Anne Balay has a habit of getting fired, but she talks about it openly. “It’s a pattern which is awkward, but acknowledging it helps me emotionally,” she quipped with a chuckle.
While losing job after job might be a negative for some, it has opened up a breadth of opportunities for Balay. Now in her mid-50s, she is a collection of identities: professor, researcher, oral historian, mother, auto mechanic, truck driver, lesbian, and activist. She’s also the author of Semi Queer: Inside The World of Gay, Trans, and Black Truck Drivers, a collection of powerful interviews that illuminate the beauty and the hardships of the being LGBTQIA+ in the trucking industry.
Balay never planned to be a career truck driver. She turned to the industry after writing her first book, Steel Closets, about LGBTQIA+ steelworkers, and subsequently losing her university job. She loved engines and driving, but trucking school was an unexpected struggle. She failed the CDL test twice and only trucked professionally for 5 months before losing that job as well.
But Balay’s short time behind the wheel introduced her to the world of openly LGBTIA+ truck drivers. She was fascinated by the contrast between these individuals and their steel-working counterparts, “I wanted to know why steelworkers are anxious and closeted and truckers are not.”
Balay also wanted to dispel the public misperceptions about trucking. She acknowledged that she had her own assumptions before entering the industry about the freedom of being her own boss, earning a respectable paycheck, and having “cowboy” moments on the open road. What she found was that new drivers have very little autonomy over their time, especially those who work for large companies. They don’t make much money, at least for the first few years, and they often deal with maltreatment and appalling conditions.
To dig deeper, Balay re-immersed herself in trucking. She spent an entire summer doing ridealongs and frequenting truck stops, interviewing 66 gay, transgender, and black drivers whose stories became Semi Queer. Most of the individuals Anne spoke with share accounts of discrimination, verbal harassment, or sexual assault on the road. They discuss the physical and emotional difficulties of the job, their desire for more respect, and the challenges of finding an inclusive company.
These stories are challenging to read, but they were even more challenging to collect. “There’s so much trauma and it just gets really hard to hear,” said Balay. “Sixty-six stories was as many people’s lives as I could absorb right then.” For truck drivers’ lives to improve, it’s imperative to believe the stories, she said.
Although Semi Queer paints a somewhat desolate picture, Balay said that many LGBTQIA+ individuals count on trucking as a source of steady work after being turned away or cast out from other industries. She also discussed the freedom to exit potential harassment situations because mobility is built into their jobs. Perhaps most importantly, Balay maintained that every person she talked to stays in trucking simply because they love the work. They love driving with the windows down, operating the gears of a big machine, and feeling like they are making meaningful contributions.
“They go to the fields and watch people pick fruit, they take it to the store, and they buy it. They live in the world in an alive way. There’s a magic to it.”
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