Walk through the history of a lesser known civil rights struggle.
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Nowadays when we travel by air, there is about a 15% chance that the flight attendant who guides us through the safety video and offers us refreshments is a man. We probably don’t even remark on the worker’s gender, given that we expect both men and women to do this work. This wasn’t always the case, however. In fact, up until 1972, almost all US airlines refused to hire men for this job, deeming it “women’s work” that was too alike to the home-based duties of a wife and mother. Hosting guests and caring for needy children or anxiety-riddled spouse-aged adults were presumed to be natural feminine traits that men were simply ill-equipped to execute. This means that men who entered this profession – once they were allowed – were seen with suspicion. Whether they were or not, many customers and work colleagues assumed these men were gay. This talk walks us through the history of male flight attendants from its beginnings to the present, showing that whatever social pressures existed to trivialize or ostracize these men for entering a field of “women’s work”, they actually played a significant role in a lesser-known aspect of America’s civil rights struggles: efforts to expand greater dignity and equality to LGBTQ Americans.
Phil Tiemeyer is Associate Professor of History at Kansas State University in Manhattan, Kansas, and an accomplished aviation historian and social historian. His first book, which is the basis for this talk, is the award-winning title “Plane Queer: Labor, Sexuality, and AIDS in the History of Male Flight Attendants” (2013), which examines the ways that the flight attendant field became a social battleground over gender roles and sexual orientation. Tiemeyer’s research has been enhanced by two in-residence fellowships at the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum in Washington, DC,.