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Home People ‘Work is about belonging’: LGBTQ+ people’s history in the workplace | Books

‘Work is about belonging’: LGBTQ+ people’s history in the workplace | Books

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There has been scant attention paid to queer people in the workplace, argues historian Margot Canaday in her fascinating new book Queer Career: Sexuality and Work in Modern America. “Queer people are one of the largest, but least studied, minority groups in the workforce,” Canaday said while speaking to the Guardian about her book.

According to her book, straight historians have tended to ignore the experiences of LGBTQ+ people in the workplace and queer researchers have focused on other aspects of community life, assuming that workplaces were uninteresting, because they weren’t places where LGBTQ+ were able to reveal their true identities. “There has been an assumption that the workplace has been a straight place that was not so revelatory for historians,” Canaday told me.

Canaday’s belief is that the conventional wisdom is wrong – in fact, the history of queer identities in the workplace has been much more complex and fascinating than previously assumed. “I think for all of us – queer or straight – work is about belonging and identity,” Canaday said. “But there are also things that are unique about work for queer people. For instance, it was a way gay people found other gay people. Or for folks who are gender non-conforming, there’s a way that work affirms that isn’t available anywhere else.”

Working off her hunch, as well as a desire to write a queer history that did not marginalize women, Canaday got to work interviewing queer-identified people who had participated in the labor force as far back as the 1950s. Altogether she interviewed more than 150 individuals over the course of years. These interviews were both personally gratifying for Canaday, as a lesbian who had faced her own amount of discrimination making her way in the workforce, as well as a solid foundation that guided her research in Queer Career.

“One of the great gifts of working on this project was that I got to do oral histories,” she said. “I didn’t expect to do so many. They really took on a life of their own. I had to stop myself at some point – it felt like I could do this for the rest of my life. I enjoyed them immensely and in the end they greatly shaped the story the book tells.”

The result of Canaday’s work is a intriguing counter-history to the usual stories we tell about the history of the workplace in America from the 1950s, as well as a book that is prescient about the struggles currently faced by American workers, whether queer or straight.

Margot Canaday’s book, Queer Career. Photograph: Princeton

Canaday begins with the 1950s and 60s, noting that these years are commonly seen as a “golden age” for laborers in which a robust economy rebounding from the second world war led to plentiful employment opportunities, fair wages and rife potential for advancement. However, Canaday finds that this was not the case for queer individuals. Many were too absorbed in the stress and anxiety of understanding who they were to adequately focus on education and career. Others had to cling to survival by using LGBTQ+ networks to suss out “friendly” employers, or figure out how to navigate job interviews by providing just enough information to tide over potential bosses but not reveal too much. Ultimately, many queer people in this period were content to while away their productive years in dead-end job that had the virtues of feeling reasonably safe and largely leaving them alone.

As Canaday explained, it was these qualities that made queer individuals attractive to employers, who could give them unequal pay and didn’t have to worry about satisfying their career prospects. “In the 50s and 60s,” she said, “queer workers could be paid less, they will stay in jobs where they feel safe, they’ll tolerate work that others won’t. And they offer all of the things that come with being perceived as unattached with family units – things that we now associate with flexible work.”

One of the central points of Queer Career is that the precarity faced by LGBTQ+ workers has been a bellwether for employment more generally. As the American economy has moved in a more neo-capitalist direction, with the erosion of employment security and the mainstreaming of immigrant workforces, argues Canaday, the lot of the LGBTQ+ worker has become something that is now more broadly felt by straight individuals throughout the economy. As she writes, “A position that was once marginal has in some sense become the center, and we should perhaps think of queer workers less as outliers than as harbingers of axial shifts in employment relations across the second half of the 20th century.”

“What’s different about the queer experience is that precarity that we associate with a secondary labor market is also true of people who are in the primary,” she said. “People working corporate jobs, and individuals all the way up the class structure – they all felt this. That’s why I think [the] queer workforce is a harbinger for the economy that we all get. It looks a lot like the workplace that we all get from the 70s on.”

This vulnerability is something that Canaday has felt herself. In the book’s introduction, she makes the risky choice of telling her own story of being a young job-seeker in the early 1990s: she learns to “de-gay” her resume after being let go from one job for being queer, and she confronts the fact that in many sectors her career options would be greatly curtailed by her queerness. This personal element makes Queer Career very much a personal project, a fact that was borne out by the connections Canaday made via many of her interviews.

“There are probably 10 to 15 interviews that I did for the book I haven’t stopped thinking about,” she said. “There was a couple in Manhattan, ladies in their 90s, and there were just moments of connection that transcended the interview. It’s an odd thing when you put a recorder in front of people and have an intense moment of connection that goes so deep.”

Telling the story of how queer rights came to the workplace – and making the case that this story is relevant to everyone who works – Queer Career is a compelling mix of assiduous scholarship and heartfelt first-person oral history. It is also a piece of an ongoing story – as the book’s epilogue reminds us, as much as half of queer workers are still not out at their jobs. And with anti-LGBTQ+ legislation on the rise in much of the country, queer workers – especially those who identify as transgender –have many reasons to remain fearful.

“I think queer precarity is on everyone’s mind in a way that wasn’t the case as much 10 years ago,” said Canaday. “People have a heightened sense of it now and a greater interest in it. I also think that an awareness of queer precarity is growing. A more common narrative has been gay affluence, but I think that’s a very particular look at just one part of the community”

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