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]

Janet Davis

Janet Davis