How the Gay Airline Steward Became a Stereotype

Slate's Culture Blog
July 3 2013 1:46 PM

How the Gay Airline Steward Became a Stereotype

Carlos Areces, Raúl Arévalo, and Javier Cámara in I'm So Excited
Carlos Areces,Raúl Arévalo, andJavier Cámara inI'm So Excited

©Sony Pictures Classics 2013

Some commentary on Pedro Almodóvar’s new comedy I’m So Excited has noted that it reinforces gay stereotypes, particularly in the characters of its sassy male flight attendants, who are all gay. When did the gay steward become such a common stereotype?

Around World War II. When commercial flight first started, the job of the flight attendant was thought to be appropriate only for (presumably straight) men. As Phil Tiemeyer points out in his book Plane Queer: Labor, Sexuality, and AIDS in the History of Male Flight Attendants, a new book which proved an invaluable resource for this post, the first flight attendants, in the late 1920s and 1930s, were actually men, and were expected to be traditionally masculine. Since aviation had been associated primarily with war and engineering, it had been considered a man’s industry, and the cabin crew, too, was expected to fit that role. Because of this, early uniforms for crew and pilots were also often military-inspired, featuring stripes, pilot wings, and caps (some of these elements persist in uniforms today). The work was also often physically demanding, with the crew being asked to help haul luggage and row the passengers into shore from seaplanes. The first flight attendant for Pan Am was a man, Amaury Sanchez, and before the airline advertised stewardesses in miniskirts it advertised itself, in 1933, with “Rodney, the smiling steward.”

However, the responsibilities of the stewards in flight were often more stereotypically feminine—a steward might, for example, lend a hand in changing a diaper—and it was only a few years before it began to be seen as a woman’s job. The woman who broke down the cabin doors was Ellen Church, the first female flight attendant, who had been trained as a pilot but who only found work with Boeing Air Transport (the predecessor to United Airlines) as a stewardess. She was able to convince Boeing to hire her in part because she was also a registered nurse, and soon other airlines also saw nurses as ideal candidates, as long as they were also young, unmarried, and in possession of a dainty figure. The size requirements were enforced in part because of the cost of carrying extra pounds—small women therefore offered a financial advantage—but these attributes also meant that these women’s sex appeal could be used to market the airlines. Soon hem lines on uniforms began rising, even as wages for flight attendants went down. By 1936, when Eastern Air Lines announced that it was rolling out a male-only flight attendant corps, perception of the job had changed enough that the Washington Post derided the workers as “male hostesses.” As World War II called up many stewards for service in the military and Air Force, the job was further solidified in the cultural imagination as “women’s work,” and many airlines reluctantly began to hire women for the first time.

Some stewards were hired back after returning from World War II—often out of a sense of loyalty or patriotic duty—but because they performed what was considered “women’s work,” they were thought to be effeminate and were therefore suspected of being homosexual, according to the biases of the time. This perception was further reinforced when the killing of a gay male flight attendant in a “lover’s lane” in Miami brought the stereotype into the headlines of sensational stories in the Miami Daily News. In the macho, homophobic years of the 1950s, this provoked a crackdown on the city’s underground gay community, and stories like these were seen as evidence that gay people were “perverts.” Many airlines (some of which trained their stewards in Miami) in turn quietly did away with hiring stewards, both gay and straight. What followed was a decade in which nearly all flight attendants were women. By 1966, only 4 percent of flight attendants were men.

Ironically, it was also from Miami that male flight attendants eventually returned to the skies. When truck driver Carlos Diaz, a heterosexual Miami man who was married with children, dreamed of being a flight attendant—his uncle had been one before World War II—his application was denied by Pan Am. So he brought a lawsuit, and succeeded in using the 1964 Civil Rights Act to pressure air lines into hiring more men, starting in 1971. Ever since, men have generally comprised about 15 percent of flight attendants, depending on the airline, and a high percentage of the men returning to the ranks of the flight attendant corps in the 1970s were gay. (One of these men was Gaëtan Dugas, the so-called "Patient Zero" who was demonized in the press for allegedly helping to spread AIDS, though this narrative has since drawn criticism from historians.)

For gay men, there were many reasons to become a flight attendant—it wasn’t just the willingness of many to do stereotypically feminine work. For one, working for the airlines provided a welcoming community. As Tiemeyer writes, “the aisles and galleys of airplanes, as well as crew hotels and crash pads, served the same role that other gays 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.” Others liked the slim uniforms, which helped them feel empowered. As one former flight attendant told Tiemeyer:

We wore the cutest outfits! We had Adolfo outfits, our luggage matched, and we even had umbrellas, and we all looked fabulous. … I used to put my uniform on, and I felt really handsome. And I’d walk through terminals, and I knew if there were gay men, they’d be looking at me. It enhanced you; it gave you self-confidence.
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As the decades went on, the job also offered a greater measure of equality than was available in many other industries, as the strong community of LGBT men and women was able to fight for less discrimination and better benefits. Soon flight attendants’ flight privileges, which included cheaper rates or free flights for spouses, were also extended to domestic partners. By 2001, health insurance coverage was extended to domestic partners by most all airlines in the United States.

So how many flight attendants were and are gay? There are no official numbers. But many former crewmembers from various decades, interviewed by Tiemeyer, were willing to offer estimates. They estimated that “between 30 and 50 percent of male flight attendants were gay in the 1950s, and between 50 and 90 percent in the 1970s.” These days, the numbers seem to be a bit lower. According to Tiemeyer, “speculation … tends closer to 50 percent, with lesbian and transgendered colleagues being a small but more prevalent contingent than ever before.”

Forrest Wickman is a Slate staff writer.