Is the gay steel mill closed? Reflections on queer histories of deindustrializing Cape Breton

by Liam Devitt

In 1991, the AIDS Coalition of Cape Breton was founded. Cape Breton Island, a small industrial region, was a far cry from the perceived metropolitan hotspots of the AIDS epidemic. It did not have the cosmopolitan queer nightlife of these cities and little activism that could be called “gay liberation” manifested in any visible way. In short, Cape Breton is not the place a historian would ordinarily look if they wanted to say interesting things about the AIDS crisis or even queer life in general. Yet, there are histories here that can help us look at the legacy of deindustrialization and non-metropolitan queer communities differently.

Peter Steele, a Cape Bretoner long active in the LGBT community on the Island, recounted to me his story of the AIDS Coalition’s founding:

I became a founding member of the AIDS Coalition of Cape Breton. And through that, I came to know a lot of guys who lived elsewhere, who left here after high school, and contracted HIV wherever they lived, and when it developed to AIDS, they moved back here. Some moved back to be with their families, some moved back to be taken care of by their families, and a lot of them moved back here because it was cheaper to live here than where they lived. And it was at a time where you were paying for medication for yourself. So, it was more financially feasible for them to be living here, even if they weren’t living with their family. We had members on the board that had AIDS and have since passed away.

To put it in the direst terms, early 1990s Cape Breton was confronted with people coming home to die: coming home to often unwelcoming families, a medical system ill-equipped to treat them, and a place that—for one reason or another—these people had willingly left. Was it to escape the social conservatism deeply tied to religion? Was it to get a safe job free from discrimination? Was it to simply get a job? And then, when they came back, what’s there for them?

Until very recent interventions like Valerie Korinek’s Prairie Fairies, Canadian queer history has often focused on cities, with a particular affection for Toronto. Of course, there are reasons for this. The urbanization and industrial capitalism of the 19th century, as John D’Emilio argues, provided the preconditions for a contemporary gay identity and community. More queers in tighter quarters earning their own wages leads to community. While D’Emilio’s thesis holds true, sometimes scholars can focus on the metropolitan queer to the detriment of those stuck with the label of “regional” or “rural.” This contributes to what queer theorist Jack Halberstam terms “metronormativity,” which is the idea that queer life is not just more common in cities, but is best lived in cities. This raises interesting questions for places like Cape Breton.

The part of the island that I study, termed “Industrial Cape Breton,” encompasses the city of Sydney and its environs on the east of the island. Coal mines and an integrated steel plant used to be the main economic driver of the region for most of the 20th century. Thinking back to D’Emilio’s thesis, Sydney’s development is inextricably tied to industrial capitalism and urbanization. And yet, it’s not the metropolitan centre where metronormative queer life is thought to exist. Where we might be left looking for Sydney’s gaybourhood is a gay steel mill.

I conjure this image of a gay steel mill to showcase the uneasy interaction between memories of queer life and memories of industrial life, both within my oral history work as well as in existing scholarship. The idea of such an imaginary place seems absurd on first glance. It’s so absurd, in fact, that it was a Simpsons gag. Despite the simple fact that queers lived and worked in industrial communities, the very idea that the work they did or the place they did it in might be coloured by their life experience seems odd. The gay steel mill may not be an actual physical place, but rather a device that might allow us to question the hegemony of so-called industrial masculinity and open up room for queer histories of industrial labour.

So let’s open the gates to the gay steel mill and ask, if industrial capitalism and urbanization are responsible for the emergence of what we might consider a contemporary gay community, then why have scholars not explicitly examined how industrial decline has shaped queer communities? Histories of deindustrialization attempt to make sense of the profound change that the upending of the postwar compromise had on communities. But the benefits of this compromise were not available to all. Getting the fabled stable union job and accessing a cradle-to-grave welfare state was mediated by a variety of factors, not the least of which includes gender, sexuality, race, ability, and proximity to the heterosexual nuclear family, which served as a conduit for how these benefits were distributed. With deindustrialization, the benefits of the postwar compromise began to erode with a loss of community, of livelihood, and of identity.

To get at the specifics of the queer community, we must first lay out how exactly Cape Breton ends up deindustrializing. Following the Second World War and changes in Canadian industrial policy favouring integration with the United States, Cape Breton coal and steel began to falter. The federal and Nova Scotian governments intervened in 1968, nationalizing the coalfields and the Sydney Steel plant, respectively. The nationalization was done with the intent of a slow, managed deindustrialization to spare the people of Cape Breton the social and economic hardship that immediate plant and mine closure in the late 1960s would bring.

Dominion Steel and Coal Company (DOSCO) blast furnace, 1966, photo by John Abbass. Beaton Institute.

This managed approach left Cape Breton in a unique position compared to other resource communities experiencing closures. Deindustrialization became stretched out, slow, and perhaps seeming even constant rather than synonymous with a particular event like the 1984-1985 Miners’ Strike in the United Kingdom, which created a distinct before and after. In my oral history interviews, the queer Cape Bretoners I spoke to reflect the uneasiness of this deindustrial memory.

When I asked Peter about New Waterford, the mining town he grew up in, he said “it’s a different place today—thank god it’s a different place today.” Here, Peter was directly speaking to how it is for queer youth. The socially conservative and often Catholic religious culture that characterized his and many of my narrators’ childhoods holds less weight in the present. While it might be easier to be queer in New Waterford today, it’s a hell of a lot harder to be a worker—and no Cape Bretoner would dispute that. Memories of the industrial past and the deindustrialized present contrast and contradict themselves, at times creating two views of the past: one nostalgic for the industrial past and the other looking back on the precarity of queer life. This is complicated by Cape Breton’s history of migration.

Like many deindustrialized areas, many Cape Bretoners have moved on to greener pastures, perhaps in Halifax, Central Canada, or—most famously—the petro-province of Alberta. Thinking about queer life complicates standard narratives around migration in Cape Breton as something solely economic. Going back to Peter’s recounting of the AIDS Coalition’s founding, Cape Breton’s migration history becomes much more complex.

Despite industrial decline and out-migration, queer life in Cape Breton still went on. Just because queer community did not exist in the way we might think it always does in urban centres, that doesn’t mean it did not exist at all. In the words of Charles MacKenzie (another one of my narrators), stable family and work life combined with Cape Breton’s relative isolation left some with “nothing else to do but recreational homosexuality.” In the oral histories I conducted, many narrators mentioned rumours about the florist, the hairdresser, or the priest—community members that were all known to be queer, but were never out. Despite the lack of explicitly gay bars, the church basements and golf courses where gay and lesbian dances were held still linger as traces of queer life.

When read in conversation with the other posts in this series, I hope my intervention can serve to not only explore queer histories of Cape Breton, but to also complicate the way we think about deindustrialization and queer history. Communities like Cape Breton, which might be consigned to the inaccurate and politically reactionary notion of the ‘white working class’ are a whole lot different and diverse than one might think. Further, queer history exists outside of metropoles; gay steel mills matter as much as gaybourhoods! Beyond these representational angles, examining queer life can tell us things that a ‘straight’ lens will not, from denaturalizing the post-war compromise to complicating out-migration. To return to the question posed by the title, the gay steel mill may be closed, but its history is only just opening.


Liam Devitt is a writer and historian based in Tiohti:áke/Montréal. They are an MA student at Concordia University, where they work with the Deindustrialization and the Politics of Our Time research initiative. Their thesis will examine how deindustrialization affected queer communities in Cape Breton. Liam’s byline can be found in Jacobin, THIS Magazine, and Briarpatch Magazine.

This post is part of a series titled The Politics of Deindustrialization in Canada, edited by Lauren Laframboise. The authors in this series are affiliated to the Deindustrialization and the Politics of Our Time (DéPOT) project. DéPOT is hosting its annual conference in June 2023 in Cape Breton, Nova Scotia.

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