When the gay truckers come to town, familiar stereotypes get thrown out the sleeper cab window. “Singing songs on the road is the only thing that keeps you awake sometimes,” says Tim Anderson, a trucker, rancher and writer from Washington state. “But it’s really great because you’ve got this hydraulic lift seat. You can lower it all the way to the floor and then spring up for the big line in 'I Will Survive.’ ”
OK, so some stereotypes die hard. But all in all, the inaugural Gay Truckers Association Jamboreewhich was held at the Demonbreun Street Shoney’s Inn last weekendwas judged to be a resounding success, even if the turnout was a little lower than organizer Norm Flowers had expected.
“This was my 'Field of Dreams’build it, and they will come,” Flowers said in an introductory speech to the 12-strong gathering Saturday. “Well, maybe only a few did, but the people who are here are good quality people who are going to make this organization strong.”
Whatever kind of people they were, they were definitely truckers. Burly guys from Florida and Phoenix and slim guys from Michigan. Men who, like most truckers, have bellies, tattoos and camouflage hats. But there was something a little different about these guys: They listened to Mariah Carey, chatted about the significance of the landmark Supreme Court sodomy ruling and made jokes about coming out. (“Mom, I’m a trucker.”)
They all came to town for the first-ever Jamboree after reading about it on the Gay Truckers Association Web site (www.gaytruckerassn.com). Flowers launched the site in June 2000, after realizing that there were many peoplegay and straight, trucker and otherwisewho had questions about gay truck drivers. Some who have e-mailed him over the years ask about homophobia within the outwardly gruff trucking industry. Others more involved with the profession, which by its nature is fragmented and isolating, are just glad to find gay life out there. “Some people come up to me and say, 'I thought I was the only gay trucker in the industry,’ ” Flowers says, noting that the trucking business “doesn’t support gays within it.”
It’s hard enough to be a trucker, much less a gay trucker. For one thing, truckers routinely work 100-hour weeks. They get little control over their itinerary, keeping many away from home for holidays and family occasions. They have poor health insurance that’s not designed for a nomadic lifestyle. They face traffic accidents, rest area muggings and other occupational hazards, including, truckers are quick to note, fried truck stop food. And it gets awful lonely out there sometimes.
Add to that incomplete list the burdens associated with being homosexual in America. Gay truckers face targeting and sometimes violent harassment by other truckers and by the law enforcement that purports to protect them. Other branches of their government refuse to grant them the same rights as heterosexuals. And they deal daily with employers whose intolerance is legendary.
Gay truckers are men and women in a lonely profession made even lonelier by society’s refusal to accept them at face value. That’s where the GTA comes in. “We’re dealing with the blue-collar baggage, we’re dealing with the sexual baggage and we’re dealing with our own personal baggage,” says Anderson, who has done graduate work and sprinkles his sentences with words like “dichotomy.” “Maybe we can debunk some stereotypes and gain a little more respect in our own industry.”
The Jamboree, as organizers stressed over and over again, was not a “sex party”it was a professional meeting. Anderson, who gave the weekend’s keynote address, outlined four goals for the organization: Educate the general public about the existence of gay truckers (“We’re not scary or intimidating; it’s because of us you have toilet paper in the morning,”), advocate on behalf of gay drivers in instances of discrimination or unfair treatment, teach uninfected drivers about HIV prevention and help infected ones get medication, and generate support from within the trucking community.
“Ideally, we wouldn’t have to say we’re 'gay’ anything,” says Mike, a Nashville truck driver turned college writing instructor who asked that his last name not be used. “But it’s not an ideal situation. I think it’s good for us to say we’re here, and we’re in every profession. A gay professional association...allows peopleparticularly young peopleto see that whatever you want to do with your life, you know, that’s OK.”
Conference participants developed genuine friendships as they gathered for group meetings, relaxed around the Shoney’s Inn pool and shared stories and visions for the future at a couple of local gay bars. “The camaraderie was really there this weekend,” says Mike, a thoughtful, white-haired man. “For me, that’s been one of the best parts of the event.... To have some people out there who share your hardships and your experiences is really helpful.”
But the charter members of this nascent organizationwho envision a group health plan several years down the roadknow they will face challenges getting it off the ground. They have to use the Internet, but they distinguish themselves from other gay trucker groups on the Web that tend to be more about pornography than professional camaraderie. That stuff gives gay truckers a bad reputation, they say, though they’re not out to condemn anybody. (“Where do we have a line of professionalism that doesn’t restrict private, consenting behavior?” asks Anderson. “We don’t want to be the Moral Majority of the gay community.”) They have to overcome low incomes and the transient nature of trucking to get participants together for meetings. And like any young organization, they’ll face burnout and infighting.
Nevertheless, Jamboree participants left Nashville with a cautious sense of optimism, and rightly so. They forged some new friendships. They elected a four-member board. They received tentative support in a letter from the president of a major trucking association. And among them they found someone who gave them a glimpse of the future they’re pushing for: André Ziemen, a long-haired, mustachioed trucker from Ontario, Canada, who announced that he was at the Jamboree “with the blessings” of his boss. The group erupted in applause, and Flowers announced that he would send Ziemen’s boss a letter of commendation.
It’s just a start, but right now that’s enough for this small group of guys, whom Flowers compared to Christ and the 12 Apostles. (Only in the Gospel of Norm did the disciples meet in a kinky leather bar on Sunday morning.) The men may indeed be doing holy work, though, and if so, Nashvillian Ward White is the group’s doubting Thomas, unsure after being laid off from a travel agency whether he wanted to become a trucker. He seemed apprehensive at times about the hardships of truckingparticularly for gay menbut by the end of the weekend, White had made his decision.
“I’m gonna go for it,” he said Sunday, “at least for a while, until the job market improves.” With that, his new friends began advising him on satellite radios and DVD players for his future big rig. Discipleship, after all, has its costs.
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