Today is International Flight Attendant Day, and while male flight attendants have been disparaged throughout history as promiscuous “air mattresses” or men doing women’s work, Phil Tiemeyer — an associate professor of history at Kansas State University and author of the book Plane Queer: Labor, Sexuality, and AIDS in the History of Male Flight Attendants — says gay male flight attendants actually helped shape U.S. anti-discrimination laws through three historic court cases most people don’t know about.
In his book, Tiemeyer shows how men working as flight attendants — in a job customarily identified as female-oriented — faced gender-based, sexuality-based and HIV-based discrimination. And yet these men also forged a path against homophobia and HIV-phobia, while also advocating for LGBT civil rights.
“[Male] stewards had actually been on the job since the very beginning of commercial air travel in the late 1920s,” Tiemeyer writes, “with airlines such as Eastern and Pan American choosing to hire only men up until the labor shortages of World War II.”
But as airlines began hiring attractive young women to serve as doting, comforting stewards to predominantly male passengers, men who wanted to become stewards were mocked as sexually interested in other men — why else would they offer blankets and pillows to other male passengers?
Through the years, male flight attendants facilitated key breakthroughs in gender-based civil rights law, including an important expansion of the ways that Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act would protect workers from sex discrimination. In fact, Title VII is still being used in courts to combat cases of discrimination against LGBTQ people.
1954: The William Simpson murder case establishes a “baseline of contempt”
In early August 1954, Eastern Airlines steward William Simpson, 27, was shot to death by two male sex workers in a hookup-turned-robbery on Miami’s Lovers Lane. A 19-year-old named Charles Lawrence confessed to the murder, using a “gay panic” defense, claiming he killed Simpson out of a panic after Simpson came on to him).
Remember, this was at a time when police actively antagonized gay people, raiding bars and beating up LGBTQ people with impunity. Criminals like Lawrence would regularly rob gay men because gay men were often reluctant to call the cops, knowing they themselves could be arrested, charged with sodomy and then have their names published in the papers.
Lawrence’s defense was bull, of course, as Lawrence had regularly robbed gay men who had sexually propositioned him. But thanks to the gay panic defense, Lawrence and his accomplice avoided a first- or second-degree murder charge and got off with a lesser charge of manslaughter, a charge usually applied to those who contribute to a person’s death by refusing to render aid or take necessary precautions.
More importantly, the scandalous press coverage focusing mostly on Simpson’s sexuality and stating that he was part of a secret “colony” of “sex perverts” compelled Eastern Airlines to cut back on male stewards and then stop hiring them entirely by 1958. Tiemeyer says this time period serves as the “baseline for contempt” of an industry who decided to discriminate against men for sexist and homophobic reasons.
While the case and its effects are tragic, it also laid the foundation for the more positive court cases to come.
1967: Celio Diaz Jr. successfully sues for the right to work as a male flight attendant
Diaz Jr., a married father of two children living in Miami, applied twice to become a male flight attendant with Pan American World Airways and was twice rejected. So, in 1969, he sued the airlines. In the four-year-long court battle that followed, Pan American said being born female was a “bona fide occupational qualification” to be an airline steward.
Part of Pan America’s (and other airlines’ logic) had to do with economics. The airlines only hired young women and typically fired their female stewards once they reached their 30s, got married or became pregnant, making them “less attractive” in the eyes of flying businessmen. By keeping a fresh rotation of young, inexperienced women, they could keep wages low and disrupt any potential union organizing.
In fact, Pan America successfully argued that because they fired women for an additional trait beyond their gender, their policies weren’t in fact sexist, and thus, not protected under Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act forbidding employment discrimination on the basis of gender.
In Diaz’s case against the airline, Pan America said men were too masculine to provide the nurturing, maternal service desired from flight attendants. They also had a psychologist testify that an effeminate male flight attendant might make male passengers feel “uneasy” because they “might arouse feelings in him he would rather not have aroused.” (That is, gay feelings.)
Pan America actually won the case, but Diaz appealed and the U.S. 5th Circuit Court of Appeals eventually ruled that “a flight attendant’s job was to transport passengers safely, not reassure passengers’ masculinity.” The ruling struck a blow against sexist hiring practices and helped hundreds of others eventually pursue jobs as male flight attendants.
“The judges had to decide that this salacious scapegoating of gay men had to stop if there was going to be any basis for workplace equality for women and men on the basis of gender,” Tiemeyer says.
1984: Gär Traynor wins the right to work while living with HIV
As the HIV epidemic began to rock the world, gay male flight attendants were scapegoats for spreading the virus internationally, leading to the creation of a mythological “Patient Zero” flight attendant who brought HIV to North America during the ’80s (even though scientific researchers have since said that HIV was in America far before then).
By 1983, a growing consensus of scientists had figured out that HIV was primarily passed through blood and semen. But even still, that same year several large newspapers republished claims that HIV could be spread through casual contact. In this environment, United Airlines created a policy of “grounding” any HIV-positive flight attendants, including one long-serving employee named Gär Traynor.
Traynor joined United Airlines in 1973, just a year after United started hiring men as a result of the Diaz case (mentioned above). In 1982, Traynor became aware that he was HIV-positive. When his doctor notified United on Traynor’s behalf to explain the disease and Traynor’s need for chemotherapy, the airlines initially told him he could work as long as he felt up to it.
But on June 28, 1983, Traynor’s supervisor informed him that Traynor had been placed on a permanent medical leave of absence. He later received a letter from United stating that due to the uncertainty of how HIV is transmitted, United thought it best that he not perform a job requiring food and beverage handling.
At the time, United Airlines had grounded at least two other stewards (one was merely suspected of having HIV due to symptoms), and American Airlines had fired at least one HIV-positive steward.
Traynor eventually took his case to the U.S. Labor Relations Board and won a settlement against United in arbitration, forcing the airlines to treat people living with HIV the same way they did employees with other illnesses like epilepsy or cancer.
Because his case was a labor union grievance, the decision didn’t establish legal precedence for HIV-positive employees claiming discrimination in future court cases. But for the first time in the United States, a person living with HIV had re-gained his right to work. Traynor’s case caused other airlines to stop the practice of grounding HIV-positive male flight attendants and helped set an example for how to challenge such HIV-phobic job practices in other industries.