‘Work is about belonging’: The story of LGBTQ+ people in the workplace | Books
JHere, little attention has been paid to queer people in the workplace, argues historian Margot Canaday in her fascinating new book Queer Career: Sexuality and Work in Modern America. “Queer people are one of the most important, yet understudied, minority groups in the workforce,” Canaday said when speaking to the Guardian about her book.
According to her book, straight historians have tended to ignore LGBTQ+ people’s experiences in the workplace and queer scholars have focused on other aspects of community life, assuming workplaces are uninteresting. , because they were not places where LGBTQ+ people could reveal their identity. real identities. “The workplace was assumed to be a straight place which was not so telling to historians,” Canaday told me.
Canaday’s belief is that conventional wisdom is wrong – in fact, the history of queer identities in the workplace has been far more complex and fascinating than previously thought. “I think for all of us — queer or straight — work is about belonging and identity,” Canaday said. “But there are also things that are unique about the work of queer people. For example, it was a way for homosexuals to find other homosexuals. Or for people who are gender non-conforming, there’s a way the job claims it’s not available anywhere else.
Working on her intuition, as well as a desire to write a queer story that doesn’t marginalize women, Canaday set to work interviewing queer-identified people who had participated in the workforce as early as the 1950s. in total, she has interviewed over 150 people over the years. These interviews were both personally rewarding for Canaday, as a lesbian who had faced her own degree of discrimination to make her way in the job market, as well as a solid foundation that guided her research in Queer Career.
“One of the great gifts of working on this project was that I got to do oral histories,” she said. “I didn’t expect to do so much. They really took their lives into their own hands. I had to stop at some point – I felt like I could do this for the rest of my life. I enjoyed them immensely and in the end they greatly shaped the story that the book tells.
The result of Canaday’s work is an intriguing counter-story to the usual stories we’ve been telling about America’s labor history since the 1950s, as well as a book that’s prescient about the struggles currently facing American workers, whether they are homosexual or heterosexual. .
Canaday begins with the 1950s and 1960s, noting that these years are generally considered a “golden age” for workers during which a robust economy rebounding from World War II led to many job opportunities, fair wages and considerable advancement potential. However, Canaday finds that this was not the case for queer people. Many were too caught up in the stress and anxiety of figuring out who they were to adequately focus on education and career. Others have had to cling to survival by using LGBTQ+ networks to find “friendly” employers, or figuring out how to navigate job interviews by providing just enough information to avoid potential bosses, but not too much. reveal it. In the end, many queer people of this period were content to spend their productive years in dead-end employment that had the virtues of feeling reasonably safe and largely leaving them alone.
As Canaday explained, it was these qualities that made queer people attractive to employers, who could give them unequal pay and didn’t have to worry about fulfilling their career prospects. “In the 1950s and 60s,” she said, “gay workers might get paid less, they’ll stay in jobs where they feel safe, they’ll tolerate work that other people won’t. And they offer all the things that come with being seen as unattached to family units – things we now associate with flexible working.
One of the central points of Queer Career is that the precariousness faced by LGBTQ+ workers has been an indicator of employment in general. As the U.S. economy has moved in a more neo-capitalist direction, with the erosion of job security and the integration of immigrant labor, argues Canaday, the plight of the LGBTQ+ worker is become something that is now more widely felt by heterosexual people around the world. economy. As she writes, “a position that was once marginal has somehow become central, and perhaps we should view gay workers less as special cases than as harbingers of axial shifts in labor relations.” work during the second half of the 20th century. »
“What’s different about the queer experience is that the precariousness that we associate with a secondary labor market is also true for people who are in primary,” she said. “People working in corporations and individuals at all levels of the class structure – they all felt that. That’s why I think [the] the queer workforce is a harbinger of the economy we all get. It’s a lot like the workplace we’ve all had since the 70s.”
This vulnerability is something that Canaday has felt herself. In the introduction to the book, she makes the risky choice to tell her own story as a young job seeker in the early 1990s: she learns to “de-gather” her CV after being fired from a job because she was queer, and she faces the fact that in many industries her career options would be greatly reduced by her homosexuality. This personal element makes Queer Career a very personal project, a fact that has been confirmed by the connections Canaday made through many of its interviews.
“There’s probably 10 to 15 interviews I did for the book that I haven’t stopped thinking about,” she said. “There was a couple in Manhattan, ladies in the 90s, and there were just moments of connection that transcended the interview. It’s a weird thing when you put a recorder in front of people and that you have a moment of intense connection that goes so deep.
Telling the story of how gay rights came to the workplace – and demonstrating that this story is relevant to everyone who works – Queer Career is a compelling blend of hardworking scholarship and heartfelt oral history at The first person. It’s also part of an ongoing story – as the book’s epilogue reminds us, up to half of gay workers are still out of work. And with anti-LGBTQ+ legislation on the rise across much of the country, queer workers — especially those who identify as transgender — have plenty of reason to remain fearful.
“I think queer insecurity is on everyone’s mind in a way that it wasn’t as much 10 years ago,” Canaday said. “People have a heightened sense of it now and are more interested in it. I also think there’s a growing awareness of queer insecurity. A more mainstream narrative has been gay wealth, but I think that’s a very particular look at a single part of the community.