“Queer Career: Sexuality and Work in Modern America” by Margot Canaday

c. 2023, Princeton University Press


312 pages

In a part of Margot Canaday’s new book, she describes the “refuge aspect of the queer work world” – one where LGBTQ people found jobs that allowed them a certain freedom of expression in the 1950s, 60s and early 70s. 

Queer Career: Sexuality and Work in Modern America takes a historical look at the workplaces that were traditionally viewed as “straight spaces,” how queer people passed sometimes secretly, sometimes not and at the places where others found work.

The book goes further than previous LGBTQ history pieces with an expansive look at sexual minorities in the American workforce. According to a press release, Canaday argues that queer workers were more visible than hidden and, against the backdrop of state aggression, vulnerable to employer exploitation. She positions employment and fear of job loss as central to gay life in postwar America. 

CREDIT: Margot Canaday, Princeton University Press

“Outside of the government, the relationship between employers and gay workers is more accurately characterized not as a witch hunt, however, but rather as a bargain in which employers tried not to see homosexuality among employees, and those employees tried not to be seen.

“The lack of formal legal protection made LGBTQ people vulnerable in occupational settings, but many who could blend in survived by adhering to this agreement, which mostly required discretion rather than an elaborate performance of straightness. 

“Not looking too closely also enabled employers to benefit from the assets queer employees brought to their jobs.”

Gay liberation and AIDS began to change these norms. Employees became less willing, or able, to remain invisible. Gay and lesbian professional caucuses formed around the same time and started organizing for protections, reaching into the corporate sector but with a continued discretion. 

According to the book, “The National Association of Business Councils, an umbrella organization of gay business groups, voted not to include the word ‘gay’ in its name because ‘many of our members are not out of the closet and would feel more at ease’ if joining did not entail disclosure.” 

It wasn’t until the creation of the National Gay Task Force in the mid-1970s, that organizations started to put real pressure on big business through a survey it conducted of the hiring policies of Fortune 500 companies. 

Canaday examines AT&T’s 1975 antidiscrimination policy, one of the earliest formal policies banning discrimination against gay and lesbians by a major corporation. Its origin is somewhat “murky” and was issued by a fairly conservative CEO. Many of the company’s employees didn’t even know it existed. Among other first-person accounts, Canaday includes the story of Bell Labs employees in the company’s research department and how they used early computer systems to find one another, initiating informal gay groups across the country. 

Queer Career shows how LGBTQ history helps us understand the recent history of capitalism and labor. Canaday provides personal stories of LGBTQ workers and thorough research, rewrites our understanding of the queer past. 

According to the release, “while progress was not linear, by century’s end some gay workers rejected their former discretion and some employers eventually offered them protection unattained through law. Pushed by activists at the corporate grass roots, business emerged at the forefront of employment rights for sexual minorities. It did so, at least in part, in response to the way that queer workers aligned with, and even prefigured, the labor system of late capitalism.”

Library Journal calls it a “fascinating and thought-provoking look into the relationship between sexual orientation and employment.”

 “This beautifully written, deeply sophisticated, and pathbreaking book unearths an entirely new body of evidence that captures the workplace experiences of a generation of gay and lesbian Americans whose stories have never been told,” said Serena Mayeri, author of “Reasoning from Race: Feminism, Law, and the Civil Rights Revolution. 

Queer Career: Sexuality and Work in Modern America is available this week at most online booksellers. Canaday is a professor of history at Princeton University and previously wrote The Straight State: Sexuality and Citizenship in Twentieth-Century America. 

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