Miami, spring of 1967.
Celio Diaz, a married man and father of two, wanted to change careers. While some men wished to wear moon boots or patriotically fight in Vietnam, others preferred to serve glitzy cocktails at 30,000 feet.
He applied to work as a flight attendant for Pan Am and got rejected. Why? He had a penis, and for the airline– the pioneer of the jet age – that was an obvious hindrance to the sexually implying overture, “Tea, coffee or me?”
Undeterred, he sued Pan Am for violating Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act. Basis of sex. He won. But by 1971 he was too old to apply.
Despite the unfortunate ending, if not for Celilo’s determination, men may have never flown or toured the best of La Guardia’s cruising hot spots between flights. Let alone play a fundamental role in the post-stonewall LGBTQ+ liberation movement.
Sassy, camp and well-groomed are some of the stereotypes popularly associated with gay flight attendants. Sure, being paid to fly from Paris to Hanoi (and occasionally Delaware) was exciting. However, a job is a job, and we must refute the simplistic argument that travel and white glove silver service were the only attracting factors. Many people wished to travel. And many more worked in the service industry. So, who wouldn’t want to combine the two?
It’s estimated that more than 50% of male flight attendants are gay. Other industries count between 15-20%. So, what was it then? Gay-friendlier working spaces? Or perhaps, healthier environments outside the obscure bars of the West Village and Castro District?
How did the sky become such a hodgepodge of Dorothy’s friends?
Before 1964, employers were allowed to create and openly publicize their discriminatory employment policies. In Pan Am’s case, the ideal female candidate had to be unmarried, childless and willing to retire by 32 – because everyone knows that women, at 33, become incapable of performing any task other than motherhood.
Criteria like weight, height and physical appearance were also deciding factors. No wonder airlines had little interest in hiring Adam, 29 and male. But this all changed in 1964 with title VII of the Civil Rights Act, which prohibited discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex, and national origin.
Still, men remained persona non grata in the skies.
Airlines paraded their well-travelled and elegantly groomed flight attendants as objects of desire. Essentially, an add-on entertainment to pricy tickets. But Cruz v Pan Am sent the gender-conservative industry into turmoil.
After 1971, the prominent cleavages of Southwest Airlines started to hide behind buttoned-up collared shirts. Floaty cravats sided pinned down ties. And finally, Adam joined Shirley in offering you tea, coffee and the morning newspaper.
For the travelling public – especially men – this had the potential of being erotically unsettling. Because nothing shouted sex like filtered coffee gushing into a cup brimming with sweetened cream while standing hip forwards in a polyester uniform.
The introduction of men in the cabin created dissonance by butting in (pun certainly intended!) the otherwise clean gender division.
Pilots embodied a proud hegemonic machismo in the cockpit, while the stewardesses symbolized mother-like care, femininity, and a fleeting sexual allure. Although “mother” and “sexual allure” should never be in the same sentence, airlines thrived by promoting these qualities on billboards nationwide.
“In the late eighties, we travelled for twenty-eight-day trips worldwide. The wedding bands were tucked away by the first hour of the flight. Late-night conversations often revealed a duality between their work and personal lives. First, proud gay men in the skies and then a return to traditional manhood when we touched down in Heathrow,” Sally, a long-serving flight attendant for a famous British airline, tells Queerty.
Tom, now 78, was part of one the first mixed batches to train with American Airlines in 1973. In a class of 52 stewards, 12 were male, of which 9 were gay. Interviewing Tom today, some of the assumptions I had turned true. Firstly, in a prevalently female community, gay men strived in an almost accepting environment.
It’s no secret that women were – and often still are – a gay man’s best friends, thus bestowing the validation gay men struggled to find elsewhere (read: dad, are you proud of me?)– particularly in professional environments.
Tom describes the aeroplane as a stage six miles high “we catered to wants and needs in a way that current passengers have never experienced,” adding, “The flight attendants were the cast that performed the service show to the seated audience.”
In an era before smartphones, Wi-Fi, and inflight entertainment, the service was the entertainment. Arguably, so was the post-flight debrief in the hotel in Rome.
In the public consciousness, male flight attendants – historically associated with women and femininity – became synonyms for homosexuality. Gay men were accused of quasi-double-edged queerness. First sissified for playing a “woman’s role” in society and then for their sexual interest. Galleys and aeroplane cabins became places of “genesis” where the gay community was made visible.
As academic Phil Tiemeyer points out in his dissertation Manhood Up In The Air, “This sort of gay community-building was particularly crucial in the immediate post-Stonewall era of the early 1970s.”
Acceptance of men in the profession and the associated queerness had a short run. In the early 80s, HIV spread like wildfire in the gay community. People panicked, fearing that the “lifestyle” led to more significant risks than destroying society’s moral fabric.
In fact, a gay Canadian flight attendant, Gaëtan Dugas, was wrongly labelled as patient Zero by a 1987 non-fiction book that scapegoated him as the leading cause. But nothing new here. LGBTQ+ folks have constantly been demonized – and continue being so – for uncontrollable circumstances.
Sadly, it won’t be long before a B.S. study commissioned by Governor Bill Lee of Tennessee might reveal that COVID-19 originated in a drag bar.
However, it wasn’t until scientists, through genetic analysis of blood samples, confirmed that Dugas was not the cause nor the so-called Patient Zero. At the end of the interview, Tom regrettably mentioned how four–including two roommates–died of AIDS-related infections.
Interviews and research led me to believe that, beyond the travel and desire to deliver outstanding customer service, a clear element of escapism brought the gays flying. Men were recruited in the prime of the LGBTQ+ liberation movement.
Yet, despite the brisk air of change in the gay front, queer men and women alike were still squashed in acting out a straight façade in professional environments and beyond. The job and its endless travelling endeavours allowed gay men a glimpse of freedom, to be themselves while working the queer friendlier skies. This gave some the courage to live fearlessly even when not at 30,000 feet. But most were obliged to retrieve their wedding rings as the plane descended to base. The expectancy to conform waited for them in arrivals.