Monica Roberts

Confessions Of A GLBT Airline Employee

Filed By Monica Roberts | May 22, 2008 9:30 AM | comments

Filed in: Living, Marriage Equality, Transgender & Intersex
Tags: flight attendant, GLBT, transgender, transition

The recent Bilerico post concerning my GLBT airline brothers and sisters who've lost their jobs was a deja vu moment for me.

One of my nicknames in the transgender community is the Air Marshal because I worked for 14 years for CAL at IAH.

Oops, drifting into airline speak again.

I was the rapid response team for the transgender community during my early activist years. If we had a problem or needed someone representing us for a short notice protest or board meeting, I got called.

I miss it so much I wrote a novel in 2003 called On The Wings of Love that weaves some of my airline experiences into the plot.

How I Started

I started working for Continental in 1987 during the Frank Lorenzo regime. I remember telling friends after my grandfather passed away in 1984 and had worked 35 years for CAL that I wouldn't be caught dead there while he was running the place. I was upset that - as Continental's ad slogan was back in the day - the "Proud Bird with the Golden Tail's" quality reputation had been sullied by Lorenzo's union busting and heavy-handed "diss the employees" management style...

But since it was the Reagan years and jobs were scarce I reluctantly took it after resisting the suggestion from my dad for three years because I wanted to start in passenger service, not the ramp. I spent a miserable but fun year on the IAH ramp before I finally got the promotion to passenger service I wanted in June 1988 and subsequently ended up in Denver spending the month of July 1988 at old Stapleton Airport in training.

I loved the international and multicultural aspect of working for an airline. We had people from 40 countries and all 50 states and territories that worked at IAH. That multicultural aspect of our employee base also included GLBT peeps as well.

I also noted that it was consistent throughout the industry when I started non-revving all over the place once my pass privileges kicked in (I miss the Golden Handcuffs, too). As a gate agent and later a CSR and supervisor I got to interact with a lot of GLBT pilots, flight attendants, fellow gate emplyees and supervisors at mine and other carriers.

I also got to interact with GLBT customers; I'll save those stories for another post.

Other Employees

Because I was the lone African-American on my gates for a few years (with the exception of a few supervisors who became my airline mentors), I spent downtime between flights in the flight attendant lounge hanging out with my high school classmate Melanie and other African-Americans. I got to meet some wonderful people and I still laugh about one visit to the company store before they moved the crew lounge to more spacious digs down the hall.

I was grabbing snacks and was standing next to a "family" flight attendant who was playing with a model of a DC-10. He held it in his hand like it was flying in straight level flight for a few seconds then nosedived it into a pile of t-shirts while singsonging the words "death cruiser."

It was a sarcastic nickname they had for the plane that referenced the DC-10's propensity to crash when they first entered airline fleets in the 70's before they fixed the problem. We used to call the A300 Airbus the "Scarebus" because of the way it rattled like it was going to break apart when you revved the bird up for takeoff.

I saw the effects of the HIV/AIDS crisis reflected in the airline ranks as well. There were more than a few times I popped down in the crew lounge to say hello to some people and was greeted at the door of the crew lounge with a memorial photo and burning candle memorializing another co-worker who lost their battle with AIDS.

Before I transitioned I used to spend a lot of time in Montrose crossdressed. There were more than a few times I'd bounce into Charlie's, the gay-owned 24 hour restaurant and coffee shop in the heart of Houston's gayborhood, and run into fellow employees there or at Studio 13, the Black gay hangout. There were also moments in which I had co-workers come out. Every time it happened, I had to ask myself when I was finally going to address my own gender issues and do the same thing they were doing.

I remember when one of my fellow Latina CSR's transferred to Inflight. I used to good-naturedly tease Gloria because every time I saw her cute, petite self, she was standing in front of one of the floor length mirrors we had in various breakrooms around the terminal. Her makeup bag would be open, she wouldn't have a hair our of place and she'd be applying mascara to those long eyelashes of hers that framed her wide light gray eyes

We became good friends over time and she came out a few months later. I was one of the first people she told because I knew her partner as well and she was worried about losing my friendship. I told her I had my own issues and that we were friends for life as she hugged me. Gloria ended up being one of the first people I told about my own transition in 1994. It was interesting to note that when I finally did so, over the next few weeks several people in various departments came out as well.

My Transition

Since I worked the gates my transition was a very public one. I felt like I was in a fishbowl with 30,000 passengers a day transiting Terminal C at the time, and my co- workers got to watch me morph in front of their eyes into the Phenomenal Transwoman.

The GLBT ones in and out of the closet welcomed me into the family. There were varying reactions from my straight counterparts. One interesting reaction was the way the guys shunned me for a few weeks, then resumed conversing with me three months later. It was as if I was being severed from the Masculine Borg collective. The women embraced me almost immediately, and there was one memorable conversation in which I ended up in the breakroom with several sistahs and they laid out the Sistahs' Rules of Femininity to me during a 45 minute break between flights. The fundies just tried to proselytize me.

In those early transition days I did a Terminal C listening tour in which I made it clear that anybody who wanted to ask me questions could pull me aside on our breaks and as long as the question wasn't too personal, I'd answer it. I made that same offer to the pilots, Inflight, the mechanics and the ramp as well. It seems like during that first six weeks I had more honest one-on-one or group conversations with people than I'd had with folks in the previous six years I'd been employed there...

The funniest one was when I had one female co-worker trying to ascertain what my sexual orientation was and asked me if I liked women. I brushed her question off by joking, "Yeah, I like women. I like women so much I want to be one." When that led to one of my gay male supervisors pulling me aside after a flight and asking if I was transitioning to become a lesbian, I quickly had to do damage control on that comment.

The Good, the Bad and the Perks

Another humerous moment was when the late Jerry Falwell made his infamous attack on Teletubbie Tinky-Winky. Every out GLBT pilot and flight attendant in the system responded by putting Tinky Winky key fobs on their roller bags.

There were also not so humorous moments. I flew to DCA in 1998 for my first lobby trip with Vanessa Edwards Foster traveling with me on a buddy pass. I was still in the process of getting my work records changed to reflect my new name and my company ID already had Monica on it. I was in a great mood because it was my first trip to DC and I was feeling good after being on the Hill for two days.

The African-American gate agent I showed my ID embarrassed and angered me by using my old name on the PA in a crowded gate lounge when it was time for me to pick up our seats for the return trip to Houston - in effect outing me to the entire lobby. He ended up issuing a written apology to me a few days later when I wrote up the incident for my supervisor and his manager.

The same thing happened to me in LA in 1999. This one exposed me to some jerks on the flight walking by my aisle seat and repeatedly calling me 'faggot' as I was still fuming about not only being outed again, but this time being erroneously bumped off the 7 AM PDT LAX-IAH trip. I couldn't retaliate because I was in uniform and heading back to work when I arrived at IAH.

I also used my passes to check out GLBT venues in other cities. I hung out at Club Peanuts on Santa Monica Blvd one Tuesday night and ran into a few actors (on the down low) enjoying the company of the T-girls hanging out there. I wasn't surprised by the news of a certain comedian being pulled over on that street with a T-girl in his vehicle...

There was one night I was in the Village with Dana Turner and we were talking about transgender related community business during a drag show at One Potato, Two Potato. The manager actually walked over to us and asked us to be quiet because we were disturbing the (lousy) drag performer on stage. Me and Dana did double takes, then she replied to the manager, "Since when did this become Lincoln mother----ing Center?"

I Miss It Sometimes

One thing I do miss about my airline days besides the travel, the flexible schedule, the money and the other perks that go along with it, is that every workday was different. One day you'd be checking in a celebrity or politician, the next some sweet senior citizen taking a trip to see her grandkids, a couple on their honeymoon, or a kid heading off to college or military boot camp.

We were a family - no matter if you worked in LAX, EWR, CLE, ORD, IAH or some outstation with four flights a day. You were also connected to other airline people internationally as well - not only at your own carrier, but others worldwide. We had airlne specific softball, volleyball and basketball tournaments, 5K and 10K runs in various spots on the globe and picnics in various places. The world was basically your playground and with airline passes, you could see any concert, attend any sporting event and any conference no matter where it was held. All you had to do was trade for the days off.

We also had some slammin' parties too. Some airline peeps can drink and eat twice their weight in food and alcoholic beverages. I also noted the irony that while many hetero airline couples' marriages were crumbling because of AIDS (Airline Induced Divorce Syndrome) the GLBT airline couples I knew had been together up to a decade or more.

But yeah, I do miss the airline industry and I'm saddened that it's going through another round of consolidation and contraction that's going to cost a lot of good people some well paying jobs.

But mine was fun while it lasted...

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As a former flight attendant, I can relate to your feelings of sadness about the current state of the industry. I had many good friends who became family after years of flying together.

Thanks for sharing this, Monica! It brought back some great memories for me...

Robert Ganshorn Robert Ganshorn | May 22, 2008 11:40 AM

I have to ask, because I have always wanted to know. Very few people who work customer service, on board an airliner, are beyond 55 years old. Would I be correct in calling it a young person's job and then you are out on the pavement at 55?

This is, of course, before the current consolidations. Might it soon be 50 or 45? Why is the airline industry so age selective. Oh, I do know one airline stewardess at 55 who rode first class to and from Japan four times a month. She was "model" quality attractive. What governs these decisions? I would feel reassured by people of all ages aboard an aircraft.

Actually, RG, when I worked on the plane we had many over 55 folks. I was at JetBlue and many of our people were retired firefighters, teachers, or others. We had a wide range of ages, which was lots of fun.

With the recent consolidations and lay-offs, the ones most affected are often the junior/younger crewmembers who have less senoirty in the airline.

There used to be an age cut-off, but that was in the same days as "women only, unmarried stewardesses." Now I don't think there is any age limitation.

Pilots still have to retire at 60 by FAA regulations, don't they?

I'm surprised there are no comments on AA's proposal to charge $15 for the first checked bag, especially in light of the long list of items the SS, er, TSA, won't let you carry on the plane.

Frankly, the airline biz has been on life support since 911, and is squeezed between the American belief that we should be able to fly anywhere for $250 and the high oil prices. The plain (plane?) fact is that all of us are going to have to become accustomed to traveling much less, whether by air or by car. The good ole days are over, and I hope everyone got to travel when it was still affordable and fun to do so, and when morale among the folks working the flight was high.

My last flight was an epic spectacle of cancelled flights we weren't notified of, surly service, open disdain by ticket counter clerks, a travel agent who screwed us, unbelievable lines at Customs at JFK, crosstown dashes in New York, and truly excellent service - from a foreign carrier, definitely not from US Airways. I'm not a violent person, but there were at least 4 US Airways employees that I would have been entirely willing to put in a grave over how we were treated on that trip. Not to mention that it took hours on the phone and 6 months to get a refund, which didn't come close to paying for the inconvenience and cost of rerouting that day. I will never fly that airline again and was hoping they'd go bankrupt. Unfortunately, now, other than Southwest, they're all like US Airways.

Even at $3.99/gallon, if it's at all possible, I'll drive, thank you. My Toyota will never lose my luggage, will let me pack my shampoo, will not make me take my shoes off, has seats that are wide enough, and will not cancel my flight.

It sounds like quite a life, Monica. Why did you leave? Were you one of the casualties of downsizing and bankruptcies?

Nope Bil,
My employment was a casualty of a GOP state legislator who didn't like the fact I lobbied his office for an inclusive hate crimes bill during the 1999 session. I was also a cohost on a GLBT radio show that regularly criticized and poked fun at him, the then governor of Texas, and the right wing fundie idiots in Harris County, the syaye and the nation.

One month after the Bush administration took office, U was gone despite having glowing customer service thank you letters from a congressman, a state senator and numerous customers over the years.

So yeah, my dislike of Republicans is personal and it's why I'm miltantly passionate about an inclusive ENDA becoming law.

Karma took care of him. He gave up his state legis;ature seat to run Congress and lost.