Climbing up into the seat of her first big rig truck, author Anne Balay felt powerful instead of angry. Semis tower menacingly above all other vehicles. Looking out over the dashboard can make you feel invincible in ways most jobs can’t compete with. Even with a Ph.D. in English from the University of Chicago, finding a tenured job in academia is no easy feat. While stitching together adjunct gigs, Balay found herself broke. With two small kids to look after, she needed steady employment. With an abiding love of cars, she took a job as an auto mechanic. Soon after, she parlayed that experience into a truck-driving training program with one of the nation’s oldest and largest trucking companies.
Her journey from academia to the open road inspired her latest book, Semi-Queer: Inside the World of Gay, Trans, and Black Truck Drivers. While truck driving may not seem like the most obvious choice for a queer person, Balay says she’s not the only one. “The industry has long been a haven for misfits and people who don’t follow rules well,” she says. For bodies often restricted and derided, the perpetual motion the job affords is meaningful. It is harder for oppressive cultural norms to take hold of you if you are constantly evading their grasp.
LGBTQ truck drivers are not new to the profession, but their visibility and rising prominence within the industry is. Nic Richelle and Carla Grimsley are a married lesbian couple team driving a big rig with Prime Inc., one of the nation’s largest freight companies. They’re young women of color who host a popular Youtube channel with over one million views and 13,000-plus subscribers — most of whom are male truck drivers.
They’re using their platform to break down stereotypes. “I am very proud that Carla and I are showing people a different side of the trucking lifestyle, a lesbian relationship, two black women operating, and being OK with making it in America,” says Richelle.
Films in the Seventies and Eighties like Burt Reynold’s cult classic Smokey and the Bandit and Kris Kristofferson’s Convo branded truckers in the public’s imagination as macho modern-day cowboys on the run from the law and the humdrum of a staid life.
There’s a kernel of truth to these cultural representations. Since the early Thirties, trucking professionals have hewed reliably conservative, white and male. Of the more than 3.5 million truckers currently employed nationwide, white males comprise 66 percent of the workforce, less than 6 percent are women, and more than 70 percent polled in 2016 said they intended to vote for Trump.
There are no official statistics on how many LGBTQ people are in trucking today. Anecdotally, Balay and other truckers Rolling Stone caught up with think the industry’s official numbers and politics don’t tell the whole story. Over a three-year period while conducting her research, Balay spoke with hundreds of LGBTQ drivers. She estimates that trans women, in particular, are a sizable minority, possibly up to three percent of all truck drivers.
Two key trends are driving the diversification of the profession: personnel recruitment and retention challenges within the industry itself and limiting economic opportunities for working-class LGBTQ people.
More than 63,000 truck driving jobs are available at any given time. Companies are struggling to find and retain workers to meet the demand. A driver shortage can wreak havoc with the nation’s economy as more than 70 percent of all goods shipped in the U.S. —everything from life-saving pharmaceuticals to the food you eat are driven by truck drivers.
Companies are recruiting at a faster clip than ever, but newer drivers in the field aren’t sticking around long. Truck driving is one of the nation’s most deadly jobs, and staying safe is a chief concern. The Women in Trucking Association reports that by the end of the first year, nearly 70 percent of newly recruited drivers leave the profession.
To deal, companies are doing everything they can to expand their recruitment pool offering lucrative signing bonuses and other perks to new drivers. They are purposefully reaching out to millennials, people of color, lesbians and trans people, and other underrepresented groups in the industry.
Careering while queer or trans is particularly challenging, and the trucking industry’s recruitment efforts and middle-class earnings are a welcome salve. In 31 states you can still be fired for being LGBTQ. At least half of all LGBTQ employees are not comfortable enough to come out at work. LGBTQ workers face higher unemployment rates than non-queer workers. More than one in four transgender people will lose at least one job due to workplace bias.
In trucking, what you wear, what you sound like, how you present yourself — restrictive aesthetic elements in many jobs — are not barriers. For people who present as gender nonconforming or who are trans, trucking jobs bring both relief and freedom.
“Trans people end up in jobs not exactly well-paying. A lot of us are below the poverty line for ages. I was for a couple years after college,” says Ellie O’Daire, a trans trucker. O’Daire majored in meteorology, initially considering a career in local news as a weather foreaster. “As a trans person, I wasn’t really able to go into the television side of meteorology. Certain doors were closed to me,” she says. “The trucking industry pays you well for doing the job. It’s been nice to afford to visit a doctor. I have health insurance now. I bought an extra pair of glasses just because I wanted an extra pair.”
Growing up in a small town in southern Virginia, O’Daire was eager to leave. The people who knew her prior to transitioning are mostly still there. “There’s an element of me not wanting to be around them,” she says. Among queer and trans people, estrangement from one’s family is unfortunately common. Home can feel unsafe. Coming out or transitioning isn’t always possible. The time alone on the road helps people constructively cope.
Windshield time is a phrase truckers use to talk about the solitude of the job. Like an ongoing meditation practice, the time alone can be healing. “When it comes to your sexuality and gender identity, you’ve got time to think. For trans individuals, they can start exploring in a safe way,” says Shelli Lichti, a 25-year veteran trucker long involved in women and LGBTQ trucking rights. “Trucking is a cocoon. You can create a new self. While that truck is moving, no one can really judge them as they explore that path,” she says.
Lichti is the founder of one of the industry’s first and largest online support groups for LGBTQ truckers. An estimated 3,800 drivers use the group as something akin to a virtual water cooler. The group’s origin is born of a violent tragedy indicative of the dangers queer truckers face.
“In 2008, I had a dear friend pass away. He was gang raped while out on the road. No real follow through with the justice system and employers. He emotionally collapsed. He committed suicide. I started talking with other drivers about what we could do to stop this from happening again,” says Lichti. She says of that time it was rife with “that good ‘ol boy harassment, homophobia, gay bashing and other assaults taking place. There needed to be something out here responding for LGBTQ truckers.”
in a cruel irony, travel — the very thing that proves so beneficial to queer truckers — makes them especially vulnerable to attacks. All truck drivers struggle with finding adequate and safe parking for mandated breaks and overnight stays in their trucks, but this struggle is amplified for LGBTQ drivers. Routinely, Grimsley and Richelle deliver loads late at night at desolate warehouse lots in rural outposts.
Truckers can run 2,000 miles or more a week hauling loads from Wyoming to North Carolina to California. O’Daire estimates she’s driven over 300,000 miles through 48 states in just two years. The patchwork of non-discrimination protections present in certain localities and not others creates particularly vexing circumstances for LGBTQ drivers — as does politically charged legislative battles unfolding around the country.
“You gotta watch your back. You can’t be naive out here,” says Richelle. “You can feel a difference in different states. In Wyoming, in one of the stores we walked in, we could just sense people looking at us a certain way. So, we stayed in the truck and locked our doors. For our own protection, we don’t engage in any PDA. Carla and I are very sensitive to the things that are going on around us. So we always say we have a spirit of discernment. We have to protect ourselves.”
In the wake of anti-trans bathroom legislation, public bathrooms and showers are breeding grounds for harassment. These days many big rigs are outfitted like mini-RVs with beds, refrigerators and satellite television, but do not come with a bathroom or shower. That means LGBTQ drivers still have to use truck stop facilities. “Nebraska is the hot spot for me,” says O’Daire. She’s had several run-ins in bathrooms. Combative parents and grandparents of small children have not hesitated to directly confront her.
Still, Lichti sees progress. “The culture has changed,” she says. :There have always been LGBTQ truckers out here, but most kept it under lock and key.” Now, she and other LGBTQ drivers are being sought out to help address problems still plaguing the industry. One of the first ever corporate sponsored queer trucking events took place in San Fransco this past summer with Uber Freight convening LGBTQ truckers from across the country.
Black women and queer people reach out to Grimsley and Richelle routinely asking them for advice about the profession. The women have no problem encouraging others to join them in this line of work — provided they are clear-eyed about what they are signing up for.
“The majority of men we’ve encountered have welcomed us with open arms. A lot of them say women do the job better. We do things the right way. We don’t cut corners,” Grimsley says.
Richelle adds, “It’s pros and cons of being a woman in a male-dominated industry, but I don’t try to change who I am. We enjoy the job because we have a free spirit, are adventurous, and embrace change. We see trucking as a way out of low-paying desk jobs. We love the scenery, but this is what we wanted. We are showing how it really is out here — the good, bad, and ugly — but we really love to show the good, because there is a lot of good out here.”