‘My flight was being served by an obviously gay flight attendant. As we prepared for landing, he came swishing down the aisle and said “The Captain has asked me to announce that he’ll be landing the big plane shortly, so lovely people, if you could just fasten your seat belts and put your tray tables up, that would be super”. On his trip back up the aisle he noticed an extremely well dressed and exotic woman who hadn’t moved a muscle. “Perhaps you didn’t hear me over those big brute engines, but I asked you to raise your trazy-poo so the captain can pitty-pat us on the ground”. She calmly turned her head and said, “In my country, I am called a princess and take orders from no one”. Quick as a flash the flight attendant replied “Well, sweet cheeks, in my country i’m called a Queen, so I outrank you.....Tray up, Bitch!”
This joke has been doing the rounds for many years. But is this the stereo-typical image the general public has of male cabin crew? The belief that we are all gay and act like something from a ‘Carry On’ film? If so, where did this imagery come from and how has it developed over the years? What made the role so ‘gay’ and how has this led to homophobia becoming entwined with the profession, from both passengers and airlines?
Here we take a look at the highs and lows of the ‘obviously gay flight attendant’, how this stereo-type developed and how prevalent it is in todays aviation industry.
We begin with the early days of flying. During the 1920’s and 30’s flight crews were all male, as it was airline policy to only hire male crew. Stewards such as Amaury Sanchez, America’s first ever flight attendant, were carried onboard for safety related duties. This included loading and offloading luggage, fuelling, dealing with technical issues, assisting pilots to push the aircraft into hangars and rowing the travelling elite to shore from the sea-planes in use at the time. There was no meal service, no beef or chicken, no tea or coffee, no handing out headphones for the inflight movie. The job in this glamorous era was seen to be very masculine, further echoed by the military-styled uniforms worn by crew. Pan Am and Eastern Airlines in the US and Imperial Airways of the UK, portrayed their male crew to be sexually desirable fashion-icons in their media and advertising campaigns.
The first flight attendants were male and carried solely for safety related duties.
Then along came Ellen Church. Hired by Boeing Air Transport (later United Airlines) in 1930, Church was a former nurse and her employment was a resounding success. During the war years, as many men went off to fight for their country, more airlines began to review their ‘men-only’ policies and more female ‘stewardesses’ or ‘sky-girls’ as Boeing Air Transport referred to them, began to appear onboard. Church was the worlds first ‘female’ flight attendant. Yet today she is often hailed as Americas first ever flight attendant, virtually erasing Sanchez’s legacy. His omission from the aviation history books is telling of both the social and historical view of male flight attendants, even today.
At the end of World War II, the civil aviation industry changed dramatically. Advances in aircraft technology meant that more emphasis was placed on passenger comfort, thus altering the responsibilities of the crew. Flight attendants now had to provide meal services, mix cocktails, help a mother tend to her child, clean up after passengers and tend to their every whim, all with an air of charm and class. To the public, these new duties made the role appear much more feminine than that of the pre-war stewards.
Financially, the post-war years were a difficult time for airlines. As stewards began fighting for their rights of employment and the role became more unionised, major carriers looked at ways to keep costs down. The war-time employment of ‘sky-girls’ highlighted the fact that these women could be paid significantly less than their male counter-parts; this at a time where a woman was seen as a second class citizen, especially in America. Wages could be kept low and by introducing strict weight and age restrictions, plus a no marriage policy, turn over was high ensuring most girls were forced out before they gained any seniority. Indeed some carriers such as Braniff in the US, highlighted quick marriage as a perk, “Where do most Braniff hostesses go when they leave us? You guessed it……most of them turn in their wings to get married”.
Culturally, the image of the male steward was now rapidly in decline. Airlines themselves began to poke fun at their own male crew through humour and sarcasm, all with homophobic undertones. Pan Americans in-house cartoon-strip ‘Tale Wind’, included the hapless and rather camp, ‘Barney Bullarney’. The character bore the brunt of jokes from his more masculine engineer and pilot colleagues. Although, completely fictitious and merely a cartoon, stewards had to endure the same mocking and ridicule as their comic-book counter part.
Worst still, the Washington Post went on to refer to stewards as ‘Male hostesses’ and for the men that did take on the role at this time, they were immediately seen as effeminate and frequently suspected of being gay.
Pan American’s ‘Tale Wind’ comic strip,
with the hapless Barney Bullarney.
Airline advertising was also changing. Gone was the masculine imagery of buff stewards in their white military uniforms, replaced by the caring and domesticated stewardess. Pictures of care free parents sipping cocktails, while their child was looked after by the doting stewardess began to emerge, cashing in on the influx of stay at home wives travelling with their wealthy business men husbands.
By the 1950’s airline advertising was also changing to highlight the increasing number of female flight attendants.
For a short time during the late 1940s and early 50s, there was a resurgence in the hiring of male crew. As aircraft got bigger, airlines wanted to introduce Pursers into the cabin. Many carriers believed that a male would be better suited to this supervisory role and so many of the men returning to flying after the war were subsequently recruited as Pursers. But even now, strict rules were enforced to ensure that gay men were not knowingly hired. Applicants had to prove they had connections within the airline to vouch for their character and declare if they had seen any tendencies towards homosexuality.
In 1949 Delta Airlines ceased hiring men, and Eastern followed suit during the early 1950’s by simply eliminating the role of purser. While Pan Am had been seen by some to be inciting homophobia, with their ‘Tale-Wind’ comic strips, they were actually one of the few airlines that were less discriminatory towards both their male and female crew, removing age limits and allowing women equal opportunities to become Pursers.
But, by 1958 Pan Am too had stopped hiring men. To the unions this was seen as a way to keep costs down. But to those within the industry, this bitter blow was dealt because many of the airlines officials and their wives were increasingly worried about the increasing number of gay men flying as crew. Of course those that remained in the profession could not be outed from their positions. Some airlines attempted to entice them away from the ‘face-of-the-airline’ role that stewards and stewardesses still have today, by offering them behind the scenes office jobs.
The 1950s were a difficult time for homosexuals around the globe. But as such a large number of gay men remained flying, a queer community evolved along with a degree of tolerance from both straight crew and management, very out of synch with societies views of the time. The aviation world became like a safe-house for gay men, in a world where homosexuality was still illegal. In his book ‘Plane Queer’, detailing the history of the male flight attendant, Paul Tiemeyer spoke of this evolving community, “The aisles and galleys of airplanes, as well as crew hotels and crash pads, served the same role that other gay and lesbians found in bars: a place where they could meet others like themselves and even embrace their same-sex desires for the first time”.
Still, it was not without its difficulties and homophobic undertones. At Pan Am’s San Francisco base, lists were drawn up by the straight stewards naming and shaming those they believed to be gay in the hope that management would out their homosexual colleagues. Their actions were futile, as the lists were thankfully never acted upon.
For the gay male flight attendant, the 1960s were seen as a lost decade in terms of recognition from the industry. The career was predominantly all female, all white and all young. Airlines began to do away with the mothering and caring imagery of the stewardess, instead making the female crew an object of desire for the high paying male business passengers with their mini-skirts and knee-high boots. The small group of male stewards that did remain tended to be very senior and very well paid, hired during the earlier decades.
During the 1960’s, airlines began to make their stewardesses objects of desire with their risqué uniforms.
But times in America were changing and in 1964 when the Civil Rights Act was passed, airlines were forced to rethink their ‘no male’ policies once again. The act, primarily a race bill, also encompassed women’s rights and forbade work related discrimination on hiring and firing, based on race, religion, national origin and sex. One man who had watched closely the outcome of the Act was Celio Diaz. Diaz had applied to Pan American previously, but as the airline still up held its women-only policy his application was rejected. When Diaz applied again in 1967, bolstered by the outcome of the new laws, he was confident he would be more successful. Rejected for a second time he took the airline to court. Pan Am’s defence highlighted the homophobia which remained in the industry, relying solely on the prejudices against gay and effeminate men to make their case. When the hearing eventually reached the court of appeal, the airlines discriminatory policy was outed, as the judge concluded that the role of a flight attendant was to transport passengers and not reassure their masculinity. However, by the time the case was resolved in 1971 and with the age limit for crew still in force, Diaz was now too old to apply. His dream of travelling the world was not to be. Although Diaz himself was not gay, his success in court opened the doors for other male crew, both gay and straight, to apply and his legacy allowed many men to fulfil their dreams and take to the skies.
As the aviation industry entered the 1970’s, airlines around the world began to hire more and more men. As the decade progressed, this new gender balance meant that the sexual image of the stewardess had to be played down, highlighted by the return of more conservative cabin crew uniforms. By the late 1970s and early 80s however, a much bigger and more tragic crisis faced the gay community, both in the skies and on the ground.
The Aids/HIV epidemic of the 1980s was an unimaginably difficult time for gay men, especially those within the airline industry. Little was known about the disease, other than it’s seemingly indiscriminate targeting of gay males. As there was such a large number of homosexual men in the aviation industry, it came as no surprise that many of those who lost their lives were crew.
Just as attitudes were changing towards male flight attendants and battles were slowly being won for equality, the disease came along and set back narrow-minded opinions by years. Some airlines decided to ground crew who had been diagnosed and in one case, a crew member who they merely suspected. Passengers and even fellow cabin crew, became wary of travelling and working in the confined spaces found onboard aircraft with those who could be unwell; an attitude brought on by fear, poor education and lack of knowledge.
This situation was only made worse by the publication in 1987 of the book ‘And The Band Played On’ by Randy Shilts and the portrayal of Air Canada steward, Gaëtan Dugas as ‘Patient Zero’, the man wrongly accused of bringing the epidemic to America. With so much attention focused on Dugas, the male flight attendant was now implicated in the social and political battles over Aids/HIV.
These prejudices and fear tactics were not just confined to America. In the UK, Dan Air later admitted that they too had stopped hiring male flight attendants in late 1985. This was due, they stated, to the fact that “a large proportion of men who are attracted to cabin staff are homosexual” and “as cabin staff are sexually permissive”, there would be a much greater risk of their cabin crew contracting Aids and passing it on to coworkers and fellow passengers. Their decision was over-ruled by the equal opportunities commission in October 1986 and once again men were subsequently hired by the airline.
A former British Airways crew member told me of various homophobic incidents that occurred during the late 1980’s. Incidents such as pilots who would refuse to be served by the gay stewards and a group of straight cabin crew based in Gatwick who formed an ‘anti-gay club’ to try to out their gay colleagues.
But with time, came research and with research came a greater understanding of the illness. Slowly, as the world entered the 1990’s, attitudes changed and once again male flight attendants were becoming accepted by the travelling public and their colleagues.
One airline in particular was keen to become the USA’s first ‘Gay-friendly’ carrier, after becoming embroiled in a homophobic incident a few years earlier. The American Airlines flight crew had requested new pillows and blankets during a layover at Dallas, on a flight from Washington to California, after a number of gay passengers had been onboard the internal flight. The message, sent by the pilots, eventually leaked to the press causing an uproar among the gay community. Fearing a backlash, and as so many gay people were known to work for the company, American went on to educate its employees and become the first US airline to commit to nondiscrimination of its staff and passengers. The carrier also later teamed up with LGBT organisations such as Stonewall, paving the way for other carriers such as easyJet and British Airways to follow suit and today regularly sponsor and enter their own floats in Gay-Pride events around the world.
Today, American Airlines is still at the forefront of campaigning for LGBT rights.
So where are we today in terms of homophobia and equality within the industry? Thanks to the early court battles won by the likes of Celio Diaz, airlines are unable to discriminate in terms of sexuality, race or religion. Many people still see the job of a flight attendant as ‘glamorous’ and it is no surprise that many gay men still want to be cabin crew. But more and more straight men also now apply for the role. Indeed, whereas in the 1980s and 1990s around 50 to 90 per cent of all male cabin crew were gay, today it is much more of a 50/50 split.
Attitudes towards the gay community have also rapidly moved on since the early days of flying, both socially and politically. In the 1950’s who would have ever imagined that being gay would be made legal, let alone two men being able to marry?
Unfortunately, homophobia does still exist and with the airline industry having such a large gay community, it is no surprise that it still remains prevalent in the confines of an aircraft.
I recently spoke to some airline colleagues and asked if they had experienced any homophobia during their time in aviation. Many said they had never suffered or witnessed any abuse. Others shocked me with tales of both physical and verbal attacks. By simply typing in the words homophobia and flight attendant into an internet search engine, I was stunned by the number of widely reported cases even today, of homophobia in the aviation industry.
Passengers are often the worse. One comment I overheard was from an older couple who said as they boarded the aircraft, “My goodness, there’s a woman flying the plane and a male stewardess serving the drinks, what ever next?”. Often, when you get a group of young lads onboard there will be some derogatory comments aimed at the male crew. Even my straight colleagues have told me of times where a homophobic comment has been made towards them, further highlighting how all male crew are often tarred with the same brush.
Although, it’s not always the groups of lads or the seemingly un-educated. I once had, what appeared to be, a rather well-to-do lady travelling with her husband and two children who, when I asked her to stow her luggage in the overhead locker told me to “fuck off”, as she would not be taking orders from a “fucking queer”. She was subsequently offloaded from the flight, taking her very embarrassed husband and unsuspecting children with her.
Sometimes, the homophobic attacks can be so severe that the passengers involved end up in court and these incidents are widely reported in the press. In 2009 a flight from Manchester to the Dominican Republic had to divert to Bermuda after three passengers became drunk and traded homophobic abuse with the male cabin crew. One was later charged by British police, while a second man involved was deported back to the UK.
In 2012, Merseyside man John Hawkins 32, was jailed for eight months after his homophobic tirade on a Thomas Cook flight from Manchester to the Canary Islands. Later that year, Thomas Delaney, 40, was sentenced to a 12 months community order and 200 hours of unpaid work after he made numerous homophobic slurs towards two male easyJet cabin crew on a flight to Alicante. And this is just in the UK alone.
And what about our airline colleagues? I was shocked to hear the number of homophobic incidents from fellow cabin crew and pilots. Many crew, from various airlines around the world, told me of captains and first officers who made it very clear that they do not like gay crew. Stories emerged from night stops, including one incident where the gay crew were excluded from invites to dinner and a room party. One flight attendant on the trip told me, “There were three gay lads in the crew and the captain had made it clear from the briefing that he wanted noting to do with us. During a routine visit to the flight deck to check on them, one of my colleagues overheard the captain call him a “fucking puff” as he left and the first officer started to laugh. When he reported this to the purser she just laughed and said that it was just how this captain was. When we arrived at the crew hotel the female crew were invited to join the flight crew for dinner, the invite was not extended to us boys and when we did go down we had to sit away from our own colleagues”.
Another reported homophobic incident occurred when a crew member brought his boyfriend along one of his trips. The captain went on to report the young flight attendant to management as he stated that they had acted “inappropriately and had shamed the company”, all because the couple had shared a kiss and hug with their fellow crew as they left after breakfast.
In 2011, an audio recording from a Southwest Airlines captain was leaked to the press and made headlines around the world. The homophobic rant about his cabin crew colleagues was accidentally broadcast over an air traffic control channel and was heard by various other aircraft. The pilot, who was immediately suspended by the airline, was heard telling the first officer that flight attendants for the airline are just a “continuous stream of gays and grannies and grandes. Eleven (expletive) over-the-top (expletive) (expletive) (expletive) homosexuals and a granny”. The pilot was later re-instated after completing a diversity course.
What also saddened me during my research, was the number of homosexual First Officers who spoke of their fear of being openly gay, for fear of a back-lash from their flight deck colleagues. Numerous First Officers told me they believed if they were openly gay onboard, they would be treated differently by many of the captains they have to fly with.
Of course, there’s also the flip side to the homophobia and stereotyping of male crew. Many of the straight cabin crew I interviewed told me of occasions where their fellow crew have uttered the words “Oh, I just assumed you were gay”. This just further highlights the stereotype, when even (some of) our own colleagues believe this image.
Airlines themselves can also be in the firing line for homophobic slurs towards their passengers. Southwest Airlines was involved in another incident in 2011, after actress Leisha Hailey was offloaded by the cabin crew for kissing her girlfriend, apparently upsetting the passengers around them. British Airways had a similar situation, after a gay couple travelling to London from Cape Town were reprimanded by the crew for kissing each other good morning. And in 2014 BA made the headlines once again, when a passenger was threatened with offloading by the cabin crew after he was asked to stop holding hands with the man he was sat next to.
Worryingly, there’s also the darker side to homophobia within the industry. For some, the physical and emotional bullying became so severe that they left their careers in aviation completely. One crew member told me how his ‘straight’ colleagues once joked of how they were going to use him “like a pig on a spit” when they arrived at their lay-over destination, as he was the only gay guy amongst an all male crew. Once there, a number of these men tried to initiate sex with him. When he refused, some became violent and threatened him. Thankfully he returned to base unharmed and later went on to report the crew who were subsequently fired. But stories of rape and sexual assaults have emerged over the years, especially during the early days of flying, when crew were forced to share rooms with their flight attendant colleagues. Sadly, most of these incidents went unreported for fear of their own reprisals, as homosexuality was still illegal.
Even today, the image remains that most male cabin crew are gay and that this has always been the norm. This is often portrayed in the media, with overtly camp and larger than life male crew appearing in films and TV shows. Who could forget Irish steward ‘Ferghal’ played by Matt Lucas in Come Fly with Me’; or ‘Sebastian Flight’ played by Alan Cumming from the hit BBC show ‘The High Life’.
What many people today fail to realise, is that there have been numerous battles for equality and against homophobia over the years; battles that so many of our former male cabin crew, gay and straight have fought with governments, passengers, fellow crew and airline executives to make the industry such an accepting place for gay men.
I know so many homosexual trolley dollies, myself included, who started their careers in the closet. It was only working in an environment where being gay is so widely acceptable, that allowed us the freedom to finally come out. I’m sure people would struggle to believe that any airline ever strived to become “gay-friendly”, surely this was always the case? I hope from this article you can see that it was not.
And what about our ‘obviously gay flight attendant’? Well he’ll continue to mince up and down the aisles, screaming “tray up bitch” at anyone who dares disobey him.
“Tray up Bitch!”
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