Work Boots Step Out of the Closet

“Come on you can tell me,” says Bobby. “Are you gay?”

Bobby is a machinist who usually works in the machine shop but today he is helping me change fixtures in the warehouse at the corporation yard. I’m the only electrician and sometimes I need a helper. There was no laborer available and I am up on a 16-foot ladder. 

The song by the Police, Every Breath You Take, is playing on the boom box he carries around with him. 

“This sounds like a song about stalking,” I say. “It’s a threat.” 

“Hmm, I never thought about it that way,” he says, “but I guess you’re right.”

I’ve been at the San Francisco Water Department for a few months and I’m getting along alright. Especially considering I’m the only tradeswoman there except for Amy, the only female plumber. Amy is out digging up the streets every day and so I rarely see her. Sometimes we convene a two-woman support group in the women’s restroom and it’s good to know she’s there.

MMatWork 2
Working at a Water Department pump station. My shirt reads WOMEN WORKING

I think about how to answer Bobby. It kind of annoys me that he would just ask me like that. But on the other hand I appreciate his directness. I like Bobby and he’s as close to a friend as I have among the men, but I know if I give him any information about my private life it will be all over the yard within 24 hours. Do I want all the guys in all the shops to know?

“That’s none of your business,” I reply.

Yeah, I’m a lesbian and my lover is Del, who works at Park and Rec. We were both female firsts—she the first carpenter and I the first electrician to work for the city of San Francisco. Being the first is always a burden. You are aware that you set the stereotype for all the women who come after you. You feel the whole of womankind rests on your shoulders. You know you can’t make mistakes but of course you do, and then you imagine all of womankind suffers.

Del is five foot two and slender but you don’t see her as small. Her wiry gray hair gives her a couple more inches of height. She’s got broad shoulders and large hands. And she gets power from her low voice; she sings tenor with a gay chorus, the Vocal Minority.

Del and I don’t live together but I spend a lot of time at her apartment on Potrero Hill with its sweeping view of the bay and downtown. At my place on Bernal Hill I have a roommate, Sandy, another electrician. She’s messy and has a lot of stuff and a coke head girlfriend I don’t like. So I often stay with Del. Truth is I can’t stay away. I’m mad for her.

Since I got in to the trades, my lovers have been tradeswomen. I can’t resist a woman with a toolbelt. The first woman I fell in love with was a carpenter. They say you either fall in love with her or you want to be her. For me it was both. 

I watch my lover Nancy build a house. She wears dirty blue jeans and scuffed work boots. Sweat stains mushroom on her T-shirt, which reads Sisterhood is Powerful, under a women’s symbol with a fist in its center. Sweat drips from her nose and rolls down the side of her face. Her sun-bleached curly hair sticks out from under her hardhat.

Around her hips hangs the heavy leather carpenter’s belt. It has a metal ring for the hammer and slots for the tape measure and various other tools, and pouches for the nails of different sizes. A two-inch wide leather belt holds it around her ample hips. It’s helped by wide suspenders. She grabs a handful of nails and holds them with all the heads lined up in one direction, flips them down and pounds them in to the wood with great efficiency. Tanned arms bulge as she sinks nail after nail into the sill plate. She is focused and fast, the epitome of strength and ease. When she takes a break, she rolls a cigaret and lights it with a match put to her boot. She sucks in the smoke with obvious pleasure and even though I’m super allergic to smoke and it will set me off coughing, that is the sexiest thing I’ve ever seen. How could a gal not fall in love with this image of power, strength, purpose. 

I was smitten and I’ve been smitten by tradeswomen ever since. And they are the only ones who really understand what I go through at work. A person’s got to have a partner she can whine to when she gets home.

Lately it’s Del who’s been having trouble at work. Dick, her foreman at the carpentry shop, doesn’t like women or queers. He does everything he can to make her work life difficult. If it weren’t for Dick, Del would get along just fine. She loves the work, not the harassment. She once overheard him call her a dyke. That’s a word we lesbians have reclaimed and embraced but he meant it in the old-fashioned derogatory way.

Negotiating homophobia and sexism at work is a balancing act for us. You just know that the foreman will use any excuse to lay you off. Del knows this too, that we women must always keep our cool in these situations, but sometimes she can’t help herself. She just loses her temper and then even she doesn’t know what she might do.

One time she held off an attacker with a hand saw. If you swing it at waist level, they can’t reach you. She swung the saw in a fit of rage, acting without thinking. In that case rage saved her ass, but mostly when this happens she leaves the confrontation feeling embarrassed that she could not control her emotions. She tells me I’m much better at not losing my cool and she ascribes her rage to her hot Italian blood. 

I first met Del at a tradeswomen confab when I was working with the Wonder Woman Electric collective in 1978, but we didn’t get together as lovers until 1982 while we were organizing the first national tradeswomen conference that took place in Oakland the next year. We had both been working construction downtown before starting to work for the city of San Francisco.

“I lost my temper today and now I might lose my job,” Del told me one evening when I got over to her place after work.

By that time she was remorseful. “Why do I always lose my temper? How do you manage to stay so cool?”

I think the answer lays in the ways we learned to respond to stress and abuse when we were growing up. She was a caretaker type and I was oblivious. Del says she always felt like she had antennae, that she was super aware of her surroundings. I, on the other hand, would put on virtual blinders and just continue pretending nothing was going on. This method of avoiding conflict has served me well in the trades. I pretend not to see and often I really don’t.

Soon after we got together I accompanied her to visit her family in Chicago. Right away I felt at home. They are huggers, and loud talkers, people who like to cook and eat big family meals and who live in their basements, never using the living room upstairs where couches are covered with plastic. Her mother is part of a big Italian clan—all sisters except for one brother who is treated like a king but drowned out by loud women.

“Here’s what happened,” she said. “I wanted to get my paycheck earlier in the day than Dick wanted to give it out. I had an appointment and was leaving at noon. He was being totally obnoxious about it and I got really mad at him. I said “fuck it” and walked out without the paycheck. Now he’s trying to fire me for swearing at him. I wasn’t swearing at him, it was a general fuck-it.  Anyway, just an excuse to fire me.” 

“I’m scared,” she admitted.

“What are you gonna do now?” I asked, concerned.

“I don’t have a plan except to wait to see what he does next. Maybe it won’t go anywhere.”

A few days later Dick upped the ante. He set up a kangaroo court with his supervisors and friends in the yard who sat Del down and questioned her. She had no representation or support. It was just a set up. 

That’s when Del went above the foreman’s head. We knew that the director of Park and Rec was an out gay man. Tom had gained a reputation as a respected department head who gave a shit about workers. He was also a player in the gay South of Market scene who (we heard) had tattoos all over his body. He always wore long sleeved shirts at work. 

“Tom was absolutely great when I told him the story and showed him the daily journal I’d kept about the harassment,” she said to me. Soon after that Dick was fired. 

Our gay ally had saved Del’s job, but what would have happened had he not been there?

“Are you out on the job,” she asked me later.

“Well, no. It’s none of their business.”

Del is a proponent of coming out at work. She says it’s better to give the guys the information so they will just stop gossiping about you. For women it might actually be a plus to be out. It’s a signal that you’re not interested in them romantically and you never will be, a good way to stop come-ons. Telling them you’re married with five kids works too.

At the tradeswomen conference she gave a workshop to help gay women come out. 

“If we all come out we won’t be alone,” she says. “We’ll be supporting our lesbian sisters.”

She quoted Harvey Milk: “Every gay person must come out. As difficult as it is, you must tell your immediate family. You must tell your relatives. You must tell your friends if indeed they are your friends. You must tell the people you work with. You must tell the people in the stores you shop in. Once they realize that we are indeed their children, that we are indeed everywhere, every myth, every lie, every innuendo will be destroyed once and all. And once you do, you will feel so much better.” 

Del was pissed when I admitted I wasn’t out on the job.“What!” She exclaimed. “You’re still in the closet at work! Don’t you see why it’s important for us all to be out? How can you leave me hanging out there on a limb? I almost lost my job!”

She had a good point—several good points. I thought about why I’d stayed closeted. It was easier. I didn’t want to risk the wrath and disdain of my co-workers. They weren’t really interested in my private life and I couldn’t care less about theirs. It was hard enough just being the only female on the job. You imagine the worst thing that could happen. They wouldn’t physically attack me. But they could refuse to work with me just as one white guy in the machine shop had refused to work with a Black guy. They could refuse to talk to me, a trick men used on women all the time to get them to quit. They could fire me. I’d been hired on as a temporary worker with no employment rights. I wasn’t safe.

But I promised my lover I would come out.

My electric “shop” was a windowless closet next to the machine shop office where my boss, Manuel, and a secretary worked. They were always trying to get me to fill in when she was out sick, which happened with regularity. I had made the mistake of answering truthfully when they’d asked if I could type. I’d refused and I hadn’t relented even when Dave, the auto shop foreman cried crocodile tears as he tried to type with hands missing several of their fingers. Somehow the guy was still able to work on trucks. But that was men’s work.

One day Manuel made a reference to my husband. That was my opening. I hadn’t had to wait long. 

“I don’t have a husband,” I said. “I’m gay.”

When you come out to them, men are either totally shocked or they tell you they knew all along. Manuel was shocked, but he recovered quickly. 

I didn’t have to tell anyone else. Word got around the yard. I heard one of the machinists, a religious nut, had moved me into the hated category. But he was someone I could avoid. 

Bobby was cool. “I knew it,” he said.

Summer solstice 2020

Dear Friends,

We think of you as we sit on our porch sipping aquavit and eating gjetost cheese on rye crisps looking out at the fjord in our cozy cabin for six in the village of Flam, Norway. To our backs are steep forested mountains and waterfalls. To our west is the North Sea.

Just kidding. That’s where we were supposed to be at midsummer with Scandinavian American cousins. We had made all our reservations and even bought plane tickets when the corona virus hit. Still waiting for refunds.

We had planned to visit the ancestral homes of our Scandinavian ancestors. I wanted to be there at midsommer, a celebratory holiday which marks the summer solstice. Instead we sit in our zero gravity chairs in our Santa Rosa backyard watching our flowers and veggies grow. In June I harvested the last of the oranges and then artichokes, the last of them now blooming magnificently. Tomatoes, eggplant and cucumbers are just coming on. It’s not so bad. Life has slowed way down (though it was already pretty slow around here.) 

The Norway trip was the idea of my cousin Gail. She lives in Gig Harbor, Washington in a lovely house that has been sort of a retreat center for the family for the last several years. We would gather for reunions and also to go through Gail’s extensive family history archives, saved in cardboard boxes in her attic. Lately my brother Don has been researching the Swedish relatives.

We share a Norwegian grandfather and Swedish grandmother who emigrated at the turn of the 20th century and met and married in South Dakota where their relatives had homesteaded. They soon moved further west to Idaho, Oregon and Washington, settling in Yakima.

Our grandfather, Bernt, or Ben in American, left Norway in 1898, never to return. He was born in 1878 in Borsa, a fishing village on a fjord not far from the town of Trondheim.

So we may never get to Norway but we have used this opportunity to educate ourselves about Norwegian culture, reading literature and history. My mother Flo and I had already made a pilgrimage to our Norwegian and Swedish ancestors’ homes. Thanks to Flo’s 1979 travel diary, I reconnected with a woman who we met at the Oslo feminist center and who let us stay in her apartment when all the inns were full. In letters, Bente has caught me up on 40 years of her life. She is a lesbian feminist and was part of a back-to-the-land movement in Norway when she returned to her family farm in the north. Now she’s working at a historical museum near Oslo.

We also discovered that our next door neighbors had taken a family trip last year back to his ancestral home in Norway and we had planned to meet up and hear all about their trip when coronavirus hit. Perhaps our neighbors are my cousins too!

Still sheltering in place in NoCal, we shall just have to pretend we are up in the north country. I think I have some aquavit around her somewhere. Skol!

(My Danish friend corrected me. Aquavit is not to be sipped. It is downed, ice cold.)

My Brush with Criminal Justice

“If I had to hear the word fingering one more time, I’d slit my throat,” said one of the jurors as we sat in the jury deliberation room after we had given our decision to the judge.

The jury deliberation room at the Sonoma County courthouse was just big enough for exactly 12 chairs around a table. It had a coffee pot but no coffee. It had two toilets but no one, not even the man who obviously had to go, would use them. You imagined that everyone would be able to hear the tinkle.

In my 70th year I finally was chosen as a juror. I’d gotten as far as the jury box several times in San Francisco but was always rejected. One time I was asked if I’d ever been a member of the ACLU. “Yes,” I huffed. “A proud card-carrying member.” Dismissed.

Unlike most people, I’ve always wanted to be on a jury. I’ve always thought I’d make a great juror. It seems like the very heart of democracy to me. When I said this to my brother Don, he told me he’d spent his life trying to avoid juries. He objects to participating in a system that sends people to jail. I hadn’t considered this but it seemed like a good point. My enthusiasm was only slightly dampened.

I am new to Sonoma County and this was my first trip to the courthouse, on Administration Road. The architecture is sixties-ish—boxy concrete buildings with a square courtyard.

Sonoma County courthouse

When you first report for jury duty, you are all herded through metal detectors at the entrance into a large waiting room where you check in with the clerk and watch a video explaining the process of jury duty. Then prospective jurors are summoned to various courtrooms. My number was called and I followed directions to a courtroom on the second floor. I had gotten as far as the jury selection process.

The players introduced themselves. The judge was a handsome young man with a full head of hair. Inscrutable. The prosecutor was a no-nonsense blond pageboyed woman who favored suits with skirts and long jackets. Businesslike. The defendant’s attorney was a gray-haired diminutive old guy whose suits looked as if they came from Goodwill. Endearing. During the screening process they asked your occupation, whether you had adult kids, your partner’s occupation, how long you’d lived in Sonoma County. We had a construction group, a medical group, a tech group. Several worked for Kaiser hospital. 

We were told that the case was about sexual assault. A young woman had brought charges against her fiancé for fingering her and photographing her body while she was in a deep sleep. We were asked if relatives or friends were cops, if we had been victims of rape, if we would be prejudiced in any way. A friend of mine told me that she had been on a jury in a rape case. They’d had trouble finding a jury of the unraped.

One prospective juror admitted that she was planning to see Hamilton with the prosecutor on the weekend but felt she could still be fair. Dismissed. One woman appeared so distraught that she could not even voice her feelings. Dismissed.

I was pretty sure, looking as I do wearing the uniform (flannel shirt, Kuhl hiking pants) and hair (short) of a radical lesbian feminist, I’d never get on a jury about sexual assault. But for the first time I was not dismissed. 

We jurors were half men, half women, of varied ages, all white. No names were used; the judge referred to us by the numbers we’d been assigned. I learned the name of only one other juror, Kim. In the course of the week-long trial we got to know each other at breaks, though it seemed sinful somehow, like total anonymity was required for true resolution. Of course we never discussed the trial as per instructions.

In the courtroom the words penis, hand job, vagina, blow job, oral sex and fingering had been thrown around with obvious unease.

“Do you know where the clitoris is?” Asked the prosecutor of the defendant. “Is it on the inside or the outside?”  

On the stand, the young woman was a credible witness, I thought. Her boundaries were clear. As a requirement of the Purity movement, she and her fiancé had publicly pledged to avoid sex until marriage.

What I knew about the Purity movement: it was big in the 90s and lately some of its early proponents had been renouncing it and leaving evangelicalism altogether. Advocates of extreme abstinence believe women should be subservient to fathers and then husbands. Purity also extends to vanquishing impure thoughts. The movement promotes shame and sexual ignorance, especially among young women, although men are also supposed to remain virgins until they marry. Children raised in this culture tend to wrestle with shame and guilt and often have difficulty maintaining healthy adult relationships.

But this couple’s interpretation of purity included everything except penis in vagina intercourse. I couldn’t help but think of the song “Fuck me in the ass for Jesus.”

The plaintiff said at first she didn’t want to bring charges but later decided she wanted to prevent this from happening to other women the defendant might date. 

The woman’s girlfriend and roommate also took the stand and I was again impressed at the poise of this 20-something. But my favorite testifier was the female police officer who investigated the case and made the arrest. Extremely calm. No facial expression. A young woman, she wore her straight brown hair in a perfect round bun at the base of her skull. 

“How does she get her hair to do that?” I asked Kim during break. Kim said she saw an ad on TV for a device that does it.

In this case, while cell phone photos had been deleted, a taped conversation called a pretext call provided incriminating evidence. The cop explained the pretext call. The cooperative victim or a witness to the act makes a telephone call to the suspect, with the police recording the call. The victim or the witness will attempt to engage the suspect in conversation about the sex offense to get it on tape. For the police to record such a call is legal, although in general recording a phone call without the consent of both parties is illegal. 

My new friend Kim was an alternate and so she disappeared after the trial as we were led out of the courtroom. I was glad she’d have time to make it to her parent-teacher conference in Petaluma.

In the jury deliberation room, we elected our foreman, a retired teacher and the eldest among us. The judge’s instructions reminded us that this was a criminal case, which requires a unanimous decision and that our decision must reflect the law, no matter what we personally thought. Representing the boomer generation, I was thinking of all the naked pictures I have taken of lovers while they were sleeping. When we were young we took lots of naked pictures. But of course we didn’t have cell phones and photos didn’t rest in the cloud.

“Don’t ever take naked pictures of me when I’m sleeping,” said my wife when I told her about the trial afterward.

“It’s so interesting to learn what the law is,” I said to the jurors. The law had changed since I was young, when sexual assault was not taken seriously. But was this sexual assault?

“Yeah, they should teach us about it in school,” said a young man with a nervous laugh.

There were abbreviated attempts to psychologize the players. How did the credo of the Purity movement contribute to the victim mentality? 

“But why did she bring charges against her fiancé?” said one juror, disgusted at having to use up her vacation time to decide what she considered a frivolous case.

“There’s more to the story,” said another. “She only filed charges after he started dating someone else.”

A general sense of distaste pervaded the room. We all took our job as jurors seriously but it was hard to take this case seriously. Should this really be a criminal matter? How does it make sense for the cops to be involved? Could this be a job for restorative justice or mediation, I wondered. What if some of the funding that goes to police could be diverted to programs to resolve cases like this one?

We only discussed the case briefly before coming to consensus. Not guilty of the charge of battery. Guilty of the charge of photographing a person’s body for sexual pleasure without their consent.

When the jury deliberation room door opened and we were let out, I hated to leave my fellow jurors so abruptly. Judging others had brought us closer. I wanted to hang out with them, maybe go have a beer. But no one was asking and besides I had to get home and delete some pictures.

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