Blue Collar Rainbow: What It’s Really Like Being Gay Tradies


Blue Collar Gay Tradies Jack Blair-Swannell

It’s after five in the QNews office and two of our long-term blue collar tradesmen advertisers have dropped in.

Jack Blair-Swannell (pictured above), a landscaper in his 20s, has the face of a cherub and a ready larrikin laugh.

Marc Hansford, an electrician better known as Sparky Marc, is softer spoken, but quietly his own man.

Tony Abbott has tub-thumped ad nauseum about the LGBTIQ push for equality as ‘political correctness gone mad’. But the real lives of so many of us hardly fit this description. So here’s an uncensored, on-the-ground flavour of what it’s like to be a male tradie who’s happy to be identified with the LGBTIQ community. We hope you’ll enjoy the ocker frankness of these guys.

Sparky Marc: Been surfing?

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Jack: Nah, been too busy

Marc: I’ve got a longboard now.

Jack: I’ll have to go. I haven’t been since Christmas. It’s fuckin’ hot at the moment, eh?  How are you dealing with the heat?

Marc: I’m used to it, mate

Jack: So have you got much work on?

Marc: I’ve got a few jobs this week.

Jack (showing a picture on his phone): Guy I’m dating at the moment.

Marc: Is this Mr March?

Jack: No no no! Met him just after Australia day.

Marc: Looks a bit old for you.

Jack: Nah he’s 24. One year older than me. He looks older with a beard!

We kick off the conversation proper by asking if they were already out when they got into their trades?

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Jack: No.

Marc: No. A plumber I knew told me “You should advertise in QNews.” That’s how it started.

Blue Collar Gay Tradies Jack the landscaper and Sparky Mark Jack Blair-Swannell and Marc Hansford

Jack: I’d done kind of an apprenticeship. Like, I went to TAFE, and I RPL’d everything. [RPL is ‘Recognition of Prior Learning’.] So I just made a portfolio of all my work before I was qualified and marked off all the subjects I hadn’t completed. But I wasn’t out yet at that stage. I advertised in QNews and said I was straight. I think I came out about four weeks later (Laughs) It’s true! It’s true! I ran up and the first thing I said was “I’m straight!” I knew I wasn’t. I don’t know why I said that. Well I wasn’t out back then, so just said, “Aw, I’m straight.”

Marc: Hard to say I’m out, really. Let’s just say I’m open-minded. (Laughs) You want to hear the story? How I was introduced to the gay community? Back in 1991 I was doing my apprenticeship for a boss and we were working out the back of The Beat nightclub one day. I’d always been fascinated by The Beat. Door was open, saw John Hannay [the owner]. I said “Any jobs going?” He said “Yeah, start Friday.” So that’s when I got involved in the gay scene. I worked as a glassie for a few months and then I worked on the door. I got introduced to it all, partying… My friends knew I was exploring the gay scene. I met a lot of my friends there, actually. My workmates knew I was working there. But they never asked me about it.

Are there ever difficult conversations at work about your orientation?

Jack: I was a bit hesitant at first, but being self-employed I don’t really care because you can choose who you work for. And I’m out to all my workers. It’s pretty obvious. And they’re straight. I’ve had two gay workers in the whole time I’ve run my business. Every new employee, I’ve told them I’m gay. I say: “A lot of our clients are from the LGBTI community, and look, I’m an openly gay tradie. If you’ve got a problem with that, don’t work for me. If you don’t have a problem with it, it’s fine.”

Have you had any bad experiences with employees? Has it stopped them taking a job with you?

Jack: Nuh. A lot of them don’t care. Especially nowadays, we’ve got equality and stuff. I think Sparky’s generation would have been different to mine.

What about your experience, Marc? Especially identifying as open-minded?

Marc: I can’t be classified as any category. I’ve always worked for myself since I was 26. After subbie-ing for my old boss for two years after my apprenticeship, I never worked for anyone else so it’s not been an issue.

Blue Collar Gay Tradies Jack Blair-Swannell

Jack: How old were you when you advertised in QNews?

Marc: 26. Long time. Now everyone knows I’m open-minded. All my friends are gay anyway. I think I’ve got like two straight friends. It was a bit of fun going on the QNews cover a couple of times. I got ribbed a bit. Jokingly. Dodgy phone calls and texts. Saturday nights.

Jack: I’ve had a few of those! Now I’ve got two phones, I don’t get that.

Marc: I never had any shit or a hard time, no. My family were accepting. Whatever I am, I am. It was just “Whatever”. I’ve heard lots of stories about people coming out and they get harassed or whatever. Parents give them a hard time, disown them and stuff, but it was different for me. I can’t be put in a box. So people accept that. Never had any trouble from the other tradies I’ve worked with.

Do you think you’ve made it easier for others to come out?

Marc: I can’t answer if I’ve made it easier. Maybe I have.

Have you experienced any bad treatment as a consequence of being open?

Jack: I haven’t had that. A friend of mine. He’s a gay tradie as well, a roofer. And he actually got attacked by somebody at his work. Physically. A guy pinned him up against a wall. Guy was homophobic.

There was only one time on a construction site where I had a guy, he found out I was gay. He was a plumber, he was a complete fuckwit. I think he was gay deep down. He was very, very, very homophobic. We’d been working on the same site for a few weeks, and he’d been really grating on me. I was doing a fence and he came up and leaned against the fence and said “So you must like it up the arse.” I said “Mate. You know I’m gay. You got a problem with that?” He said “But like, you know, you like pooftas.” I just lost it at him. I said “Mate, if you want a fucking head job, which you probably do, there’s my ute. I’ll give you a blow job now.” And he shut up after that. He never spoke to me after that again.

Marc: I’ve heard some gay clients have experienced some homophobia from tradies. Depends on the tradesperson I guess. I haven’t experienced homophobia from other tradespeople. I’ve been on jobs with other tradespeople, like electricians and they’ve said like, because the clients were gay they didn’t care about doing a good job. It didn’t give a good vibe.

So this is the classic situation where a lot of people who are homophobic are actually gay, and afraid of it?

Jack: Yeah, a lot of them are.

Marc: I have noticed down the hierarchy, plasterers, brickies, they do make poof jokes and fag jokes. I just ignore it. It’s not worth getting involved in. Bogans are bogans, you always get the bogan homophobic tradesmen. You know, we can’t change them.

Jack: I’ve seen a few of those. When I was working for a landscaping business, yeah. I just thought, you know, they’re judgemental pricks. And at that time I was still wondering who I was and stuff. They were all just bogans. Just brought up…

Marc: Uncultured.

Blue Collar Gay Tradies sparky Mark

Jack: I’ll tell you a story. I did a really big job two years ago. And I was there for five weeks, and I told the wife about halfway through the job. And then literally the afternoon I told her, the next day I was dealing with her husband for the next two weeks of the job. It was weird. She’d even keep the kids away from me and stuff.

Usually it’s the housewives that get quite comfortable with you. I used to do work for this client in Hamilton and her husband was quite well off and she’d been travelling overseas a lot. And she’d come out like in her gym gear, just hanging out. And I was just keeping eye contact with her! I never told her I was gay, actually. She used to ask me if me and my workers wanted to go swimming in the pool. We used to, after work and stuff.

These day there are a lot of professionals who openly emphasise their desirability as a way of attracting business. Given the way blue collar workers have been traditional fetish objects in gay erotica, how big a part does personal attraction play in your interactions with clients?

Jack: Like, I flirt with clients. They flirt with me. Especially if I’ve known them for a while. It doesn’t bother me to do that. I landscaped a house about twelve months. And this gay couple invited me round for dinner. I got in their hot tub naked. Nothing happened. They gave me a massage and all that and it was just like “Why not?”

What do you do if someone takes it too far?

Jack: I just tell them I’m not interested. I had a guy texting me last week. He owes me money for the work and he says like “Can you come round tonight? Have a beer and we can have some fun.” And I said “I’ll come pick it up early in the morning, or during the day, something like that.” Like, I don’t want to go round there at night.

Marc: I can gauge it. As a professional I just, politely, say no. It’s because I’ve been doing it for so long. I know how to do it.

Does it ever go sour?

Jack: Like they won’t pay you till they sleep with you kind of thing? No. Usually it’s the smaller jobs where I’ve had people proposition me.

Now in any other profession, that would be sexual harassment.

Jack: Yeah it would, actually

So do you see it as that? Or do you actually say, no this is part of this job, it’s what comes with this territory?

Marc: I just see it as a bit of fun. I know my limits. It’s just a bit of fun. As long as they don’t get too sleazy. Yeah it’s fun. Having fun on the job.

Maybe gay men learn to be tougher about sexual harassment, because we experience unwelcome attentions more often in gay life? Especially when we’re young. And is that related to being tougher about the sexual jokes?

Jack: I mean if you’re going to advertise in the gay paper, you’ve got to expect that, you know, you’re going to have text messages and you’re going to have phone calls. People wanting stuff, you know, besides the trade you’re offering. And I’ve had a few people ring and they saw, you know “Do you offer extra services or are you keen for a fuck? And I’ve just said, you know, “Have you got the paper in front of you?” And they say “Yes”, and I say “Well, go to the classifieds and you’ll find what you want.”

Do you think that advertising in the gay press has helped you become more successful in your business? Because there aren’t a lot of gay tradesmen advertising there.

Jack: It’s helped me come out as a person. It’s also helped my business, advertising in a gay paper. And I’ve had other straight tradies who’ve wanted to advertise in QNews, who are in my profession, I’ve told them not to, because this is my thing, you know.

Do you have any advice for the next generation of gay tradies coming up?

Jack: Just be yourself.

Marc: You’re an original

Jack: I think being out in the workplace is important. Just being out. But the people have got to be ready. You’ve got to be ready within yourself. You can’t force people to come out.

What about people thinking of taking an apprenticeship?

Jack: They don’t have to tell their employer that they’re gay. Depends on the employer. A lot of people now would be quite accepting.

Do you think in the tradie profession people prefer people being up front?

Jack: If you can be, yes.

What do you think you can offer as an out tradie? Why would LGBTIQ people choose you over any tradie in the phone book?

Jack: Supporting the community. That’s the first thing people say.

Marc: A lot of gay people are very particular, of how they want the job done. Attention to detail, good taste. Like everything’s got to be perfect. And that’s good. Suits our personalities.

Is that a case of a stereotype working positively? An association of gay men with aesthetics, being more OCD about neatness and so on? Do you think people associate that with a tradie who identifies as gay?

Jack: Hmm, but you even get that with straight clients, who are very OCD and particular on things. Gay clients it can be the same. It doesn’t matter what your sexuality is, I think it comes from every orientation.

(With Andrew Blythe. Photos by Dylan Hodgon and Amsnel Gorgonio)

 

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