Excerpt from ‘Trans Work: Employment Trajectories, Labour Discipline and Gender Freedom’, Transgender Marxism.
On the passenger ocean liners of the 1930s, male workers undertook tasks otherwise considered women’s work when done in the home: cooking and serving food to the passengers, laundry, and janitorial work. On some boats, African-American men were hired for these reproductive service tasks, much like their contemporaries working as railroad porters. On other lines, Chinese men took up this work. Under the white supremacist cultural logic of the US, Black and Chinese men were already considered feminine and appropriate for women’s work. But some of the ocean liner companies prided themselves on maintaining a white workforce, offering an elite experience to a white and racist clientele. Few white men, however, would demean themselves by doing such feminised work. Their employers already considered this type of work somehow ‘queer’. It is here that white gender-nonconforming effeminate men managed to get a foothold in the industry. These stewards found a solidarity and support among fellow queens, coming to incorporate drag parties, homoeroticism, and soon a defence of gay rights into their work life. Over workplace struggles through the 1930s, ocean liner service workers formed the Marine Cooks and Stewards Union, bridging these feminised Black men, Chinese men, and white queer men into a Communist-Party-allied militant labour union. These militant workers organised under the slogan ‘No Race-Baiting, Red-Baiting, or Queer-Baiting!’