job as far back as 1948. Thanks to their willingness to share about their work and their experiences as gay men who found both acceptance and discrimination on the job, Plane Queer became the detailed, engaging history of a gay workplace that I hoped it would be. Plus, the esprit de corps of these flight attendants was contagious; I now feel like I’m part of a global fraternity of globetrotters, adventurers, and nerdy airplane technology enthusiasts!

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