Plane Queer: Labor, Sexuality, and AIDS in the History of Male Flight Attendants

Plane Queer: Labor, Sexuality, and AIDS in the History of Male Flight Attendants

by Paul Tiemeyer

Reviewed by Amanda Armstrong (a graduate student worker at UC Berkeley. She is a member of Academic Workers for a Democratic Union and is on the bargaining team for the UC Student-Workers Union – United Auto Workers Local 2865).

Is it possible to write a history of silences?

The moments of unspoken recognition that passed between gay male flight attendants in the 1950s, for instance. Or the euphemisms shared by airline managers, who seemed to want to reduce the number of gay men in the industry. Such things were not written down. But can they be unearthed today?

In his new book, Plane Queer: Labor, Sexuality, and AIDS in the History of Male Flight Attendants, Paul Tiemeyer collects stories about, generally, white men who worked—or tried to work—as flight attendants for U.S. airlines. Their stories are compelling, and tell us about aspects of the airline industry that haven’t yet been discussed in writing.

But because Tiemeyer mostly leaves their sister flight attendants outside the frame of his discussion, the book feels incomplete.

As Tiemeyer presents the story, …trends coincided in the mid-1950s with a period of particularly virulent homophobia, which brought about the near-total exclusion of men from new flight attendant positions.

He focuses particularly on the aftermath of the 1954 murder of Eastern Airlines flight attendant William Simpson. Upon landing in Miami, it seems Simpson was solicited for sex—by a man who, with an accomplice, robbed and fatally shot him.

The two men presented an argument in court that would later become known as the “gay panic defense”—that Simpson, by making a pass at them, provoked them to panic and kill him. They were ultimately acquitted of murder. Miami newspapers took the occasion to publish a series of phobic exposés on the local underground gay scene.

Read the full review here