Wednesday’s Book Review: “Plane Queer”

16145120Plane Queer: Labor, Sexuality, and AIDS in the History of Male Flight Attendants. By Phil Tiemeyer. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2013. vii + 288 pp., illus., acknowledgments, notes, bibliography, index. ISBN 978-0-520-27477-8. $24.95 (paperback).

Plane Queer: Labor, Sexuality, and AIDS in the History of Male Flight Attendants is an outstanding social history by Phil Tiemeyer about flight attendants and their challenges since the beginning of air transportation. He argues that these individuals were a distinct, highly-visible, uniquely-skilled work force whose actions were very much the stuff of popular culture. The male flight attendants looked to their profession as something more than a job; it was more like a calling, and it required sacrifice to carry the mission forward. Although the first stewards/flight attendants in the pre-World War II era were largely male, with the coming of war this profession became filled with women.

In the aftermath of the war stewardesses entered the popular culture as a glamorous profession for young, attractive, single women who wanted to see the world, meet wealthy and handsome men, and expand their lives beyond anything they had known in America. The “coffee, tea, or me” meme emerged in the 1960s at almost the same time that men sought to reenter the ranks of flight attendants only to find them shut out by industry policy. Lawsuits resulted and eventually the first male flight attendants began work.

Just as famously, the cultural mindset identified these men as largely gay and assigned to them gender-based, sexuality-based, and AIDS-based discrimination. Many were gay, Tiemeyer suggests, but not all. Regardless of sexual orientation they facilitated key breakthroughs in civil rights, helping to reinterpret Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act protecting workers from sex discrimination as a means of breaking into the all female flight attendant corps.

They also helped—sometimes inadvertently through their professionalism on the job and sometimes through activism—to build acceptance for their community. They came out to employers and co-workers, responded to homophobic and AIDS-phobic ideas, and advocated for LGBT rights. This is social history of a high order; it is also a success in drawing an important aspect of aerospace history into a larger conversation about the culture of America in the period since the 1960s.

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