It is a bit of a miracle that I was there at all. It was an accident that almost didn’t happen, a detour that I didn’t mean to take.
I was there only because I said yes, I would love to come and tell stories in a small town in Northern Ontario. What I meant to say was no, I do not want to take a five-hour flight followed by a six-hour bus ride to do a one-hour gig.
I have never excelled at the fine art of saying no, though, so instead I asked for too much money and hoped someone in Ontario would just say no for me. My bluff was called, and I was forced to say yes, because of the money.
Yes, I would be happy to go to Port Elgin, Ontario, and entertain 200 gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgendered members of the Canadian Auto Workers Union during their annual Pride in the workplace conference. I would fly home from Calgary on a Thursday afternoon and take a plane to Toronto first thing Friday morning. Port Elgin was too far, and I was tired of the road.
I should have stayed home and mowed the lawn. I had a week of e-mail to answer, and a garden full of weeds to pull. I missed my dogs. I almost didn’t go.
If I were even marginally better at saying no, I would have missed the whole thing.
If I had been invited by a group of overzealous academics from the women’s studies department, or a subversive high school drama teacher, or even an earnest collective of liberal librarians, I would have stayed home, done my laundry and made a giant pot of chili.
But I was curious. I had never met a queer autoworker before. Fags who built Fords. Transsexuals who assembled transmissions. Were they built tougher than big city gay waiters? Were they harder than hairdressers, more calloused than a carpenter dyke’s hammer hand? Could they get me a discount on a Ford Focus station wagon?
Did they get a union job on the assembly line right out of high school just like their dad and older brother did? Did they dream of this job, or did they drop out of college and into dark blue coveralls?
Do they ever lay awake in bed at night and wonder how many more brand new Trans Ams the future world will actually need? Do they sometimes wish they owned a Toyota or one of those hybrid things the yuppies like to feel good about driving, not for looks or reliability, but because of the price of gas these days?
The GLBT members of the CAW were there to organize, to strategize and fight for the right to work alongside their straight union brothers and sisters without fear or harassment. Together they imagined a workplace where they don’t have to lie or leave out parts of their lives when the guy they work beside asks what they got up to over the long weekend.
They dreamed of a day when the truth wouldn’t cost them a promotion and they could walk all the way across the parking lot alone without needing to look over their shoulder to see if anyone was following too close behind—even after a graveyard shift, they could feel safe.
They were there to fight for all of these things, and I was there to entertain them. I wore my steelworkers T-shirt to show some solidarity, but one of the organizers took me aside and told me to change because auto workers and steelworkers had been in a longstanding feud over fundamental beliefs which were too complicated to get into, and it was a sore spot that I would be better off not bringing attention to.
I made a musclebound leather daddy, who was the shop steward in a muffler factory, cry like a baby when I told the one about my nephew the crossdresser. I sold a book to a man who leaned across the table tell me in a low whisper that he couldn’t read, and that his boyfriend had promised to read my stories aloud to him in bed before they fall asleep at night.
I met a 60-year-old woman who had worked on an assembly line since just after her 16th birthday, who had just been forced into early retirement by a 28-year-old manager with a master’s degree in squeezing blood from stones.
When I asked her what she was going to do next she pretended she hadn’t heard my question. She whipped out her Gold Visa card and ordered another round of tequila shooters for everyone at the table.
I watched a painfully shy transwoman, who slumped her shoulders forward in an attempt to shrink some of her six-foot frame into the smaller body she seemed to wish she lived inside instead. She slouched quietly alone at a table in the corner of the bar. She mouthed silent words to the tinny karaoke songs, and sipped ginger ale through a thin pink straw.
The leather daddy finished off his beer, strutted across the room and asked her to dance with him. When she looked up at him I saw the lines that mapped her forehead and framed her lipsticked mouth stretch and bend and finally explode into a beautiful grin that revealed a face that seemed suddenly 30 years younger, when her life was simpler and less lonely.
“How could I say no to you?” She purred, and covered her mouth with one palm.
I watched the two of them slow dance to “Stand By Your Man” by Tammy Wynette, and it was such a beautiful sight, him in his GWG’s and her with a run up the back of one leg of her nylons, that I had to just thank God that somehow I ended up being there to see it.