Published: June 1, 2007 By

[1] To find work as a flight attendant in the 1960s took more than affability, patience, good looks and an openness to travel. While all these traits were certainly essential, there were also more pernicious criteria that made this field rife with discrimination. African Americans were only reluctantly hired at the time, thanks to the work of the NAACP and the New York State Commission on Human Rights in the late 1950s. Beyond race, the women who took these jobs were subjected to all sorts of unfair treatment as well. Most airlines refused to hire married women and forced stewardesses to resign if they chose to marry while working. Even those stewardesses fortunate enough to keep their jobs while married risked termination upon pregnancy. Finally, many airlines also forced their female flight attendants to retire at the age of 32 or 35. As a result, women remained as flight attendants only two-and-a-half years on average, with up to 80% of the flight attendant corps at certain airlines resigning or being dismissed in any given year. (Barry 366) All of this discrimination was calculated by the airlines to make the flight attendant synonymous with female sex appeal. This orchestrated regime of hiring and firing engineered a reality that was meant to seem organic and natural to airline customers. One airline industry representative testified in 1967 to what they hoped was now commonly accepted: “Anyone who has ever been on an airplane and anyone who has ever seen an airplane knows that this is a girl’s job…a young and pretty girl’s job.” (EEOC “Transcript” 202)

[2] This essay considers yet another aspect of the very same discriminatory practices that made the sexy stewardess the normative model of service in the air: the homophobic campaign on the part of airlines, in tandem with the media, to keep men out of the job. Stewards had actually been on the job since the very beginning of commercial air travel in the late 1920s, with airlines such as Eastern and Pan American choosing to hire only men up until the labor shortages of World War II. Yet, the more the airlines tied their fortunes to the sex appeal of their stewardesses, the more out of place these men became. The gender segregation established in 1950s America—the same one that forced Rosie the Riveter back home to her husband and kids—increasingly deemed the steward incapable of providing the doting emotional and service-oriented (i.e., womanly) work required aboard a plane.

[3] Meanwhile, the steward encountered ever more homophobic ridicule, labeled as a man potentially interested sexually in other men. This notion was only solidified when an Eastern Airlines steward, William Simpson, was gunned down by two male prostitutes in a hookup-turned-robbery on Miami’s Lovers Lane in early August 1954. When 19-year-old Charles Lawrence confessed to Simpson’s murder and implicated his accomplice, Richard Killen, in the plot, he also began a homophobic witch hunt in the city by attributing blame for the incident on Simpson, who “made advances and offered me money, and tried to assault me.” (Collier) Well documented is the fact that the Simpson scandal escalated the homophobic pitch in the city to new heights. The local press called for greater vigilance against the corrupting influence of “sex deviates” (by which they meant Simpson, not his teenage murderers), while the police and politicians orchestrated a months-long sting operation designed to close gay bars and clean up gay beaches. (Fejes) Less known is the impact the Simpson murder had on the flight attendant corps. Quietly, and beyond the scrutinizing eye of the media, Eastern Airlines cut back on its hiring of stewards as a result of the negative publicity, reducing new male hires to a trickle that completely stopped in 1958. Simpson’s murder and his subsequent vilification in the Miami press thereby represented the death knell of the male flight attendant, as the other main source of jobs for stewards, Pan Am, stopped hiring men at virtually the same time.

[4] Thus, the painstaking process of ending discrimination in the flight attendant corps faced three intimidating obstacles by the 1960s: racism, sexism, and homophobia. With the help particularly of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, whose Title VII bars employers from discriminating on the basis of race, religion, national origin, or sex, all of these obstacles were overcome to some extent. The flight attendant corps of today, as it was by the 1970s, is both white and black, female and male, straight and gay. And yet, this three-pronged fight against discrimination was by no means fought with equal attention or equal resources devoted to the individual sources of injustice. In fact, by observing the machinations behind this battle against discrimination, it is clear how awkward the position of male applicants was in comparison with both white women and African American women. Indeed, even though the aspiring male flight attendant would win his day in court and be allowed to return to the flight attendant corps in 1971, he never enjoyed the support of a vested and politically influential interest group—whether the lawmakers who crafted the 1964 Civil Rights Act, the commissioners at the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission and the federal judges who ultimately interpreted the Act in favor of men, or flight attendant labor unions. Each of these actors, to a greater or lesser extent, considered men entering the flight attendant corps a queer miscarriage of Title VII’s intent. At each step of the legal and judicial process, the obviousness of the claim that women made better flight attendants went virtually unchallenged, and the concept of a “male stewardess” was raised as nothing short of a bizarre absurdity, with potentially scandalous consequences. The male flight attendant’s status as queer—both a gender pariah and a potential homosexual—made the aspiring male flight attendant a virtual persona non grata, even in victory.

Persona non grata as Plaintiff

[5] The straight history, if you will, of the male flight attendant’s return to work can be told in a linear, clear-cut way, by referring to the legislative and judicial history of Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act. This history comprises not only the legislation itself, but also litigation that began before the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission in 1965 and ended with a US Court of Appeals decision in 1971. When the EEOC finally ruled in September 1967 that the airlines could no longer hire exclusively women as flight attendants, the issue entered the federal court system. The decisive court case was Diaz v. Pan Am, in which a family man of Cuban heritage, Celio Diaz, Jr., sued Pan American Airways for the right to be hired as a flight attendant. While Diaz himself never was hired by Pan Am, the case that bears his name compelled every airline in the US to change their hiring policies in 1971 and begin hiring men for the job.

[6] Yet, this quick historical account fails to highlight the gender trouble caused by the question of whether men should be allowed into this career. Demonstrating just how de-naturalizing this question was in the late 1960s, executives at one airline, in the heat of the legal battle before the EEOC, actually noted that the question of whether men were capable of the flight attendant job, “presented a difficulty to answer because it requires a review and explanation of something that to the air transport industry is so obvious as to not require an answer.” (“Sex as a BFOQ” 70) The obviousness, of course, was that this work could only be done by young and pretty women. Even one of the main flight attendant unions, the Steward and Stewardess Division of the Air Line Pilots Association, which was one of the driving forces behind the cases before the EEOC and was very invested in the Diaz v. Pan Am decision, would maintain in private correspondence that they, “did not advocate or come out in favor of male stewardesses.” (Ruby)

[7] Indeed, the legal process leading to the hearings before the EEOC and ultimately to the Diaz v. Pan Amcourt case was not originally pursued by men who felt aggrieved by the airlines’ refusal to hire them, but rather by women. Some men did in fact seek work as flight attendants and were denied employment based on their sex; yet, they were relatively few in number and still had not succeeded by 1967 in cajoling the EEOC, the federal court system, or state regulatory agencies to rule on their exclusion from the job. The number of men who were actively seeking out such work is very difficult to attain, but it is reasonable to expect from an extrapolation of numbers in subsequent court documents, that Pan Am alone received around 150 written applications a year from men. Of course, the number of female applications would have well surpassed this number, potentially being even 100 times greater.

[8] Some of these men also started legal proceedings against the airlines when their applications were rejected. A lawyer for the EEOC admitted in later court testimony that, “The EEOC had an opportunity [to seek redress for men], at least as early as 1966, when there were several charges that were filed against Pan Am on this very issue.” (Gitt 16-17) Similar cases appeared before the New York State Commission on Human Rights in the same year. Yet, by the time the EEOC actually convoked hearings on the issue of sex discrimination in the flight attendant corps in September 1967, they claimed to have only four complaints from men against all the airlines combined, whereas complaints by women (especially current flight attendants) numbered over one hundred. (“Coffee, Tea, or Milk” 15) Thus, until Mr. Diaz finally filed charges in the federal court system in 1969, the legal proceedings that moved towards a victory for male flight attendants had not yet gelled behind a case that proceeded to trial. Instead, the real impetus for forcing the airlines to hire men arose from the grievances pressed by female flight attendants reeling from the marriage and age restrictions that kept them poorly paid and only briefly tenured.

[9] The problem for the flight attendant unions was that there was no obvious legal basis for ending discrimination based on marriage or age, which was their main grievance against the airlines. Of course, it was clear that these restrictions were sexist, hindering the earning potential and livelihoods of women, and only women. After all, none of the all-male pilot corps were fired for marrying or reaching their mid-30s, and even the men still serving as flight attendants (their numbers were reduced to just four percent of the total by 1967, since virtually no airline was hiring them) were free from such onerous restrictions. Yet, the courts and the EEOC fixated on the fact that these women were being fired because of an additional trait—marriage, pregnancy, or middle age—beyond just their sex. (Barry 481) According to this literalistic logic, these women were not discriminated against because of their sex, and thus could not appeal directly to the protection of Title VII. It would have been more helpful for the flight attendants’ cause if additional legislation from Congress specified that discrimination based on these additional criteria of age and marriage was illegal, but this did not happen. The courts would ultimately have to interpret Title VII to protect married women, a move which still was a few years away. Meanwhile, even when the Age Discrimination in Employment Act was passed in 1967, it outlawed discrimination against only those workers aged 40-65; stewardesses subject to the absurdly low age caps of 32 or 35 were completely overlooked by this legislation.

[10] It was an EEOC decision from September 1965 that began the labyrinthine path towards forcing these women’s interests into embracing (however half-heartedly) the cause of male flight attendants. The decision stated that, “an employer’s rule which forbids or restricts the employment of married women and which is not applicable to married men is a discrimination based upon sex prohibited by Title VII of the Civil Rights Act.” (“Sex as a BFOQ” 72) Of course, the labor unions representing flight attendants were delighted by this pronouncement, as it gave them a very solid legal basis for arguing that discrimination based on marriage should be ended, especially since stewards and pilots were free to marry. However, just 12 days after publishing this marriage guideline, the EEOC gave the unions some unwelcome news. In response to a direct query from the airlines as to whether this guideline from the EEOC affected their treatment of stewardesses, the EEOC General Counsel replied:

Subject to a further interpretation of Title VII by the Commission, it would be my opinion that the rule announced by Chairman Roosevelt would not apply to airline stewardesses…If an airline may give preference to females only as stewardesses, i.e., if sex is a bona fide occupational qualification for the job of airline stewardesses, it would follow that an airline company could impose further qualifications with respect to such jobs and require that the employee be single and under a certain age. These additional qualifications would be consistent with the original qualification that the employee be a woman. (Barry 451)

[11] The EEOC thereby offered to the airline industry an opportunity to use a legal loophole contained within Title VII of the Civil Rights Act itself. The “bona fide occupation qualification” (BFOQ) allowed employers to continue hiring only persons of one sex, but only in those cases where this exclusionary hiring was “reasonably necessary to the normal operation” of any particular business. (Title VII) A strict interpretation of the BFOQ would allow employers to hire exclusively one sex in very limited cases, as a theater troupe filling a female or a male role. A more expansive application of the BFOQ, however, would have allowed individual companies, such as the airlines, to determine when one sex alone was needed for their “normal operation.” Thus, in a follow-up letter to the EEOC, dated March 25, 1966, Northwest Airlines—later joined by the Air Transport Association of America (ATA), the umbrella advocacy group for all commercial airlines—officially requested a written interpretation, accompanied by hearings, on the question of whether “sex is a bona fide occupational qualification for the position of airline stewardess.” (EEOC “Decisions” 4012) From this point onwards, the issues of utmost concern to stewardesses would depend on proving that men could do their job just as well, despite the widespread reticence to see men in this line of work.

Convoluted Path to Justice

[12] Taking a step back in time from the EEOC deliberations of September 1967, it is clear that the confusion arising out of the BFOQ clause of Title VII was a purposeful ambiguity, left there by lawmakers fiercely divided on the wisdom of including sex as a part of the 1964 Civil Rights Act. Likewise, the proceedings in Congress also foreshadow the very awkward manner in which men would subsequently be considered in sex discrimination cases. The gender trouble lurking behind Title VII began at the very moment that the 1964 Civil Rights Act was being legislated.

[13] Even though the Act in its final form prevented employers from discriminating on the basis of sex, it was not originally intended to do so. In the aftermath of the Kennedy assassination, a race-based civil rights bill—after years of fruitless attempts—finally made its way to the floor of the House of Representatives. Yet, it did so without any consideration of sex at all. Finally, in a last-minute attempt to kill the controversial race bill, a Southern Congressman and powerful Chairman of the House Rules Committee, Howard Smith, proposed adding sex to the bill. Smith’s motion took place two days before the bill’s passage and was discussed for all of one hour. The corresponding vote on the sex amendment found support among some Republicans who were sympathetic to women’s rights issues, but its margin of victory was provided by Southern Democrats, who were virtually unanimous in their opposition to the Civil Rights Bill. The Southerners’ embrace of the sex clause was clearly a ruse designed to water down support for the bill among Northern representatives, in the hopes that enough of them would now vote against the final version of the bill to kill it altogether. Smith’s maneuverings were, however, unsuccessful in the end, as the Civil Rights Act passed both the House and the Senate with the sex provision in tact.

[14] The BFOQ exemption for sex was key to the controversial bill’s passage, as it helped to assure uneasy Congressmen—and the American public at large—that Title VII would not spell the collapse of separate spheres for men and women in the workplace. Representatives in Congress could vote for this bill while still reassuring their constituents that customary distinctions between the sexes would be maintained. Thus, even strong supporters of the sex addendum to Title VII sought to minimize its potential overall impact on society, promoting the BFOQ as a safety valve against unwanted gender transgression. Republican Representative Charles Goodell of New York, the crafter of the BFOQ provision, added this reassuring comment to the House floor debate:

There are so many instances where the matter of sex is a bona fide occupational qualification. For instance, I think of an elderly woman who wants a female nurse. There are many things of this nature which are bona fide occupational qualifications, and it seems to me they would be properly considered here as an exception. (Congressional Record 2577)

Goodell’s comment aptly illustrates several key features of dominant thinking regarding Title VII upon its passage: first, it stresses a potentially expansive reading of the BFOQ for sex (“there are so many instances…”), and second, it subtly raises the specter of absurd gender anomalies. After all, lurking in the background of this reassuring comment by the Congressman is a rather ominous figure: the male nurse, who might seek to serve, comfort, even per necessity touch the woman, all in the name of the 1964 Civil Rights Act. Goodell’s comment attempted to make it clear that Congress was not intending, nor would it allow, such unwelcome forays across the gender divide as embodied in the male nurse.

[15] While using the specter of a male nurse to both alarm and assuage critics of Title VII, Goodell, in his comments, also opened up a slippery slope for future arbiters of sex discrimination, as he very clearly implied that customer preference should be considered as a basis for hiring only men or only women. Yet, for flight attendants, as for nurses, public opinion was quite clear: these jobs were regarded as the proper domain only of women. Goodell’s remarks and the legislative compromise of the BFOQ thereby exposed a large interpretive hole that future EEOC deliberations and court decisions would have to clarify: should the BFOQ be interpreted narrowly or broadly, and what role should public preference play in designating a job as appropriate only to one sex?

[16] Before the “male stewardess” had his hearing before the EEOC, there was plenty of reason to believe that the Commission would be an equally suspicious audience for issues of gender-nonconformity. Feminist activist Ruth Rosen, in her book The World Split Open, noted that the first executive director of the EEOC, Herman Edelsberg, considered Title VII, “a fluke…conceived out of wedlock.” His lurid metaphor could not better demonstrate the Commission’s intention to interpret Title VII in ways consistent with the heterosexist normativities of the day: no gender-bending, no unclaimed women, no sexually perverse men. Institutions like paying men a “family wage” while paying women significantly less and keeping strong divides between “men’s work” and “women’s work” would be maintained in the EEOC’s early years. In defending the EEOC’s reticence on sex discrimination, Edelsberg again utilized Congressman Goodell’s tactic of employing the male gender transgressor as an object of hysteria: “There are people on this commission who think that no man should be required to have a male secretary and I am one of them.” (Rosen 72)

[17] Of course, this invocation of the queer male was in practice designed to inhibit progress for women in the workplace. As a member of the EEOC general counsel’s office, Sonia Pressman Fuentes, recalls, “If you’re saying that people think the EEOC did the same thing for women as it did for blacks, let me tell you, it took letters, it took picketing, it took lawsuits to get the commission to move in the area of women’s rights.” (Danovitch) Indeed, the founding of the National Organization for Women in 1966 arose directly out of the EEOC’s failure to enforce Title VII regarding sex, which Betty Friedan and about 60 other women (including Fuentes and EEOC commissioner Aileen Hernandez) refused to tolerate. These women and sympathetic men would be the ones to write the letters, picket, and pursue legal action, making the young EEOC an epicenter for NOW’s activities early on.

[18] Not surprisingly, then, the EEOC delayed action on grievances that arose from flight attendants in the mid-to-late 1960s. The EEOC opened its doors in July 1965, right when stewardesses at certain airlines, especially American and United Airlines, were embroiled in crisis. These airlines were arguably the most aggressive offenders of age and marriage discrimination, since several airlines never had such prohibitions, while others were gradually revising these policies in the mid-1960s in the face of union opposition. Stewardesses at American and United, however, felt doubly pressed. The age restrictions imposed on stewardesses at American actually dated only from the mid-1950s and were just starting to force women out of work for the first time in the early 1960s. By 1965, this small trickle of forcibly retired stewardesses was becoming more constant; more and more women were voicing frustration to their union and demanding redress from the EEOC. United, meanwhile, in a particularly pernicious move, actually instilled a new age restriction of 32 on their stewardesses in 1966, right when other airlines were dismantling their own policies.

[19] At the same time, the long-held corporate policy at American Airlines of firing stewardesses upon marriage had finally been officially written into the collective bargaining agreement, while also providing what stewardesses hoped was a way to marry and keep their jobs. The new contract from October 1965 provided that: “The Company may, at its option, release from employment a married stewardess at any time following the expiration of six (6) months after her marriage or pregnancy.” The wording of the new contract, which suggested greater flexibility from American regarding marriage (“at its option”) led many stewardesses who had previously concealed their marriages to come clean with the airline. The response of American was, however, as draconian as ever; in January 1966, the airline informed its stewardesses that forced retirement upon marriage would continue to be universally applied: “The Company will release from employment a married stewardess on the last day of the sixth month following the original date of marriage…Concealment from the Company of the fact of marriage was and remains a cause for discharge.” (EEOC “Decisions” 4010) Dozens of stewardesses from various airlines thereby filed grievances with the EEOC within days of the Commission’s grand opening. Yet, due to the legal maneuverings described above, the EEOC by 1967 still had taken almost no action on complaints by either female flight attendants or the few male applicants for the job. The Commission’s hearings in September 1967 were designed finally to break through this log jam, by developing a definitive interpretation of the BFOQ provision of Title VII that would apply to flight attendants and establish a precedent for other careers as well.

The Male as Trojan Horse

[20] It is hardly surprising that the hearings before the EEOC in September 1967, pitting the airlines against the interests of flight attendants, involved two groups speaking to seemingly different topics. While the EEOC had set the legal agenda item (is sex a BFOQ for the position of “stewardess”), the flight attendant unions and their supporters deemed this question to be off-topic. As the attorney for the Transportation Workers Union, representative of a majority of flight attendants, noted at the beginning of the hearings, “…Our area of concern here is not whether the flight attendant is a male or a female…but whether the female flight attendant is being illegally discriminated against because of her sex.” (EEOC “Transcript” 27) In conjunction with such sentiments, the flight attendants filled their part of the hearing’s docket with representatives who spoke exclusively of the abuse endured by women as a result of age and marriage restrictions. Speakers called to testify included not only union representatives, but also Betty Friedan of NOW and Marjorie Marcous of the National Women’s Party, both of whom lent their clout as activists to the female flight attendants’ cause. All of these witnesses’ testimony cohered around the argument that a ruling against them by the EEOC would dismantle the increasing number of victories gained by collective bargaining. The attorney for the Transportation Workers Union, Mr. Asher Schwartz, continued:

If this Commission should declare sex to be a bona fide occupational qualification as requested by the carriers for the position of flight attendant, it would put TWU’s fight against discrimination on account of sex back to the frustrating days when the fight began and it would undo all the progress that has been made thus far in eliminating such discrimination. Industry representatives would be…in a position to assert as they have never been able to assert to this date, that the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission’s determination is justification—governmental justification, no less—for continuing and even enlarging its discriminatory practices based on sex. (EEOC “Transcript” 25)

[21] In contrast to the unions’ focus on women and their plight for justice, representatives of the airlines limited their remarks to men and their shortcomings as flight attendants. Not wanting to justify the largely unpopular policies of age and marriage discrimination, the airlines stuck strictly to the juridical issue at hand: asserting that there were key reasons why women as a group were better at the flight attendant job than men. While thereby employing the male flight attendant as a sort of Trojan horse (forcing the EEOC to focus on him would allow them to attain the victory they truly sought: a young, unmarried corps of stewardesses), the attorney for the Airline Transport Association, Mr. Jesse Freidin, accused the unions of exactly the same thing:

And here I want to suggest to you, Mister Chairman and Members of the Commission, that this question of sex as a qualification for the post of flight attendant is…a synthetic issue. The real issue is and always has been the age and marriage practices of the airlines over which this Commission has no jurisdiction. It was put in the form of sex not because sex was an issue in fact, but because the Unions thought that was the only way by means of which the age and marriage questions could be brought to the Commission’s attention. (EEOC “Transcript” 16-17)

Freidin later goes on to note even more directly, though somewhat untruthfully:

Our view [is] that this sex is a sham issue…that neither the stewardesses nor the Union believe we ought to hire men, men do not believe we ought to hire men—we, as a matter of fact, are not aware of any complaint filed with your Commission by a man that he has been improperly denied employment as a flight attendant. (EEOC “Transcript” 20)

[22] In the course of the hearings, the specter of the male flight attendant was thereafter mobilized by both parties in a variety of self-serving ways. The unions typically ignored aspiring male flight attendants and their interest in the case at hand, but at the same time depended on the existence of currently-serving stewards to have standing against the airlines in the first place. After all, according to the logic of the EEOC, stewardesses’ attainment of the rights to marry and to work into middle age relied on the stewards’ already enjoying such rights. Thus, in a typical deployment of the male figure by the unions, a United Airlines pilot, on behalf of the flight attendants union, noted:

In my view, and you may agree, the airline is no less attractive to us as passengers from the sales point of view because it permits stewardesses to continue their careers regardless of age or marital status. Many airlines, including my own, use male flight attendants as well as females. While the ladies far outnumber the men, the fact remains that in no case of which I am aware is a male flight attendant disqualified by age or marriage from continuing his career…[Y]et I can affirm having commanded flights on which both male and female flight attendants were assigned, that the male flight attendant performs essentially the same function as the female counterpart, but many airlines, including my own, use sex, age and marital status as a basis for distinguishing between them. (EEOC “Transcript” 152)

In this example, the male flight attendant simply stands in as the more privileged counterpart of the female, not at all as someone whose own dignity is compromised by the airlines.

[23] The airlines spent a good deal more time talking about the male flight attendant, yet in no less self-serving ways. To win the case, they had to accomplish two daunting tasks: first, prove that men by their nature lack the necessary skills for the job, and second, explain away the fact that 700 men in 1967 were performing the job quite satisfactorily despite their sex. Thus, in their testimony the airlines unveiled a strategy of focusing on the flight attendants’ duties as highly emotion-based and servile (and thereby essentially “women’s work”). This was even more true, so the airlines claimed, in the jet age of the 1960s than it was in the 1950s, when the majority of the still-serving stewards were hired. One of the clearest articulations of the so-called “feminine attributes” of the flight attendant job is found in a supporting document presented to the EEOC by United Air Lines. In a subsection of the report entitled “This is a Female Job,” the airline focuses on the demands placed on flight attendants beyond the mechanical tasks of providing for passengers’ safety and serving them refreshments. In their view, the job, “consists of achieving quickly a personal relationship with passengers, gaining their confidence, nursing them, pampering them, encouraging them, relieving their tensions, entertaining or distracting them.” They continue by categorically denying that men could undertake such a job:

In the course of the past thirty-six years the airlines, including United Air Lines, have concluded that this job, embodying these objectives cannot be fulfilled by men—men can carry trays, and hang up coats and assist in event of the rare emergency—they cannot convey the charm, the tact, the grace, the liveliness that young girls can—particularly to men, who comprise the vast majority of airline passengers. In short, men can do apart of the job—the mechanical part; they cannot do all of the job—they cannot create for the passenger the psychological impression of a memorable occasion; they cannot, by their presence, their appearance, their grace or their warmth, add to the pleasure of the trip, the loveliness of the environment or the ego of the male passenger. (“Sex as a BFOQ” 11)

[24] As for how to explain the existence of men already serving as flight attendants, several airline managers offered various rationales: flight attendants no longer needed to carry baggage as in the early days of flight, and more women and children were flying, requiring greater attention by female attendants. Overall, however, Frank Sharp, Vice President of Eastern Airlines, best summarized the airlines’ claims:

The change in the airline industry resulted in a change in the type of applicants a carrier could expect for the flight attendant job. The job no longer appeals on the basis of danger, calling for an adventurous spirit…The male applicant could no longer expect to be admired by his friends as one holding a job that required a certain dash of spirit but rather they as applicant[s] for the job, in the eyes of the public were more and more thought of as taking a job for women…The adventure was gone but to replace it was the glamour of travel, the smart, attractive uniforms, the opportunity to meet and deal with broad segments of the public. (EEOC “Transcript” 101)

Mr. Sharp’s view does better than simply ignore or erase the existing corps of male flight attendants. Indeed, he memorializes them as noble remnants of a bygone era, like Native Americans whose world has changed beneath their feet, so that no man of the current age would choose to take his position. Furthermore, any man seeking such a gender-bending position would be viewed as an emasculated, effeminate aberration out of touch with the cultural expectations befitting his manhood.

[25] Thus, on a day when the EEOC decided to enable future men to take the job of flight attendant, male voices were strikingly absent. They were often talked about, especially in condescending and patronizing ways by members of airline management. But they never had the chance to defend their record or prove their future worth. The unions’ choice to ignore these men may simply reflect concern for public relations, so that they would not become his advocate in the face of a public, a Commission, and a press corps that found the concept of a “male stewardess” quite laughable. Whatever their ultimate motives, the female-dominated unions clearly expressed that male flight attendants simply were not their concern, especially at a time when only four percent of their membership was male…and when such a high percentage of their women were losing their jobs for blatantly unjust reasons.

[26] The airlines, of course, could expect that the same stigma of queerness surrounding the “male stewardess” would play to their advantage in front of the Commission and in the sphere of public opinion. By trumpeting the emasculating aspects of the job, they could reaffirm the commonly-suspected unnaturalness of a man who would seek out such work. As their argument so clearly lacked a solid logical integrity (having to refute that any man could do the job well, even as men already were doing the job quite satisfactorily), any reliance on queer-baiting would be essential for their ultimate success in the proceedings.

[27] Maybe the oddest outcome of this queer man’s day in court (or at least at these EEOC hearings), however, is that he was successful in maintaining his job and securing a place for more men to enter the profession of flight attendant. In a 3-1 decision, the EEOC Commissioners ruled as a result of the September 1967 hearings that female sex was not a bona fide occupational qualification for the job of flight attendant. A short while thereafter, the EEOC granted permission to Celio Diaz and a few other men to pursue their grievances against the airlines in federal court. Of course, the Commission was likely more swayed by the arguments regarding age and marriage presented by the unions and women’s rights groups than by a genuine concern for male applicants. Yet, in a move befitting such an awkward proceeding, the actual judgment by the EEOC displaces the women’s concerns to a footnote, while highlighting the males’ concern front and center:

The record reveals that, although a number of different approaches can be taken to the question of whether sex is a bona fide occupational qualification, the most important factor is whether the basic duties of a flight cabin attendant—whether he or she be called a purser, hostess, steward, or stewardess—can be satisfactorily performed by members of both sexes. Accordingly, an airline which refuses to hire and employ members of a particular sex for the position of flight cabin attendant thereby violates the Act. (EEOC “Flight Cabin Attendant”)

The footnote immediately follows these sentences, noting that, “the legality of various other airline policies and practices,” including the age and marriage restrictions imposed on females, would be considered in later EEOC decisions, all of which supported the claims of flight attendants.

Queer Caricatures

[28] Perhaps it was the text of the EEOC conclusion that led media accounts to portray the decision as a victory for the aspirant male flight attendant, while neglecting the stewardesses’ concerns that dominated the hearings. More likely, however, it was the salacious potential of both scaring and delighting their readers with the prospect of “male stewardesses” that caused them to neglect the hearings’ true focus. The mainstream press such as the Wall Street Journal, forsaking its veneer of objectivity, suffused its article on the EEOC decision with homophobic panic; it opened by noting: “A broad-shouldered six-footer with a crew cut may be serving you inflight martinis in the future and telling you to fasten your seat belts and observe the no-smoking signs.” (“Coffee, Tea, or Milk” 15)

[29] The staff reporter did go on to note that there were now four cases from men refused employment as flight attendants before the EEOC, while there were, “more than 100 pending complaints that airlines have established special rules for women alone, such as requiring stewardesses to stop flying when they marry or reach a certain age.” The unnamed staff reporter, however, failed to explain how the cases brought by women were inextricably tied to the question of sex as a BFOQ for the job. Even a discerning reader would feel perplexed as to why the EEOC leapfrogged these women’s pertinent concerns to address the far more perverse concerns of men seeking to be flight attendants.

[30] Other mainstream media feasted on the prospect of “male stewardesses” with even greater vigor. TheMiami Herald in particular, published in a city whose fortunes (perhaps more than any other in America) were tied to commercial aviation, attacked the decision most harshly. Soon after the decision came from Washington, the Herald‘s weekly Tropic Magazine ran a full-page image of a burly man in a mini-skirt, knee-length stockings, beret and purse, with the headline, “…Is This Any Way to Ruin an Airline?” The article’s author, Jon Nordheimer, begins his rant in this manner: “Here’s the worst thing that could happen to commercial airlines…The male stewardess, that’s what! Lurking in unemployment lines all over the country are men who are plotting to wrest control of the coffee-tea-or-milk trade and kick those gorgeous girls out of the aisle. Blame the whole mess on Washington.” He concludes his diatribe against the EEOC in a testosterone-laden fit: “Anybody who calls a stewardess a ‘sexless attendant’ is not a gentleman and deserves a punch in the nose.” (Nordheimer) A similar, yet more political, observation came from James Kilpatrick on the Herald‘s Viewpoint page of March 4, 1968. His article was headlined “Down With Equal Opportunity: Day of the He-Stewardess Is Upon Us” and went on to question the EEOC’s legitimacy as a corrective to discrimination. Embracing William Buckley’s derisive designation of the EEOC as the “Equempoppocom” (surely a play on the word “poppycock”) and his corresponding desire to abolish the organization, Kilpatrick bemoans the loss of his “right to girl-watch.” And he employs outright homophobia directed at the “he-stewardess” in his highest rhetorical critique of sex-based civil rights: “Can you imagine a male in one of those Braniff costumes?…Is there anything less aesthetic than the masculine rear end? But the Equempoppocom has spoken…” Not surprisingly, Kilpatrick completely neglects the age and marriage restrictions designed to provide him highly stimulating sexual thrills at the lowest possible wages. (Kilpatrick)

[31] Even the nascent gay press, in the example of the Los Angeles Advocate, fails to grasp the importance of the EEOC’s decision and its potential for reshaping society in less sexist ways. In its March 1968 editorial entitled “The Only Way to Fly,” the magazine welcomes the EEOC decision, but only because it empowers its gay readers as sex-fixated consumers of air travel invested in achieving equality for the gay male sexual gaze:

All we can say is, ‘Dammit, it’s about time.’…We who have a different idea of the fair sex have been sorely abused by the airlines. Thousands of miles of bouncing boobies and saccharine smiles. Even the other inmates of those flying tubes don’t offer much diversion—fat businessmen who melt over into your precious space, neurotic females who are afraid all conversation inevitably leads to SEX. The occasional serviceman usually winds up not in the seat next to yours, but sandwiched between two elderly matrons intent on sending him cookies (the dirty old hags). All this, we hope, will soon change…Who knows? That trite old bit of humor, ‘Coffee, tea, or ME?’ may soon take on a new, fresh, and exciting meaning. (“Only Way to Fly”)

[32] While certainly scoring points for brazen humor, the Advocate‘s take on the EEOC decision nonetheless exhibits the highest danger of gay male camp: its effort to score a self-affirming laugh comes at the expense of a fuller critique of sexism and homophobia. The underlying issues of financial opportunity for men as well as women are completely ignored, especially the grievances of stewardesses (some of them lesbians) fighting for access to a long-term, well-paid career outside the domestic sphere. Yet, most surprisingly perhaps, theAdvocate fails to recognize how solidly gay the male flight attendant corps of the 1970s would become. The editors completely ignore how future male flight attendants would provide essential visibility for the community, finally allowing Americans all around the country, even Omaha, Tallahassee, and Salt Lake City, a first face-to-face encounter with a gay man. They also fail to envision how a politically active, unionized corps of gays in the American workplace would expend significant energy in the post-Stonewall moment promoting gay rights. Instead, the Advocate‘s campy embrace of male stewardesses seems as equally classist and sexist as the mainstream media’s attack on them. Indeed, theAdvocate‘s future silence about male flight attendants—even as it deified gay soldiers, police officers, and athletes—makes one wonder whether these “he-stewardesses” weren’t just a little too queer even for the mainstream gays who composed the Advocate‘s early readership.

Conclusion: Getting to the Depths of “Homosexual Panic”

[33] The State of Florida sought a conviction of first-degree murder for the killers of Eastern Airlines steward William Simpson back in 1954. Legally speaking, they had no choice. Simpson’s death, whether premeditated or not, occurred in the process of a robbery, as the two 19-year-olds admitted they had been “rolling homosexuals” (posing as prostitutes in order to rob them) for over five months. The jury in the trial, however, never seriously contemplated a conviction for first degree murder. Instead, they handed down a verdict of manslaughter to both perpetrators, which carried a maximum penalty of 20 years rather than death by the electric chair. The crucial testimony in the case likely came from Charles Lawrence, who pulled the trigger in the murder. Lawrence claimed he drew the gun on Simpson, because “I was afraid he would attack me—make a sexual attack on me.” (Smith) The jurors who decided the case apparently were very much sympathetic to Lawrence’s account. The Miami Herald even reported the claims of one juror that “the youths’ accusations of homosexuality against Simpson ‘made a big difference’ in the jury’s thinking.” (Rundell) The jury’s decision to choose a manslaughter verdict over murder was so legally suspect (given that the crime occurred in the context of a robbery) that the two youths immediately appealed their case to the Florida Supreme Court, which nonetheless upheld the verdict.

[34] The defense in the Simpson case illustrates a successful deployment of homophobic hysteria for the benefit of those who commit crimes against gays and lesbians. Known in legal circles as “homosexual panic” and utilized in courtrooms throughout the postwar era, it is actually closely tied to the dynamic found in the legal proceedings regarding male flight attendants and Title VII. By means of homosexual panic, a behavior otherwise deemed extra-legal becomes permissible (or at least forgivable), as the transgression gets attributed to the aggressive behavior of the queer, not the queer-basher. Metaphorically speaking, the “male stewardess” put on trial by the airlines and the press fifteen years after Simpson’s murder also fits the bill of the aggressive homosexual deserving of a beating. In his case, the uppity queer seeks not only access to the workplace, but also to an eroticized space of straight-male scopophilia where the “young and pretty girl” is the only admissible object of desire. There may be no legal justification for excluding him, so the reasoning of homosexual panic goes, but the visceral reaction of revulsion and threat in the male passenger more than warrants overlooking the law’s logical application.

[35] Yet, however visceral (and therefore beyond the scope of rationality) the reactions to gender non-conformity or same-sex desire are, they also require closer inspection to see who deploys such venom and for what gain. In the case of the aspiring male flight attendant, the airlines were certainly the inciters of such queer-baiting. But they counted on an approving ear from elsewhere, especially the EEOC Commissioners charged with implementing the will of Congress, both of whom—the EEOC and Congressmen—had already raised the male nurse and male secretary as objects of alarm. Without question, the female “sexy stew” of the 1960s was a boon for the airlines. Her motherly care coupled with her young, buxom physique amounted to an unpaid asset and became a marketable source of brand loyalty among male businessmen—the most lucrative consumers in the skies. In a fiercely competitive market where each airline essentially offered the same product—same jets, same destinations—the individualized feminine allure of the stewardess gave each airline a unique face, which in turn bestowed a brand loyalty (recall the National Airlines ads from the early 1970s: “I’m Margie, Fly Me. Fly Margie, Fly National.”). A male flight attendant simply could not signify that same sort of eroticized motherhood/madamhood which was part of the airlines’ money-making strategy.

[36] At the same time, keeping age and marriage restrictions in place—and keeping men out of the flight attendant corps—assured the airlines that labor costs would stay down. While stewardesses left the workplace (usually due to marriage) within just a few years, the men hired in the 1950s stayed in their jobs much longer. Employees lasting longer also ascended the company’s pay scale into higher hourly wages, greater vacation benefits, increased pension payments, and more scheduling autonomy. They also were prone to become more active in their union and more aware of ways that collective bargaining could work for them and their fellow employees. Thus, a heavily “young and pretty girl” contingent among flight attendants had distinct financial advantages for the airlines. NOW President Betty Friedan, who testified on behalf of female flight attendants at the 1967 EEOC hearings, pointed to this fact when she asked rhetorically, “Is there not an economic aspect here that really explains the intent of the airlines to be able to continue their discriminatory practices, to be able to force the women who work on their airlines to resign at 32 or at marriage?” (EEOC “Transcript” 42-43) If Friedan were not so one-dimensional in her advocacy solely of women’s rights, she might well have added that keeping men out of the job was an equally pernicious, economically motivated act of discrimination.

[37] Thus, even as the homosexual panic in the case of flight attendants was immediate, uncontrolled and visceral, it was also calculated and orchestrated in ways that inevitably benefited the pocketbooks of the airlines. A similar schizophrenia is on display on the part of the unions, the EEOC, and eventually the federal courts when confronted by a man who aspires to do women’s work. At once, their visceral reactions to queerness obscure their willingness to recognize the “male stewardess” as a person with a face and voice, deserving agency before the law in his own name. And yet, per force of legal consistency—or of more deeply rooted legal grievances from gender conformers (in this case, attractive female stewardesses)—the EEOC and the federal courts could occasionally rule in favor of gender-bending men. Nonetheless, as in the “re-birth” of the male flight attendant, such decisions would strike mainstream Americans’ heteronormative sensibilities as a queer miscarriage of justice.

[38] The benefits of these decisions by the EEOC and the federal courts in favor of Mr. Diaz have been widely shared. The Court of Appeals decision in Diaz v. Pan Am provided clarity on the BFOQ clause of Title VII, establishing a narrow standard for excluding people of one sex from work. The Court refuted the notion of making employment decisions based on customer preference and even restricted the company’s role in determining whether excluding one sex was “reasonably necessary for the normal operation of that particular business or enterprise.” To clarify the legislative ambiguity that was arguably essential to its passage, the Court imposed a new definitive interpretation of the BFOQ clause: “The use of the word ‘necessary’ in section 703(e) [of Title VII] requires that we apply a business necessity test, not a businessconvenience test. That is to say, discrimination based on sex is valid only when the essence of the business operation would be undermined by not hiring members of one sex exclusively.” (US Court of Appeals) Since the Court decided that airlines’ essential business was transporting passengers safely, they judged that a BFOQ was not appropriate for the job of flight attendant. The Diaz precedent of determining a BFOQ based on “essence” still holds in US jurisprudence and has allowed women greater access to a variety of careers from which they were traditionally excluded. It has also established greater access for men entering women’s work, even for male secretaries and male nurses, those gender-bending menaces feared by the early EEOC and Congressman Goodell.


I thank the Walter P. Reuther Library at Wayne State University for granting me access to the Association of Flight Attendants (AFA) archives and the National Archives Southeast Region for access to the records of Diaz v Pan Am.

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