Anne Balay was working as an assistant professor in 2014 when her book on queer Indiana steel mill workers Steel Closets was published. When she wasn't offered tenure, Balay decided to use the opportunity to do something she had always wanted to do: drive an 18-wheeler. Balay only drove for a brief time before she was offered another professorship, but her foray into trucking coincided with an enormous increase in LGBTQI and Black truck drivers. Her new book Semi Queer studies this phenomenon in terms of gender, race, economics and history.
"Any trucker space you go to there's lesbians, there's gay men, there's trans people … they're everywhere and they're out and they're happy to talk about it. That's one of the reasons I wanted to write about it; it came as such a shock to me after my steel mill experience," said Balay.
The LGBT steel mill workers she sought out for Steel Closets kept their identities hidden to avoid violence and harassment at work, but Balay found a very different culture among truck drivers, who were eager to share their experiences in a job that fit their identities. Balay noted that 10 of the drivers she interviewed were intersex, and she did not have to look hard to find them.
"Intersex narrators that I talked to felt always that they were shifting between identities and never wanted to park somewhere. You can hear the language of how they describe their identity is mirrored by the process of what trucking is."
From the beginning, Balay's goal in searching out LGBTQI and African American truckers was to tell real working-class people's stories in great detail, calling attention to the way Americans make policy and activism decisions according to stereotypes about the working class that are known to be false.
"There are two stereotypes that are both completely inaccurate, and my book tries to disprove both of them at the same time in a complicated way. The two stereotypes are that truckers and other working-class people are politically conservative, anti-gay, anti-feminist, just kind of old school in general about social issues, and that they're white … . The other thing I want to challenge is that queer people are economically prosperous: that assumption that queer people are white male architects living in New York who own Subarus. That's not the majority of the queer population."
A lot of the phenomena Balay found happening in the LGBT trucking world, however, led to more questions than answers. For instance, why did the LGBT truckers she spoke with so frequently support Trump?
"One of the reasons that truckers like Trump [and] hate Democrats is that Democratic congresses and Democratic presidents have done all of this. … The absolute sellout of the American working class was done by Democratic presidents," Balay claims.
As in many other industries, Balay explains, the Federal Department of Transportation shifted from regulating the industry to regulating people as a result of Democratic policies. During 14-hour days on the job, she quickly discovered worsening working conditions and increasing surveillance, and expanded her study to inquire if this phenomenon is related to the field's sudden explosion in diversity. It proved more difficult to get other drivers to talk about these problems than the rewards.
"They're proud of it. … They hate to be perceived as whiners, [but] they will call their dispatcher and say 'I am bleeding from an open wound' and the dispatcher will say 'you have to get your freight in on time. You can go to the ER after you deliver your freight.' It's routine. And they have to pay to clean the blood out of the cab."
Semi Queer is broken down into "Rolling" and "Stopping" chapters, both of which describe practical aspects of the job and serve as apt metaphors for the workers' experiences. Truckers are alone, doing the fulfilling part of their job while rolling, but stopping usually means losing money and almost always means interacting with other people.
Truckers spend hours "stopped" waiting for shippers to load their trucks, and they lose time during snow storms and equipment malfunctions. "Detention time" is unpaid in every state except California, and a federal bill called The Denham Amendment is currently being debated, which would make paid detention time illegal. These regulations are handled by the Department of Transportation rather than the Department of Labor, so truckers do not have the same protections as workers in other industries.
"The clincher for me is: the rules of when truckers can drive are suspended whenever it's at the convenience of the customer. It has nothing to do with safety or trucking safety."
Balay gives the example that just before the Fourth of July, truckers are allowed to drive unlimited hours so fireworks will arrive on time. While limits on driving hours are supposedly put in place for the drivers' safety, these regulations are suspended, allowing the same drivers to carry loads of explosives all over the country sleep deprived and hungry, making conditions even more dangerous. Accidents are the most dangerous form of "stopping." Even drivers that are never involved in an accident see a lot of people die, and they are expected to get right back in their trucks and keep driving.
"They are considered disposable machines, and they don't receive any maintenance or support from anyone," she said.
The "Rolling" chapters in Semi Queer capture the exceptional fit queer truckers have found behind the wheel, which they sacrifice their personal safety to enjoy.
"The truckers have these stories of how it feels to be out there, criss-crossing the country, tied to that incredible power source, yet totally invisible. Because even though trucks are everywhere and enormous, we don't see them. There's a way that that fits with queer and trans and immigrant identities in really kind of hard-to-unpack ways, but I spend a lot of time in the book talking about psychic fits between the job and queerness," Balay said.
Oftentimes truckers see the practical need for the items they are hauling when they arrive to load and unload.
"One of my friends just delivered a whole load of food to the firefighters in California and like drove up to them and unloaded it. And there's just this feeling that like the world would not keep turning if you stopped turning your wheels."
In terms of future projects, Balay is thinking about the stories sex workers have to tell.
"I ran into a lot of people who do sex work when I was at truck stops. There's new legislation that makes sex work more dangerous right now, and I want to think about that as another way that the government and queer activism, and in this case feminist activism are making choices that harm poor people and queer people."
Balay's book launch for Semi Queer is at Chicago's Women & Children First Books Friday, Sept. 28 at 7 p.m. She is also reading in Indiana the same weekend, and then in New York and Philadelphia, where she lives.