• Former flight attendant Fred Schier (L) and his partner Bill (R). (Supplied )Source: Supplied
Back then, living a truer version of yourself was easier in the clouds than it was on solid ground, where there were serious, and often dangerous legal repercussions.
Mark Mariano

21 Oct 2020 - 9:21 AM  UPDATED 29 Oct 2020 - 10:09 AM

The flight attendant’s polished dress shoes make barely a tap as he moves through the slim aisles - cold water sloshing in the tall metal jug he's cradling. I only pressed the attendant button a few seconds ago. Surprised, I quickly compose myself; pulling my seat back up and resting my book in the empty seat next to me. “How can I help, doll?” he asks. His teeth are snowcap white, and his blond hair shiny like the rainbow pin on his lapel. I ask for some water. He fills my cup and we exchange a warm, familiar glance. He is family. And my first solo flight nerves fall into a deep slumber almost as quickly as I did. 

In a post marriage equality Australia, it's easy sometimes to slip into autopilot. That sense of safety with the thought that homophobia and transphobia have vanished into the ether, never to be seen again. But it's still around, and it can resurface anywhere: on a global flight, on your phone, or in the aisles of Woolworths; the weird looks and the whispered jabs, or the all-caps messages on social media forums. Navigating the world as an effeminate gay man has its unsettling moments, and while ‘safe spaces’ today are more plentiful - will we ever truly be safe?

In 2017, PwC reported (via Midsumma survey) that 52 per cent of LQBTIQ+ workers were 'out to all', with 24 percent stating they were 'out to most'. Workplaces are becoming more inclusive as society progresses, and equality is at the forefront of public discussions - but that's not to say that discrimination no longer exists. The same report found that 55 percent of queer employees observed homophobia, finding also that it spiked in blue collar sectors, namely construction - suggesting sexuality-based discrimination is most prevalent in 'traditionally masculine' industries.

Australia Come Fly With Me, an SBS archival documentary series fronted by actress Justine Clark, follows the history of flight in Australia. Through the great technological feats, the globalisation of trade, and the unveiling of the Boeing 747, the series maps an often untold cultural shift - one that impacted the queer community’s road to acceptance in monolithic Australia.

Like most industries, flight crews were initially all-male. While it’s hard to imagine - given its diverse nature now - it was originally a ‘boys club’, says Dr Prudence Black, author of The Flight Attendant’s Shoe. Qantas’s launch of the Constellation jet in 1947 flipped the switch. Thousands of Australians responded to a callout for hostesses, and nine women were chosen - steering the way now for the archetypal air hostess: graceful, educated, and relentlessly customer-focused. 

In the era of sex, drugs, and rock & roll, skirts grew shorter and beautiful ‘hosties’ became the forefront of many airline campaigns. It was nothing short of the ‘perfect glamorous job’ for women, while a queer culture continues to flourish mid-air. 

But progress didn’t come easily. Fred Schier, one of many gay men working as stewards in the 60s, recalls the often gruelling hiring process. “On my second interview, I was speaking to the receptionist. She said ‘You did very well in the last interview - but here’s a tip. Don’t cross your arms, scratch your balls, and know your football scores.”

“Gay people were second rate citizens,” he continues, alluding to Australia’s toxic masculine social norms - ones that still carry on today.

Ray Vines, another gay steward from this time, remembers responding to a flyer’s lewd comment, prompting Vines and other male flight attendants to take a stand and come out. Back then, living a truer version of yourself was easier in the clouds than it was on solid ground, where there were serious, and often dangerous legal repercussions. As flight attendants, gay Australian men were finding safe places in bohemian cities across the world. Culturally progressive destinations like San Francisco, New York, and London offered reprieve from the straight male ethos back home; where homosexuality was still illegal, and gay and lesbian rights movements only gained national traction in the mid 70s.

As flight attendants, gay Australian men were finding safe places in bohemian cities across the world.

Sydney’s history-changing Mardi Gras protest in 1978 coincided with many other great fights for rights - namely for pay equality in the flight industry, and the abolishment of gender discrimination in the cockpit. Australia Come Fly With Me shines a light on Deborah Lawrie, the first woman to become a pilot with a large Australian airline after winning a groundbreaking discrimination case against Ansett Airlines in 1979. Women and gay men, among many other disenfranchised Australians, were at the forefront, piloting a movement that became a blueprint for the more accepting country we navigate today.

While we've set great milestones for our community, there's still a long way to go - namely better QBIPOC representation in policy making and safer environments for LGBTQI+ individuals in and out of the workplace. It’s time to fortify the ground for people who, like me, watch the world from the window seat. 

Australia Come Fly With Me airs over three weeks from Wednesday 14 October at 8.30pm on SBS. 

The series will be subtitled in Simplified Chinese and Arabic, and added to the subtitled collection at SBS On Demand, available immediately after its premiere. It will also be available with audio description on the live television broadcast.

Australia Come Fly With Me
Justine Clarke investigates the turbulent history of Australians in the air, revealing the social injustice and disparities in society.