Where does the stereotype of the gay air steward come from? Is it true? Why do we sexualise air stewards? I spoke to the brilliant Phil Tiemeyer, author of ‘Plane Queer’ to find out more.
The stereotype of a male flight attendant is gay, how old is this stereotype and is it rooted in truth?
“The stereotype goes back to the first full decade of commercial air service and the dawn of the flight attendant career in aviation. We don’t know if any of the first stewards—who actually predated the first stewardesses in the US by a few years—were actually gay. But we do know from accounts in the airlines’ publications in the 1930s, including magazines produced for customers to peruse while in flight, that these men were perceived as less masculine than the pilots, mechanics, and managers who worked for the airlines (at least according to the relatively rigid standards of masculinity at the time). This perceived effeminacy led these men to be criticized or teased in various stories carried in publications like Pan American Airways’ Clipper magazine, which even made a comic strip about a steward named “Barney Bullarney” who gets made fun of and even physically abused by his coworkers. So, at the very least, we can say that homophobia in the industry dates back to the 1930s, even if we’re not sure whether homosexuality does.
Why does the job attract a large amount of gay men?
“The most clear answer to this question is that in-flight careers have never been family-friendly. It’s really hard for a pilot or flight attendant to be available for spouses and children when working. This was especially true in the so-called golden age of flying, from the 1950s through the 1970s, when airlines like Pan Am often required their crews to serve on weeks-long routes and also encouraged them at times to relocate to bases overseas. Single women could adapt to these demanding work norms better than others, as could gay men—especially back in the day when society discouraged gay men from having spousal commitments and families of their own.
The other crucial element, though, is that men serving in this job had to be relatively comfortable putting up with the homophobic attitudes of certain co-workers and customers. Several of my interviewees who worked from the 1950s through the 1970s asserted that certain pilots could be particularly demeaning to male flight attendants, ordering them to make coffee for them in break rooms the way a stewardess would or denying them access to the cockpit to deliver meals. Gay men were simply more used to, and thereby were a bit more tolerant than most straight men, of being targeted in such aggressive and emasculating ways.”
Why do we sexualise flight attendants?
“I think we sexualize flight attendants because we sexualize flying. Plenty of Freudian psychologists have for decades explained that most aviation fanatics are attracted to the adrenaline rush of high-speed travel and the penetration or conquering of the sky. These sorts of sensations aren’t too far off from how sexual pleasure is experienced by some here on the ground. Already in the 1930s Hollywood was turning this erotic attraction to flight in the direction of stewardesses, with the first movies in which a stewardess served as the romantic lead coming out in that decade. And once the US’s censorship of pornography was liberalized by the late 1960s, the first X-rated stewardess movie was made.
It’s therefore not surprising that when the US Supreme Court ruled in 1971 that all US airlines had to hire men on an equal basis as women for the flight attendant job, this created a new sub-type of gay male heartthrob: the steward. What was then the only national gay magazine, the Advocate, celebrated the Supreme Court’s decision by expressing gratitude that gay men would now have their own sex objects in the sky to ogle at while flying…not a very enlightened response to an important case for workplace equality!”
There is an idea that flight attendants are promiscuous, is this rooted in truth?
“The promiscuity that has been associated with both male and female flight attendants is rooted in the fact that the vast majority of workers in this field during aviation’s golden years were hired when they were young and had no families. This demographic, sexologists will point out, are typically going to have the most sex in a society. Plus, when you’re able to host sex partners in your own hotel room and have scheduled layovers in the world’s most cosmopolitan party cities, you have even more sexual opportunity than your peers. Of course, though, the choices about the frequency of one’s sexual activity depended on the individual, and my interviewees reported a wide spectrum of choices about how often they had sex. Sex was, almost always, one’s personal choice.
That said, especially female flight attendants were sometimes pressured into sex they didn’t want to have: from customers somewhat rarely, but from pilots and airline managers more frequently. Such incidents of sexual harassment or rape most commonly went unreported, since the airlines did not foster a culture of sexual responsibility among their employers nor did they institute protections for workers to come forward and report misconduct by more powerful co-workers.”
Did male flight attendants face any discrimination or peculiar difficulties?
“They absolutely did. Men were nearly completely excluded from this job by the mid-1950s. That’s when two main US airlines which traditionally hired men, Pan Am and Eastern Airlines, stopped hiring them. Thereafter, a couple of airlines like TWA or Northwest Airlines hired men as pursers (flight attendant positions with more demanding administrative responsibilities) for their international routes, but the percentage of flight attendants who were men shrank to just 3-5% by the late 1960s. The reason Eastern and Pan Am stopped hiring men is due to homophobia in the 1950s: increasing fears on the part of the airline that customers would find these men undesirable. Delta Airlines even confessed in court documents that their short-lived attempts to hire men around that time ended out of fear that customers would perceive their male flight attendants as gay and feel threatened by them.”
How were male flight attendants involved in the civil rights movement?
“The biggest direct impact of male flight attendants (or at least aspiring male flight attendants) on civil rights was the Supreme Court case I noted above from the very early 1970s. The case name was Celio Diaz, Jr. v. Pan American Airways. Diaz was a Miami resident who really wanted to work as a flight attendant. But a Pan Am employee in the hiring office refused to let him apply, claiming the position was for women only. This, however, was 1967, and the 1964 Civil Rights Act was now in effect—the one pressed on Washington politicians by the African American civil rights movement in order to end segregation and workplace discrimination based on race. The workplace protections in the Civil Rights Act also prevented sex-based discrimination, so Diaz was able to claim that the airline’s refusal to consider his application was illegal. It took about four years for the case to be decided, but when Diaz finally won, it meant that all airlines in the US would be forced to hire men on an equal basis with women.
I think of Diaz v. Pan Am as a sort of stealth victory for gender-queer people in America: it meant that men who aspired to jobs that were notionally ‘women’s work‘ would be protected, and so would the far more numerous women desiring to do ‘men’s work.’ Of course, though, you didn’t have to be too queer—and certainly not gay, just as Diaz himself was not—to want to do such work. It was really America’s overly rigid sex norms that needed correcting, and Diaz was the right kind of plaintiff to start to make this happen.”
In the 1960s were male and female flight attendants paid the same?
“This is a complicated question. First, remember that there were only a few men working in the 1960s, due to the homophobia of the 1950s. Those who did work in the industry were covered by the same work contracts as women, the ones negotiated by their labor unions. Thus, on paper, men and women were paid the same. That said, men had two distinct pay advantages. First, at airlines like TWA and Northwest that hired men only for purser positions, these jobs paid more, consistent with their increased administrative responsibilities. Second, men in the 1960s were free to keep their jobs as long as they wanted to work, at least up to or beyond age 60, which meant they were accruing decent amounts of seniority and therefore getting better pay and benefits than newcomers to the field. Women, however, were actively forced out of these jobs at a very early moment in their careers. Most of them left within 18 months, since almost all US airlines forbid them from continuing to work when they married (these women were very eligible marriage material, after all). For the women who tried to make a career of it, most US airlines also imposed additional policies which fired them when they reached age 32 or 35. It was these overt forms of discrimination against women that kept them underpaid compared to their male colleagues.”
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In what ways has the flight attendant community helped gay rights?
“In the late 1940s and early 1950s, gay men were finding out by word of mouth that steward positions were open and somewhat welcoming to gay men. Thus, at a time when US society was actively trying to keep gays out of work (all government, military, and defense industry jobs were declared off-limits), there was this one place where men could still find work and see the world—at least until Pan Am and Eastern closed the doors to these jobs. But when Celio Diaz re-opened this profession to men, it very quickly went back to being a place where gay men could still find jobs, earn a steady income, and partake in ample travel opportunities.”
What is the biggest myth about male flight attendants?
“The grandest of all flight attendant myths is that a gay flight attendant, Air Canada’s Gaetan Dugas, was the ‘Patient Zero’ of the AIDS crisis and actually (allegedly) was the first person to bring HIV/AIDS to the United States. My book and other impressive work by Canadian historian Richard McKay shows definitively that Dugas was nothing more than a salacious scapegoat for a panicked America. The salacious stories of his prolific sex life, coupled with his early diagnosis with AIDS and his persistence in having sex after the diagnosis, made him exactly the sort of villain that Americans wanted to blame for this ‘gay cancer’ (which was the original name for the disease). The reality, as we’re again seeing during the COVID pandemic, is that pandemics run their course with unrelenting ferocity. It doesn’t come down to a few ‘super-spreaders’ as to whether the disease will spread far and wide. They certainly don’t help things, but they don’t cause the pandemic.”
What should I have asked you?
“Which airline had the best flight attendant uniforms. While there were other uniforms in the US that were far more eccentric, I’m partial to the women’s outfits designed by the famed Florentine designer Emilio Pucci in 1965 for Braniff Airways.
Pucci at the time was designing brilliantly colored casual-yet-formal dresses for the likes of Sophia Loren and Jackie Kennedy, so it was quite the thing for this relatively small Texas-based airline and its mostly-Texan flight attendant corps to wear these colorful designer outfits.
Pucci brought sophistication to an upstart, provincial carrier, though I’m not thrilled that the airline’s marketing team refused to keep things classy: they turned these practical and stylish outfits into a striptease show—the airline released commercials called ‘The Air Strip’ promising that a stewardess would discard an additional item of Pucci’s multi-layered outfits every time she walked down the aisle.
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It truly seems that female flight attendants circa 1965 endured what seemed on the exterior to be the best of times for the profession, while they simultaneously were the worst of times.
The men I interviewed each had their own favorite uniforms, and thankfully, their return to the profession by the early 1970s forced airlines to tone down the overt eroticization of their stewardesses through their uniforms.
In the early 1970s, Pan Am had hired high-end designers of their own to create a new male flight attendant outfit that complemented the women’s uniforms. They were elegant, crisp, modern suits inspired by Carnaby Street fashions and even had matching umbrellas. One Pan Am steward confessed that he loved walking through airport terminals wearing the suit, because he knew every gay man watching him would be both turned on and envious when they saw him.
Phil Tiemeyer is the author of Plane Queer: the history of men working as flight attendants. Beginning with the founding of the profession in the late 1920s and continuing into the post-September 11 era, Plane Queer examines the history of men who joined workplaces customarily identified as female-oriented. It examines the various hardships these men faced at work, paying particular attention to the conflation of gender-based, sexuality-based, and AIDS-based discrimination. Order a copy here.