This Union Cause: The Queer History of the United Automobile Workers

Wayne State history PhD candidate James McQuaid discusses his research on the gradual cognizance and acceptance of queer autoworkers in the twentieth century, leading toward the UAW’s rapid embrace of LGBTQ-friendly policies and initiatives in the 1990s. He shares compelling stories of several queer auto workers, including: Billie Hill discovering a lesbian enclave in a Highland Park plant in the 1940s; Gary Kapanowski winning a 1973 union election despite being aggressively outed by a rival the day before; Joni Christian, a transgender woman whose union leadership at the GM Lordstown saved her job after returning to work following sexual reassignment surgery in the 1970s; and Ron Woods and Martha Grevatt, who in speaking out about the harassment they faced successfully led the UAW and Chrysler to prohibit discrimination based on sexual orientation. McQuaid received the 2020 Wayne State History Department’s Joe L. Norris Endowed Award for his essay, “The First Ladies of Labor: How Women Challenged Restrictive Gender Conventions and Established Lesbian Identities on the UAW Shop Floor During World War II.” His dissertation is tentatively titled “This Union Cause: The Queer History of the United Automobile Workers.”

Related Resources:
The Kapanowski Challenge: How Rank and File UAW Members Rallied Around Gay Activists to Fight Runaway Shops in 1972 Detroit

Related Collections:
Ed Liska Papers
Olga Madar Papers
UAW Region 1B Records

Episode Credits
Producers: Dan Golodner and Troy Eller English
Host: Dan Golodner
Interviewee: James McQuaid
Sound: Troy Eller English
With support from the Reuther Podcast Collective: Bart Bealmear, Elizabeth Clemens, Meghan Courtney, Troy Eller English, Dan Golodner, Paul Neirink, and Mary Wallace