35,000 Feet Away

Why flying the (very) friendly skies is still sexy for many gay men.

A departure board in an airport.
“Major carriers fly to a variety of destinations, so flight attendants can even schedule their shifts according to their taste in men.”
Photo by JESHOOTS.COM on Unsplash

This post is part of Outward, Slate’s home for coverage of LGBTQ life, thought, and culture. Read more here.

In the Norman Mailer novel Harlot’s Ghost, an Eastern Air Lines flight attendant simultaneously dates an executive at her company, Frank Sinatra, John F. Kennedy, the mafia boss Sam Giancana, and the narrator, a CIA agent stationed in Miami. “Coffee, tea, or me?” stewardesses joked in the 1960s, and while Mailer exaggerated the quality of his character’s affairs, the quantity was plausible. A decade later, a lawsuit by a straight truck driver named Carlos Diaz forced airlines to lift their ban on male flight attendants. The “me” soon included a large proportion of gay men. In a study from the early ’90s, Dr. Andrew Boxer concluded that gay flight attendants were “building extensive social networks amongst each other, including love relationships, sexual partnerships, and lasting friendships.”

Things have changed since the rarified days of Eastern Air Lines—recall the viral video of a man trying to shove a large suitcase into the overhead compartment while a third of the bag sticks out? But for gay men, flight attendant is still an attractive profession because it continues to offer nearly infinite sexual possibilities.

“An airline is the sexiest working environment there is,” said Torsten, who was a steward for 17 years at the German airlines Lufthansa and Condor, recently over coffee in Berlin. For him, there is no other industry with a comparable global culture. Christoph, who asked me to use only his middle name because he is still works at Lufthansa as a chief purser, agreed: “It’s exotic, sexy.” I asked Christoph if that is still true for new hires in an industry now obsessed with cutting costs. “When I look at the boys who are just starting now, I think so,” he said. “There are a lot of them who pay serious attention to their appearance and work hard at looking good in uniform.”

Grindr has revolutionized the sex lives of stewards. It’s so useful for them that it “might as well have been invented by a flight attendant,” Christoph said. Ricky, who was flown for Lufthansa since 2015, told me when he arrives in his hotel room after a flight, he immediately gets undressed and logs on to the app. “I have more sex abroad than in Berlin,” he said. “In Berlin, I know the city already. When I have a layover it’s more anonymous.” Flight attendants are the “fresh meat” at every place they land, and unlike at home, they don’t need to scroll past a litany of familiar torsos for a hookup.

Stewards have access to different modes of gay life in its gorgeous multiplicity. During a stint as a flight attendant with Japan Air Lines, Christoph went on a date with a Japanese businessman in Tokyo and explored the gay bars of Shinjuku Ni-chome. This was the ’90s, when the scene was almost completely closed off to foreigners; it was an eye-opening cultural experience for him that the men there had no interest in a white guy in his mid-20s. Torsten recalled a memorable trip to Cuba in the summer of 2006. “Havana is on fire with eroticism and sex. The men walk around with their shirts off, in tight pants, with their dream bodies,” he said. “And when they follow you with their eyes, and lead you into a side street and then an old massage parlor with one broken table, and the ladies are getting their nails done in the room next to you, and you have sex there … those images stay with you.”

Sex abroad can be dangerous, giving it a potent electricity that is hard to access back home. When Ricky was scheduled to work a flight to Riyadh, in Saudi Arabia—where the death penalty can apply for homosexuality—he initially deleted his Grindr account. But then he didn’t know how else to spend his time. So he downloaded a VPN service, then Grindr again, and spent a day with a local man. They wandered the city, where preparations for Ramadan festivities were underway, before returning to Ricky’s hotel and sleeping together. “My nerves were tingling the entire time,” he said. On another trip, to Tokyo, he noticed that a soldier on a flight was checking him out, but worried it would be inappropriate to slip him his number while he was working. He jotted it down anyway, but as the passengers were departing the aircraft, the man came up to Ricky and gave him his.

There are few other professions with so much potential for sex at work. Christoph comes from a small village in Sweden and remembered being overwhelmed by the coolness of his first itinerary. He hadn’t considered the potential for sex until he met a colleague on his very first assignment, to Miami. “We had a drink and ended up having a wild night on the beach,” he said. “That’s how my career began.” Even Torsten, who adhered to a strict “don’t fuck the company” policy throughout his career, described two memorable encounters with colleagues. On one flight to the Canary Islands, he ended up in the bathroom of a Boeing 757 aircraft with the chief steward. (It was a little uncomfortable in there, so they postponed sex until after their shift.) On another occasion, he had a threesome on the beach with two flight attendants from British Airways. Ricky has only had sex with a colleague once, and it was by accident: They met on Grindr and realized while making post-coital small talk that they both worked for Lufthansa.

Major carriers fly to a variety of destinations, so flight attendants can even schedule their shifts according to their taste in men. Ricky likes Toronto, Torsten prefers Sydney and Bangkok, and Christoph has “a weakness for Americans.” He likes to land in New York, Chicago, and Los Angeles, and these days requests a trip to Boston once a month. Some stewards “take this to an extreme” by fetishizing men of certain races and behaving like “sex tourists,” Christoph added. But there are moments of comedy. When Folsom is happening in San Francisco, the flights are staffed by all-male crews. “Later, you run into them on the street in assless chaps,” revealed Christoph.

If Grindr has mostly replaced old-fashioned cruising culture on the ground, the flight attendant’s uniform still sends a clear message to the wider world. The clothes immediately position flight attendants as objects of desire. “You move differently in it,” Christoph told me. (Even when off-duty, he favors whites and blues.) After arriving from a trip from Miami back to Frankfurt, Germany, Christoph made eye contact with a man in the airport terminal and ended up having sex with him in a public bathroom. “It’s like getting back from the club,” he said. “You’re overtired and horny. And that’s when you look your hottest, too. It was very animalistic.”

At the height of the AIDS epidemic, promiscuous gay flight attendants were depicted as handsome psychopathic demons. Gaëtan Dugas, the Air Canada steward falsely identified as Patient Zero in the crisis, became an abbreviation for evil in the mainstream press. He “dies becoming what every man feared,” as Guy Babineau wrote in a 2004 essay re-examining the period. “Homosexual desire—sex—causes a man to turn into something fearful.” As that stigma fades, gay sex is once again turning men into joyous adventurers. Flight attendants are negotiating desire, intimacy, and freedom in new and individual ways. For some, the sexual perks of anonymity and huge supply are a reason to stay in the job until retirement; others start to feel a need for a home. In flight, “everything is new, there’s no continuity,” Torsten said. “That was good, but I’m not interested in it anymore. Airplanes fly faster than hearts. They fly faster than dicks, too.”

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