Wednesday, September 5, 2018

Anne Balay's "Semi Queer"

Anne Balay graduated with a PhD from the University of Chicago, after which she promptly became a car mechanic. Though in subsequent years she returned to academia as a professor both at the University of Illinois and Indiana University Northwest, she never lost her interest in blue collar work environments. Balay moved to Gary, Indiana to teach, and was immediately interested in the steel industry of the region. Her coworker and mentor, Jimbo Lane, suggested that she would be perfectly suited to meeting with and writing about the LGBT workers within the mill community, and Steel Closets was born. Balay then attended commercial truck driving school, got her CDL, and drove over the road. Oral histories of truck drivers she did in 2015/16 have led to her new book, Semi Queer: Inside the World of Gay, Trans, and Black Truck Drivers. She is currently a Visiting Assistant Professor at Haverford College.

Balay applied the “Page 99 Test” to Semi Queer and reported the following:
Page 99 opens with a general claim about the contradictions of trucking: though truckers are exposed to trauma via the road accidents they witness, they receive no training in how to handle this, and in fact typically avoid getting treatment because they believe their employers will let them go if they have a history of seeking mental health support.

It then makes a further claim about how queer, trans, and black truckers add this under-treated trauma to the extra weight they carry of family rejection, outsider status, low pay, medical neglect or worse. I allude to the fierce pride they feel in persevering in spite of all this, and the way the movement – the transitoriness – of the job echoes their sexual/gender expression or their racialized visibility in ways that feel affirming and fun.

And then it turns to the story of one particular trucker: Donovan. Though her story extends through many pages and weaves through many of my book’s themes, here I emphasize how her low pay combined with her company’s flagrant disregard for her need to make it home for medical appointments target her. If she can’t maintain her hormone regimen, she is prone to panic attacks and to depression. She is so lonely out there on the road. After we had talked for about 20 minutes, she started to cry. I asked why, and she said this was the longest conversation she had had with a human in months.

I try to impart a sense of Donovan as a person, on page 99 and elsewhere. We can know things as readers, but I also want us to feel these stories as they shape the lives of my narrators. If I can leave readers with a sense that they “met” Donovan, it might change their queer activism, their policy work, or their engagement with others in this brutal, beautiful world.
Learn more about Semi Queer at The University of North Carolina Press website.

Visit Anne Balay's website.

--Marshal Zeringue