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'Male stewardess' just didn't fly

One man's fight to become a flight attendant was a lesson in job discrimination.

September 27, 2007|Kate Johnson and Albert Garcia | Kate Johnson is a writer based in New York. Albert Garcia is vice president of the Assn. of Flight Attendants for Northwest Airlines.

As the space race reached a fever pitch 40 years ago, an unheralded employment rights pioneer named Celio Diaz Jr. held fast to a dream. He didn't endeavor to set foot on the lunar surface, but his ambition was still difficult to realize in 1967. Diaz wanted to be a flight attendant.

Today, when in-flight opulence is limited to perusing the SkyMall catalog while sipping your one complimentary can of Sierra Mist, Diaz's aspiration understandably elicits a shrug. In 1967, however, air travel held more allure. Being a flight attendant meant serving cocktails to captains of industry and chain-smoking celebrities aboard jetliners destined for exotic locales.

Being a flight attendant in 1967 also meant being a woman -- specifically a young, pert and unmarried woman. Though men exclusively served as flight stewards at the dawn of commercial aviation, by the 1950s all the major airlines reinvented the occupation as an exclusively female domain. Targeting businessmen as their core customer base, many airlines established academies where they would train stewardesses to walk that fine line between mini-skirt-clad siren and nurturing potential wife. Blanching at the very notion that a man might elect to do a job they'd made synonymous with femininity, airline managers unequivocally stated that men need not apply.

Nonetheless, Diaz, a married father of two from Miami, tried to get a job as a flight attendant with Pan American World Airways. Title VII, part of 1964's landmark Civil Rights Act that forbade employment discrimination on the basis of gender (as well as race, religion and national origin), bolstered Diaz's confidence that Pan Am would at least consider his second job application in 1967. When they again refused, Diaz brought the airline to court.

Through four years of legal proceedings, Pan Am, supported by its fellow airlines, steadfastly asserted that being female was a "bona fide occupational qualification" for the job. A barrage of newspaper articles likewise expressed incredulity at the idea of "male stewardesses." Of course, the airline had a tough time proving that men could not actually do the job.

With little else at its disposal, Pan Am relied on prejudices against gay and effeminate men to justify its discrimination. The airline's lawyers laid out a doozy of a Catch-22. They argued that, on the one hand, real men would prove too masculine to provide the nurturing, maternal essence of flight attending. On the other hand, the men who could excel at the job would be effeminate and therefore unacceptable.

Pan Am's expert witness, psychiatrist and bestselling author Eric Berne, testified that effeminate male flight attendants would make a male passenger "uneasy" because they "might arouse feelings in him he would rather not have aroused." Berne went on to opine that the airlines should cater to "standard American prejudices" against men who were associated with femininity -- in short, who might seem gay.

The district court in southern Florida actually perpetuated these prejudices. Ruling that being female indeed constituted a requirement for being a flight attendant, the judge's decision reiterated Berne's argument that "male passengers would generally feel more masculine and thus more at ease in the presence of a young female attendant."

It took the U.S. 5th Circuit Court of Appeals to put an end to Pan Am's discriminatory policy. Eschewing the airline's preoccupations with gender and sexuality, the justices concluded that a flight attendant's job was to transport passengers safely, not reassure passengers' masculinity. For the court, whether a job candidate was male or female, masculine or effeminate, was not a "bona fide occupational qualification."

Diaz's taste of victory proved bittersweet. The case wasn't resolved until 1971, by which time he was too old to re-apply. However, since Diaz vs. Pan Am, thousands of men -- gay and straight -- have served as flight attendants.

Today, when passengers look up from their SkyMall and see a man serving their Sierra Mist, nary an eyebrow is raised. Yet other employers continue to elaborate on Pan Am's discriminatory logic to explicitly deny jobs to people they suspect are gay.

Title VII, alas, provides no protection from discrimination based on real or perceived sexual orientation or gender identity. In 31 states, it is still legal to fire or refuse to hire people for reasons that have no connection to their talent, education and dedication.

Now that Congress is discussing the merits of the Employment Non-Discrimination Act, which would prohibit job discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity, we would do well to remember that there are plenty of men and women like Diaz who are still struggling against prejudice and stereotypes to attain their dream careers -- no matter how lofty or earthbound those happen to be.

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