The life of a truck driver can be a lonely one, away from home for days or weeks on end; hours upon hours sitting in a cab, focused on the horizon with only your own thoughts and maybe a radio station to keep you company. Yet it is a life that some populations find attractive, even consoling to some extent. For gay, lesbian, transgender and black truck drivers, life on the road can be a comfort and provide a level of safety and security, in part because of the way the trucking community has accepted them.
Their stories, though, are rarely told, which is what drove author Anne Balay to spend 3 years researching truck drivers for her new book, Semi Queer: Inside the World of Gay, Trans, and Black Truck Drivers. The book is now available on Amazon and currently ranks number 1 on Amazon’s Gay Studies book list as of Aug. 30.
“There has been a lot of stories about trucking, but almost all of the truckers portrayed in these are straight, white men,” Balay tells FreightWaves. “It’s as if all the people who write about trucking don’t know the population of trucking is changing. … It was really important to me to write about that, to tell the story.”
Balay herself has experienced an interesting life journey, including time spent as a mechanic, a truck driver (she still has her CDL), and a visiting professor at several universities. She is currently coordinator of Gender and Sexuality Studies at Haverford College. In 2014, she published her first book, Steel Closets: Voices of Gay, Lesbian, and Transgender Steelworkers.
The two books share some commonality beyond the subject matter, and that is they focus on blue-collar careers and the lives these workers live. The idea for this new book came to her when she was driving herself in Wisconsin. While a truck driving career didn’t work out for her (she didn’t like the regulations and the paperwork requirements), it provided the impetus to explore the topic in more detail.
“When I was [driving], there were just queers out everywhere, trans everywhere, and I was just charmed by that,” she explains. “[I wondered] what was it about this particular lifestyle that made it [so open and welcoming]?”
In some ways, driving a truck mirrors life for some gay, trans and blacks today. In life, it may be family or societal pressures; in trucking it’s the clock and the regulatory restrictions that tell you when and how long you can drive. In both cases, lives are heavily influenced by others and their perceptions.
According to the book’s description on Amazon, Semi Queer is as much about the working-class struggled to survive, as it is about gay or trans truck drivers.
“A licensed commercial truck driver herself, Balay discovers that, for people routinely subjected to prejudice, hatred, and violence in their hometowns and in the job market, trucking can provide an opportunity for safety, welcome isolation, and a chance to be themselves - even as the low-wage work is fraught with tightening regulations, constant surveillance, danger, and exploitation. The narratives of minority and queer truckers underscore the working-class struggle to earn a living while preserving one’s safety, dignity, and selfhood,” the description reads.
Balay says that there is something empowering about driving a truck, especially for minority populations. “They think they are [truck drivers] getting things done,” she explains. “They are much more focused on surviving [and thriving] and being connected to a community is [really] important to them.”
One of the differences Balay says she noticed in her research for her first book, about steel workers, and this one, is how much more accepting the trucking community is of gay, trans and black drivers than the steel workers were. At the same time, she says, there are some parallels that can be drawn between driving a truck and the gay/trans lifestyle.
“The movement of the truck, in the way in which you are always shifting through space is [similar] to the way they live their lives,” she says. “There’s this popular model of transness popularized by Caitlyn Jenner, but these people don’t fit that model.”
For the book, Balay began seeking input from “non-traditional truckers,” not necessarily just gay and trans truckers. This included disabled truckers, Muslim truckers and more minority populations. In essence, anyone who did not fit the stereotype of a white man driving a truck. What she found was more of the gay/trans/black truckers willing to tell their stories. She interviewed hundreds of drivers, with 66 willing to go on the record and be included in the book.
A common theme, she found, is that most of those interviewed have children, usually through traditional methods, which is not what many in society consider the norm. But it is, Balay notes, and this book reflects that. The book also seeks to disprove the narrative that people just wake up one day and decide to be gay, and it looks to do that through the stories of these 66 truck drivers.
Balay says she found that at truck stops and other locations, truck drivers are treated, and treat each other, as truck drivers. While racism still exists, she found, the overwhelming number of people interviewed found the industry accepting. Some of that can be tied to the issues gay, trans and black truck drivers face on a daily basis: the same ones everyone else does, regulations, parking, long hours, detention, traffic, and low pay. It is the commonality that the truck driving community is built around.
“What all the truckers love is trucking, but they all hate the regulations,” Balay notes. “There is so much joy inside of what trucking is, that comes in conflict [with the reality].”
The author hopes the book is viewed as more than just a look at gay, trans and black truck drivers, and is regarded as a look inside the trucking community.
“I’m trying to say something about trucking to the general public through the eyes of specific people,” Balay points out. “But I’m also telling the story about queerness in 21st century America.”